Living with two identities in America

Growing up as a first generation Indian American in the current times is a unique experience that comes with positives and negatives, losses and gains, struggles and rich experiences.  Certain South Asian trends have migrated to the United States.  South Asian music, fashion trends (such as bindis or kurtas), movies, décor (such as religious affiliated tapestries and figurines), and food have been increasing rapidly in popularity.  Here I am shedding some light on the difficulties that cultural appropriation presents to the members of the community who are trying to enjoy the benefits of living in between the two cultural identities.

There exist two competing perspectives regarding the root of ethnic identity. The essentialist perspective claims that ethnic identity is an innate quality that is instinctual, natural, and inflexible. In contrast, the situational perspective argues that ethnic identities are social constructed, moulded, revised, and redefined depending on the set of circumstances an individual encounters. Although the rigidity of ethnic identity is up for dispute, its implications with regards to the way individuals navigate through societal institutions remain certain.
Often, our sense of morality and aspirations are driven by cultural teachings associated with the religious institutions tied to ethnicity. In the context of Asian-American culture, the competing forces of culture influence are apparent. Our American society is dominated by a culture centred on the English language and normative behaviour tied to it. Acceptance into our society, both on a social and academic level, requires inhabitants to adopt this normative culture to create a system of structural organisation.

Individuals who choose to not accept these cultural norms are often out-grouped, and find difficulty navigating through American institutions. This tendency results in many immigrants letting go of their ethnic heritage and acquiescing to societal norms.  In a school and community setting, children are quick to remark on apparent differences such as ethnicity, skin colour, language they see amongst their peer group. The acceptance and immersion into mainstream American society is not limited to the experiences of children, and is seen as we grow older and interact with larger institutions.

Upward social mobility and a sense of “making it” in America also appears coupled with the letting go of ethnic heritage. This assimilation may result from something as seamless as our increased involvement with individuals of different ethnic heritages or something more absolute such as a required reaffirmation of our shared “American-ness”.

Nonetheless, ethnic identity and assimilation should not be mutually exclusive; a balance must be struck to best suit each unique individual. Rather than larger institutions or social forces driving this balance, the individual should be able to determine their identity based on their lived reality.

One of my students, Madhavi Shah, since her childhood, thought that being an individual of Indian heritage living in America kept her from living a full life. She had a funny name. Her parents had funny accents. Most of her friends didn’t look like her, and their parents often had different rules than her.  The experiences her peers had in their culture would differ greatly from her. When her friends had to go a wedding, they would be gone for a day. They would come back, talk about the church, the dress the bride wore, and how much fun they had dancing at the reception.

Looking backward
When she went to her cousin’s wedding, she was gone for almost a week. She came back, had to discuss the concept of a “mehndhi,” a “garba-raas,” and a “sangeet.” That was just for starters. She didn’t even know how to discuss the fact that instead of dating for a couple years first, the couple realised that they loved each other because their parents told them that they didn’t have a choice.

How do you explain that without making your entire family look backward? On the other hand, she was never totally Indian either. Whenever her family would visit their relatives in the country of their origin she felt even more out of place than she did in the US. The music she listened to was different. The movies she watched were different. When she tried to speak Gujarati, her cousins giggled at her accent. She was confused. Where did she belong?
Luckily, things changed as she grew up. As she grew up and met more and more Indian Americans of her generation, she learned how to adjust to their unique position. She realised that to be a 21st century American of South Asian decent was to take the qualities of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations and mould them to fit modern times. She learned that one did not have to be either Indian or American. She was given a wonderful opportunity to embrace two cultural identities. She can celebrate Christmas and Diwali. She can listen to Kanye West and Kishore Kumar. She can watch Dil to Pagal Hai and Dude Where’s my Car?

She realised that this duality is an advantage instead of an obstacle. It makes her more balanced and worldly person. From an early age she was exposed to how different two cultures could be, and she was immersed in both of them. It helped her to be sensitive to the cultural differences between all of the people that she has met in her life. The fact that she literally grew up in two different societies simultaneously allows her to be open to learning about the cultural experiences of others.

She can look past the racial and religious differences that keep so many people from opening simple lines of conversation because she herself is the product of two vastly different worlds being fused together in an increasingly global society. In the end, the things about her that made her different, that she tried to shun in her younger days ended up being among the greatest gifts she could ever have been given.

(The writer, a linguist, teaches at the Washington University in St Louis, USA)

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