Becoming Indian…Again

I should be studying for my quiz but I’m not. This seems like a better time to talk to you about my identity crisis.

I came to the Unites States in 1998 when I was about 6 years old. I didn’t know how to speak any English. I was enrolled in kindergarten and promptly pushed into a classroom full of other foreign speaking children who could not speak English. I was so shy of speaking in my embarrassing, messy English that my kindergarten teacher asked my mother if I was mute since I never said anything in class. It took me until 2nd grade to learn how to read and write in English at my grade level. The first time my parents saw me reading an English book (at Costco of all places), they bought it immediately, signed the date and titled it “Jui’s First Book”! The book was called Danny and the Dinosaur and it was a page turner nonetheless.

Elementary school not only taught me about annoying silent letters, nouns and cursive, it also taught me how to develop a fabulous English accent. After one year, my Indian accent was gone and I spoke like a true (educated) valley girl. In addition to all that, English composition became my best ranked subject in school; I read every book in sight and failed at math miserably- basically every Indian parents nightmare. What a time to be alive!

Middle School and High School felt like a bad rom-com. I watched lots of sappy love stories like Sleepless in Seattle or Princess Diaries , slowly starting to separate myself from Bollywood and having to read those pesky subtitles. I would run into my room and slam the door like I saw in the movies if my parents ever pissed me off only to find them chasing me down the hallway with a slipper in their hand. I began to complain endlessly to my mom about how “itchy Indian clothes are! UGH!” and constantly worried if I remembered to put on deodorant in the morning because I was afraid people would smell the onion, cumin, and mirchi odor that seemed to linger on all my clothes. I spoke in a crystal clear American accent, made fun of my parents for mispronouncing their W’s for V’s and greatly underestimated the length girls in my class went to for prom dresses. Although I never said and never intentionally thought about it, I secretly wanted to be as American as I could be. But was I convincing enough?

The first day I moved into my new apartment in college, my housemates now ex-boyfriend asked me a rather racist question: “So you’re Indian right? Do you eat curry everyday?! HAHAH!!!” I didn’t get it, but I didn’t want to seem rude so I just laughed, rolled my eyes and stupidly said… nothing. I met lots of cool, interesting, and often times insensitive people such as previous housemates ex-boyfriend in college. One person told me they know lots about Indian people dynamic/culture because I quote, “I dated an Indian guy once”. Most importantly, when asked “so, where are you from”, I would always respond with the name of my home town. More surprisingly, I would quickly follow up on that with, “But I’m actually from India”. Most 2nd generation people like myself would complain about how American’s would ask then dumb things like, “No, I meant where are you really from”? But I never got that question. I would treat my “I’m actually from India” response as if it was a liability because lets face it, I look brown but have an American accent so what better way to confirm that I am in fact an American citizen then to mention my indefinite Visa from India at the same time! It was dawning on me that no matter what I did to be as American as I could be, I would always be Indian. In high school, I didn’t think about it too much, but in college, “becoming Indian” became my mission.

When I came to college, I was all of sudden very interested to learn about my culture. Not sure where this sudden surge of curiosity came from but I have done everything I could to be more Indian. I have maps of India on my wall, I’m taking Hindi classes, I’m playing badminton on weekends with other brown people, and even coordinating a Diwali party for international students. It feels like a moral obligation to suddenly learn as much as I can about my culture. Does that mean my identity crisis is finally resolved? No. The thing in, I can learn as much as I want about India, my language, culture and religion, but I don’t know if that will change the person I am today. I don’t even know if thats the end goal I am aiming for! Everytime I go to India, I only see my motherland in the perspective of a tourist. I see my family and the places they take me. I see the poverty and the feel my stomach drop when a bunch of starving street kids come knocking on the taxi window begging for money. When someone in America asks me, “whats India like?” I don’t know what to say. I only know India from the perspective of a 22 year old who has gone their not more than 5 times in her life. From someone who may or may not be charged the international fee at an Indian museum because I look that much of a non-Indian even in the country I was born in.

I think my identity crisis will be a continuous struggle my entire life. Many times I have told people that I am not a reliable source of information about my country, that I am a poor representative for India as a whole and that all questions regarding Hinduism or Shah Rukh Khan should be directed towards Google. My parents never forced me to obey Indian religion, they never told me I couldn’t’ do something because Indian culture would not dictate it. They never prevented me from being American, but then again, they never taught me how to be Indian either. I guess I am just going to have to figure that out on my own.

-J

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