I’m An American, But Society Doesn’t Think So
Bridging the gap between my Indian heritage and American nationality.
My parents are immigrants. They came to the United States from India in the 1990s, found stable work, established a life here, and had me, and three years later, my brother. Though my dad has told me about his struggles coming to America as a new immigrant, I never found myself different from my peers growing up. I never saw color, nor did I think that speaking a foreign language at home was anything strange. Until I realized that in most of America, it is.
America is a melting pot, boasting a mix of various races, ethnicities, and cultures. Despite this, first generation Americans find themselves at a crossroads between embracing their “American-ness” — that is, erasing several ethnic and cultural ties, and staying in touch with their ancestral culture. Until I turned 13 or 14, I never felt this conflict. Being Indian, to me, was just as natural and as important as being American. There was no struggle; I was proud of both aspects of my identity.
When I hit high school, things changed. I began to see color, notice “strange” and “ethnic” names, and compare myself to my peers. Although I come from quite a diverse town with a significantly large South Asian population, I still felt like I was the odd one out. Feeling at home in a traditionally “white” America can be difficult for people of color. But why was America always white in my mind?
Though there wasn’t much blatant racism I experienced, the racial lines at my school were definitely palpable. Several lunch tables- and friend groups- were split by race. This was mainly due to the fact that there was a significant Asian and South Asian population within the upper level classes, and people generally made friends within their classes and would build a friend group that way. Though race may not have been a motivating factor in the development of friend circles, groups usually fell along these boundaries. And people picked up on it. I don’t know if people were threatened by the brown people infringing on traditionally non-brown territory, but there were definitely people who were openly vocal against the South Asian community in my township.
It was during this time that I felt like I had to make a choice between being Indian and being American. I saw several of my peers make that choice- they all overwhelmingly chose “American,” learning to save the Indian aspects of their identity for their home lives. They gave up centuries of language, of culture, of heritage. I, too, made this choice. In hindsight, I did not have to choose, but caught in the moment, I made that decision- to keep the Indian part of me locked up, only for my family’s eyes. But again, I question myself, why is there such a conflict between being Indian and being American, when America should, in theory, be a blank slate?
Now that I’m in college, I realize that sacrificing the Indian part of my identity was not necessary. However, this sacrifice was made over a span of 10 to 12 years, to the point where it became a part of me. It was made when my parents began to only speak to me in English, when I unintentionally adopted an American accent in elementary school for my friends and only used an Indian accent with my immediate family. It occurred when I gave up Indian dance and Indian singing, when I refused to go to the theater to watch Bollywood movies for fear of being considered “ethnic” by people I didn’t even know. It was a long, tedious, and in hindsight, regretful process.
This rejection of one part of your identity is tough. But the biggest struggle of being a first-generation American, by far, is feeling like you belong nowhere. Although I am an American, there is always going to be a part of me- and part of society- that thinks I don’t belong here because of my name, my skin color, and my upbringing. I often get asked where I’m from, and I always say New Jersey, where I was born and raised. In response I get a “but where are you really from?” I reply, “New Jersey, born and raised.” And then I get asked where my parents are from. I concede: “India.” It makes me feel like society needs an explanation for my skin color, like I’m not a real American. Being considered American is often associated with being white or being black, though even the ancestors of both white and black Americans are usually not native to this land.
I don’t belong in India either. I’m too American for that. According to others, I have an accent whenever I attempt to speak an Indian language, though I don’t notice. My mannerisms, even the way I walk, are deemed “American.” It’s quite an ironic and exasperating dilemma. I’m neither completely American nor completely Indian; I fall in the gray area between the two.
I have, however, begun to come to terms with who I am. The American and the Indian aspects of me have begun to coexist relatively peacefully. I recognize that society may not consider me or people of my background to be true Americans for a long time, but I still feel a lot more at ease with myself. And though I occasionally struggle with feelings of not belonging, I have realized that am not alone in this. I do belong. I belong to that little niche of society in which two cultures can intermingle, where people are shaped with the best of both worlds in mind. I am an Indian-American (not to be confused with American Indian), and at the end of the day, I’m proud of that.
Follow me on Twitter at @PoojaBNarayanan.