I grew up more Indian than American because I have so much family and an Indian “family friends” network that extends all over the Chicago-land area. The New Years with dance performances and drunken uncles dancing to Sheila Ki Jawani, “get-togethers” with biryani on paper plates and a dozen kids sprawled on the floor, people you call aunty and uncle and the parties in Ashyana where we awkwardly mill about tables are familar to all of us. Our community here remains active and well-connected, providing a place for our culture, food, clothes and way of life to flourish beautifully. It has allowed me to grow up with the best of both worlds — Indian and American — and has given me a unique ability to assimilate into America without letting go of my culture. I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But, this community that parties together and calls everyone beta has a dark side that tears apart the very people it claims to bring together.
For such a “tight-knit people”, we hardly ever tell each other about our real life and the actual troubles we face. A prominent and dangerous practice of “hiding” pervades Indian culture, where we frequently pretend everything is okay and engage in purely superficial talk. I’m not saying we have to advertise our emotional situations and our deep, dark secrets. We all want our privacy. But, the toxicity lies in the reasons we hide our problems. It’s not simply because we believe we have the right to privacy, but rather because we are terrified of what the others will say or think and how that will affect our standing. And, when I say terrified, I mean families will do absolutely anything to protect their reputation and their image. Parents will refuse to admit their kids struggle in school. They will never talk about feeling sad or disappointed. They will lie and cover up hide their kids’ illnesses if they’re sick, or downplay them as much as possible, fearing that down the road, when their kids want to be married, families will view them as sickly or scarred.
God forbid a kid faces depression or struggles in school or sick or deviates in any manner from the straight laced, hardworking, committed individual they are supposed to be. We don’t give eachother space to reach out and ask for help because of the intense fear of what people might think. This is not just an abstract ideal. It is a very real problem. I have friends and cousins who have issues with their parents or school or depression or physical illness, and they do not have an outlet to speak openly about who they are and their difficulties because of this social pressure. They want to talk, they need help, but they cannot get it. The aunties and uncles gather around to whisper about how boy X parties too much or how girl Y seems a little awkward or how so-and-so’s daughter didn’t get into any great colleges. Rather than talking to the kid directly or trying to figure out the cause of their problems, we write off their behavior and spread our baseless opinions to everyone we know. If we are the community we claim, shouldn’t we expect more? Shouldn’t we expect an actual support system as opposed to this facade of concern? I do. I expect more, and I want more. We all should.
Especially for girls, a large part of this “reputation” circles around maintaining the good Indian kid image. Every part of us affects how people view us. When relatives from far away come to visit and we want to wear t-shirts or a dress, we’re implored not to because “they will talk ‘things’ about you back in India.” If there is even a hint of a girl “liking” a boy or “acting close”, without any proof or justification, all hell breaks loose and the aunties start squabbling and labeling the girl as “loose” and disrespectful and indecent. If a girl has a boyfriend, its hushed up and viewed awkwardly, even if it’s a completely mature and genuine relationship, because of what “people might say when it’s time for you to get married. They’ll think you went around a lot.”
But, why? Why are we always on the defense with our reputations, as if we have to prove that we’re good Indian kids? Why does nobody actually speak to us and instead speak about us, around us, at us, and to other people? Why do these so called family friends love ripping people apart and spreading random threads of rumors that might not even be true or valid? And, why do we fear that?
I can vouch for every, single one of my friends and cousins as great Indian kids. They are hardworking, honest, dedicated, genuine, loyal people with beautiful dreams, and I will stand behind them. They love and respect their parents and their culture, they support their friends, and they throw themselves fully into whatever they’re working towards. They’re amazing, but they’re also ordinary people, struggling with normal things, searching for relationships, and figuring out who they are. And, they deserve more than an environment that makes them feel like they can only show their polished parts rather than the parts that struggle.
I know that it’s not just Indian people who gossip and that talking about people will always remain part of people’s nature. But, I can only speak to the Indian community that I see, and I do not want to accept that it cannot become better strong and better. When we claim to be a community, we have a responsibility to be authentic rather than fabricated. Celebrating holidays and dining together holds no value if we can’t be there for each other when we really need each other. Nobody will reach their hands out and sing kumbaya after reading and reflecting upon what I have said, but I genuinely hope it has opened people’s eyes to the judgment and the narrowness of our hearts. I hope next time you are struggling, instead of lying about it and hiding it, you feel more comfortable saying, “Actually, pre-med is difficult…actually, he’s a bit depressed…actually, he doesn’t have an internship set up yet.” I hope next time someone casually comments or labels someone’s behavior, you will question what they know and challenge them. I hope next time you want to know who someone is, you will ask that person directly instead of listening to other people’s opinions. I hope next time you call me beta and welcome me into your home, you will actually offer me a place in your heart, and not just at the dinner table.