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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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Michigan in Color: I am plural

By Hema Karunakaram, Michigan in Color Writer
Published March 2, 2014

I’m center stage at Hill Auditorium. Dripping in sweat, as 4,000 people watch. The lights go out, and I beam.

It’s another successful Indian American Student Association (IASA) show — the largest student-run production in North America, they say — and I’m doing something I love with 250 other people at the University who love it too. We’re celebrating Indian culture through dance. We’re building a community of Indian-American students with similar upbringings and similar interests, and a sold-out auditorium is cheering us on, supporting us.

Then why can’t I wait to get off stage? Why can’t I wait to get out of these Indian clothes, away from this Indian crowd? When did something I wanted so passionately to show off become at the same time something I sought to distance myself from?

My parents brought me to this cold, colorful land at the age of 2 for a world of opportunity, but they never let me forget where I came from. I was bathed in Indian culture my entire childhood. I was enrolled in Indian classical music and dance classes. I was taken to temples, taught every aspect of my Hindu religion. I learned to read and write in Telugu, my mother tongue, to identify every kind of Indian food, and to proudly take to the stage and show it all off at every opportunity.

I grew up among a relatively large Indian-American community, full of parents who pushed their kids toward similar interests and inculcated a similar sense of Indian culture in them. While I loved all the Indian things I did, I knew not all of my Indian peers felt the same way. But I also had plenty of friends who weren’t Indian, plenty of people with whom I could share everything I loved about my heritage with. Teachers would ask questions about India, and I loved answering. Friends would mention Indian dance, and I loved showing off.

Everyone wanted to know more, and I loved being their guide.

And then I came to Michigan, where everything was amplified. There were Indian Americans everywhere who wanted to do Indian-American things all the time, independently organized, of their own accord. It was IASA, it was Michigan Sahana, it was sharing the passions with which I’d been raised with others who’d been raised with them too, and it was collectively sharing our passions with the rest of the campus community.

I knew being a part of these groups and these shows would pull me even more deeply into the Indian-American community. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with other brown people. But that was okay. I had plenty of other interests and aspirations, too.

For now, I couldn’t wait to make these shows happen, and I couldn’t wait to get on stage.

Fast-forward a few years to a different state, a different lifestyle, a different roommate who asks me whether I’ve ever spent a lot of time away from home with people who weren’t Indian. Would I have trouble adjusting?

I was appalled. Sure, I knew the stereotypes within the Indian-American community at Michigan, that all of our friends are also Indian-American, and that we spend most of our free time doing Indian-American things. But I never realized before that this stereotyping transcended ethnic, racial, economic, and geographical divides.

I never realized that that’s why I couldn’t wait to get off stage.

Stereotyping is inherently never positive, from an outside perspective. But there’s something to be said for behavior that reinforces stereotypes from the inside. On our campus and far beyond it, our country is ethnically and racially diverse — but change a few letters and it’s also divisive.

We, Indian Americans, are told we’re a “model minority.” We are stereotyped as high-achieving, as pre-meds, pre-laws, engineers, with crazy families and crazier weddings. These assumptions are problematic enough on their own, but when all the brown kids are sitting together in the dining hall, when they’re all studying together, going to Indian practices together, going to Indian parties together, you have to wonder: Are we trying so hard to preserve our diversity that we’re overcompensating by being divisive?

Finding your community, finding the people who make you feel the most comfortable and accepted is so important in college. These are the people who share your interests, your struggles, the people who “get you.” But just as important is the understanding that there is so much beyond your community. That as important as it is to dance your heart out to Bollywood music in Hill Auditorium with 250 people who “get you,” it’s also important to know that there is so much beyond the walls of this auditorium. There is so much beyond the 4,000 people watching who may or may not “get you.” There is a sea of people out there who don’t “get you,” and it’s OK to step out of your comfort zone, out of your community and show them why you love doing what you do.

When I get off that stage, I’m not truly distancing myself from the Indian American community. I can never really do that. This community has raised me, has taught me to love my music and my dance and every aspect of my culture. But it has also reminded me that there is a whole world beyond the Indian American community.

I want you to know that I love the Indian parts of my life. I love my Indian friends, my Indian family, my Indian culture. And many Indian Americans on this campus and beyond probably feel the same.

But don’t assume that my Indian side reflects every side of me. I cannot speak for the entire Indian American community, but I can tell you who I am.

I am Indian, I am brown, but make no mistake: I’m more than that, too. The people I surround myself with are brown, and they are also Black, white, Asian, Latin@, Middle Eastern, biracial. They are straight; they are gay; they are men, women, gender-queer. They are musicians; they are athletes; they are politicians, volunteers, scientists.

And they remind me that as important as my heritage, my traditions, and my culture are to me, so is being a global citizen.

My parents have sacrificed so much to provide me with all the diversity, the freedom, and the opportunity I have today. It’s my duty to honor that sacrifice by preserving our dance, our music, our religion, customs, clothes. But it’s just as much my duty to appreciate everything outside of that bubble, to understand that what is inside my culture is meaningless without understanding what is outside of it, to truly take advantage of what living in America and what attending the University of Michigan encompasses.

I’m center stage at Hill Auditorium. Dripping in the sweat of my Indian heritage, every bead on my forehead a reminder of my passion for this culture, as 4,000 people who are brown, white, Black, and every beautiful shade of diversity in between watch. The lights go out, and I beam.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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