Where are you from? It's complicated

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 6:55pm

At the beginning of each of my semesters at Michigan, I’ve consistently felt the same uncomfortable cacophony of emotions. On one hand, I’m thoroughly bored by the end of break and am pining for the semester to start. I feel excited about the thought of getting back on campus, seeing lots of old friends, meeting new people and also getting busy again. But then as the first day of classes comes around the corner the feeling of excitement is often replaced with stress and anxiety as I start to remember what a busy college semester feels like and how meeting new people proves to be harder than it sounds.

The transition between break and a busy college semester usually starts with the awkward round of icebreakers that one is bound to participate in the majority of their classes. This is usually when you get to find out interesting facts and talents about your peers such as “I like hummus”, “I’m double-jointed almost everywhere in my body” or even “I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels”.

Like many on campus, I have spent the last few days trying to make my “fun fact” something that will make people laugh at the moment, but also something that people won’t strictly remember me by. But during these painstaking ice breakers, one question that is a little more difficult for me to answer is “Where are you from?” This is usually a question that people don’t struggle with, but personally it means a lot more than just the name of the city where I was born or where I went to high school. It means: what are the places that have molded you into the person you are today?

Ann Arbor, Michigan and Bangalore, India are two places that are very dear to me. I have lived the majority of my life in Ann Arbor, but I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be the person I am now without the three years I lived in India. In fact, looking back at it, as a first generation Indian-American immigrant, it meant a lot to me to have my own experience with India. Prior to that, hearing stories from my parents about their childhood, eating the Indian food my mom makes, waking up at 6 a.m. to talk to my grandparents and cousins on the phone and summer vacations to India were the extent of my cultural exposure. But living in India really allowed me to relate to my family in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. It made it possible for my parents to share a lot of the same experiences that they had growing up in India. My parents showed me where they grew up, I participated in a lot of traditional festivals and holidays and I got to see my family a lot more often than I had before. Living in India gave me the opportunity to explore my heritage in a way I wasn’t able to before.

It wasn’t really until after I moved back to Ann Arbor that I slowly started to realize the importance and the significance of my Asian-American identity. Before I moved, Ann Arbor was the only home I knew. In fact, while I was terribly homesick during my first month there, I made it very clear to all of my classmates that I bleed maize and blue. However, when I moved back three years later, I realized Bangalore had become a part of me that I couldn’t get rid of. I couldn’t pretend that I had never moved there. After all, I came back with a thick Indian accent and a completely different personality. It was the first time that I had to come to terms with and accept my cultural identity for it’s the one thing that makes everyone themselves and unique.

All of this would be really difficult and maybe even borderline overkill to explain in an icebreaker on the first day of class. But the next time it’s my turn, I probably won’t try to make mine as short as possible in order to get to the next person. Sometimes what may seem like a “simple question” deserves a complicated answer and can reveal a lot about a person. So please, if you have to take a couple of extra seconds during an ice breaker that’s already been going on for too long to represent where you’re from, please take them. We’re all ears.