I had a wonderful conversation with a friend the other day about how much of an “American” we are when we go back to India. This amounts to things like how we dress, the language we speak, and our independent thresholds for how willing we are to engage in what I’ll call “regular life things”, like going shopping or calling an auto to take us somewhere. While I tend to be a quieter, more reserved version of myself when I go to India, she seems far more willing to lean in all the way to her otherness, embracing her identity as an American in a country very different from her own.
Although I pride myself on being honest with myself and those around me, there’s something suspicious, I feel, about how quickly I choose to forego that when I go to India. I find myself morphing to be as inoffensive as possible to the people around me. Why burden my family with my Thinglish, why try to make people laugh with American humor, why try to pass as Indian when I am clearly more American than I am Indian?
This comes from a feeling that I ought to be more “Indian” than I really am. Even amongst fellow brown kids growing up, I always considered myself somewhat of a black sheep – I don’t really like Bollywood movies (though in fairness some really excellent films have been released in the last 5 years), I know only a little about the cultural and historical heritage of India, and I barely speak my mother tongue. Of course, I shouldn’t focus only on my shortcomings – I am actively learning Tamil, have been reading a book about the history of India (very… slowly), and recently learned how to cook some of the staple South Indian dishes of my childhood. Still, there is a residing feeling that comes almost entirely internally that I should be more than I am. It isn’t because of my parents – they never complain about how “American” I’ve become explicitly. It also isn’t because of my friends, many of whom are similar levels of “Indian” as me.
Instead, I think it arises from the cultural moment we are in. We are living in a time in America where what it means to be American is to own your otherness versus touting your ability to fit a mold. You can see this play out in the new age description of America as a “salad bowl”, which essentially amounts to the ideal that Americans can coexist without shedding their cultural identities. Of course, this is not what I, and what many American children, were taught in schools. I was taught that America is a melting pot, breaking down each individual that arrives on its shores and melting each culture into what I can only imagine would be an unsettlingly colored fondue. The challenge, though, with the “melting pot” metaphor is that it’s also very easy to push onto other aspects of your life where it does not necessarily apply. In applying it to my trips to India, it has forced me to become ashamed of the many parts of my identity I lost in the hopes of being accepted into the broader American whole.
I know that what makes me me is my dual heritage – both my Indian-ness and my American-ness, and that there is no one other than me who can define what that means. There is no point in baseless comparisons with other Indian-Americans about how “Indian” they are, obviously that is only a matter of personal preference, and in fact, just by virtue of being Indian in America we are all likely more culturally aligned than not. I’m just about ready to embrace that. My parents did not immigrate to America just so that their son could lament he is not Indian enough. They came here knowing full well what would happen, that I would become a hybrid well deserving of the hyphen: an Indian-American. The next time I go to India, I’ll carry less shame about my lack of Indian-ness and instead wear my identity as a badge of pride. Not as an Indian, not as an American, but as the whole Indian-American self I have grown to become.