For the most part, my two best friends and I are just like any ordinary group of American girlfriends. We frequent Chipotle, binge episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and endlessly trash-talk people from our high school. But aside from providing me company when I spontaneously feel like going to Petco to look at the hamsters, Anjali and Nithya have also broadened my mind in ways atypical of most friendships.
My two best friends and I are all people of color. I am Chinese-American, and Anj and Nith are both Indian-American, but our identities manifest themselves in very different ways. I, like many people of color, tend to tuck my cultural identity away. For most of my life, I have lived by the philosophy that chopsticks were only for family dinner and Chinese was only to be spoken at home. Whether it was out of shame or fear of ostracization, I did everything in my power to appear as acclimated to American society as possible.
Anj and Nith, on the other hand, are shamelessly proud Brown girls. They are outwardly obsessed with Indian comedian Hasan Minhaj and regularly listen to Bollywood Spotify playlists in the car. It is because of their unabashed pride that I have a better understanding of Indian culture than I ever thought possible.
When I walk into Anjali’s house, one of the first things I lay eyes on is an elderly woman dressed in a sari speaking Gujarati. This is Anjali’s grandmother. Naturally, I was a little jarred the first time I saw her sitting on the living room couch browsing on her iPad. It wasn’t every day I witnessed people casually wearing traditional Indian garb, but I very quickly realized for many people, including Anj, it was.
This initial recognition of my own biases was paramount to my eventual recognition of the beauty in foreign cultures. It is easy to claim open-mindedness, but the truth is everyone is subject to some form of internalized racism. We are all accustomed to our own ways of life, so when we encounter something unusual we naturally react in shock. But the sooner we can acknowledge this human tendency, the sooner we can learn to appreciate cultures and livelihoods unlike our own.
Anj and Nith have since exposed me to countless facets of Indian culture, perhaps most notably the region’s extensive and delicious cuisine. As a 1:00 a.m. snack, we feast on Pop-Tarts and cold pav bhaji. When we want to eat out but don’t feel like paying, we head to Nithya’s family restaurant for roti and lamb biryani and wash it down with some rich mango lassi. I don’t always like everything, and, admittedly, sometimes my spice tolerance proves to be a limiting factor, but because of my friends’ willingness to share their culture with me, I have discovered Indian cuisine stretches miles past just naan and curry.
Apart from the food, my friends have also been a window to various Indian traditions and customs. For Navaratri, a 10-day long Indian festival, we attended a local gathering where I learned the basics of garba, a dance native to the Gujarat state. The event was a spectacle. We dressed in vibrant southeast Asian attire and repeated intricate steps around a decorative centerpiece. Amid a crowd of Indians all moving in synchronization, my uncoordinated bare feet and lack of rhythm stood out like a sore thumb. Despite the clumsiness, my experience with garba was a fascinating cultural immersion only made possible by my friends’ eagerness to share their own customs and traditions with an outsider.
My friends’ pride in their own heritage is radiating. Because of them, I find myself excited to see an Indian playing a traditionally white role on television. I find myself frustrated at the sight of subtle Indian cultural appropriation and microaggression. But beyond that, I also find myself recognizing these same things within my own culture.
Anjali and Nithya’s lively backgrounds have reminded me that my own background is fascinating and worth my attention. While it is easy to simply acclimate to American society, my experiences as a Chinese girl have left me with a unique and nuanced worldview. To allow this identity to simply fade away is to diminish the valuable and oftentimes hard-earned perspective that came with it. I used to brush my Chinese identity under the carpet, and to some extent I still do, but today I feel honored to be a part of a culture with such vibrant history and tradition.
Cultural exchange is a two-sided matter. It obviously requires open-mindedness to work, but it is also not possible without people like Anjali and Nithya — people who take personal pride in where they come from and want others to know about it. For many of us, our cultural identities are not salient when they really should be. We acclimate so staunchly to our surroundings that we end up sacrificing some of our most interesting qualities in the process. This trend is counterproductive. We should take pride in where we come from not only because it makes our own lives more interesting, but also because the resulting cultural exchange and subsequent acceptance makes us all better people.
Amanda Zhang can be reached at email@example.com.