While visiting family in India two years ago, I often got into discussions about Indian politics and human rights issues. During one such heated debate with my cousins about the ubiquitous caste system, the conversation took an unexpected turn. In an attempt to show my misgivings, my cousin said, “Well, you’re Indian too. You are part of this.” To which I exasperatedly retorted, “No, I am not. I am an American.” When a slight lull fell over the dinner table, my grandmother, who until then had shown little interest in the conversation, raised her frail head and commented, “For them, you will never be an American.”
Where do I fit in? My family had moved to America when I was young, and for a few years, I found comfort in those who had just arrived from the motherland. We found common ground in Americans’ incessant mispronunciation of our names and the desire to change our names in order to ease adaptation into American society (I remain grateful that my parents opted against this drastic change, especially because so much of my family’s history is intrinsic in our name.). But currently, there aren’t even derogatory terms to describe my identity — I am not an “American-Born Confused Desi” because I am not American born, nor am I “Fresh Off the Boat” any longer since I came ashore more than a dozen years ago.
When I came to this country, I was surprised to learn that the Indian identity included components that I had never been introduced to while living in India: Bhangra, garba raas and Bollywood are all parts of a completely foreign culture to someone from the South Indian city I grew up in because we had kuchipudi, koolaatam and a vibrant Telugu movie industry. This manufactured Indian-American identity is relevant to a few people but is fed to all of us as though we are part of an unified culture. And nowhere is this misleading identity more prevalent than in the Indian American Student Association’s annual cultural show. For the past four years, these cultural shows have offered little in terms of the diversity of the country: Few dances represent the varied cultures, most songs are chosen from Bollywood films and even costumes lack authenticity.
This is not to say, however, that fragmentation into smaller groups is the answer, though that is the cause for forming a dozen South Asian organizations on campus, each with its own decree for inception: Punjabi culture is expressed in the Punjabi Student Organization, garba raas is explored through the Raas Core and ABCDs, and FOBs stay apart from one another with their corresponding cliques in IASA and the Indian Students Association. While organizing a large Telugu conference, few of the youth organizers knew of or wanted to include speakers or prevalent figures from the community, instead opting to create a meat market for marriage-ready singles with cruises, fashion shows and speed dating. Indian culture had been boiled down to choreographed dances and hookups with similarly colored peoples and made me want to renounce it for a more American identity mostly because I had failed to recognize that my cultural identity is determined not by a behemoth, cookie-cutter program that is mass produced for Hill Auditorium or COBO Hall.
It is not an easy task to discover one’s character in a country that is set on acclimation to a certain norm, and I regret that all too often I have taken out my angst against my parents. Over the past few years, I have grown to appreciate that I am a product of my forefathers and cherish that very little of my culture has to do with dance and song. It is of little consequence that I recognize the virtues of arranged marriage and have trouble saying certain words with a “w” or “v” because I similarly question authority and embrace challenges. My identity is not determined by the language I speak but by the awareness I gain from understanding it. I find my identity in the nuances of citizenship in a boundary-free global community. I inherit the passion with which my paternal grandfather followed his dreams and the strength with which my maternal grandmother raised the most capable and successful women I know. I no longer worry about understanding my culture because it is clear to me where I can find my identity: in the history and heritage of my family.
Chirumamilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.