For much of my life, as far back as I can remember with certainty, I have lived in America. I ate America’s rather motley collection of food from all sorts of cultures around the world, dressed (admittedly poorly) according to American fashion style, spoke the dialect of the East Coast, and studied in the American school system. Yet, regardless of how much I was “American”, it seemed that I could never properly gain the approval of my peers. I remember being almost 5, a bright young pupil who had the unfortunate difficulty of not understanding English yet, and being called “Osama” by some older kids while playing in the hill near my apartment complex, and asking my friends what that meant, not understanding the connotations of being brown in post 9–11 America. I had come to this country with the belief that America was a melting pot of cultures and values, and with it, a belief that an immigrant can come, build their life, and be loved and accepted by the people around them. Instead, I was greeted with the reality that many did not want me here, as my skin tone was a shade too dark for their liking, and my country of origin a bit too similar to some perceived enemy. When I was 8 and freshly moved to Massachusetts, I introduced myself at the playground to the sound of jeers. I understood English well enough to understand what was said, and the experiences to understand why. When I was 14, my name was defaulted to different puns and jokes about curry, or cows, or shit, or all of them at once. I remember laughing along with them in an attempt to fit in.
My family desperately tried to keep me as Indian as possible. Every day was basmati rice, idli, or dosa, generally accompanied by rassum or sambar, and sometimes, if it was a treat, red or green chutney. I recall favoring the Northern Indian style of food, like channa masala or butter paneer, because we as Tamilians had the Southern style all the time. I couldn’t really be blamed; lentils and coconut could only be interesting for so long. Daily we spent time doing some form of pooja, reciting different slokams to come closer to the different gods in the holy pantheon. Going to the temple was a regular occurrence, seeing the same statues of Ganesha, Shiva, and Hanuman decorated a differently every time, with my father lifting me so I could ring the bell, until I was old enough to reach on my own. I always enjoyed seeing Hanuman covered in butter; I liked to think he got to eat the coating at some point. We would circle every deity and pray silently for what we desired; I wanted escape. Every single ceremony and prayer I learnt was their hope that it would guide me on the right path to their ideal son. When that wasn’t working, they would try the tried and true Indian practice of rage and pain. I still remember every time I would be crying from something said or inflicted, and they would come and hug me and apologize. I believed in them every time. I practiced Carnatic music for 30 minutes to an hour every day, reciting Sa-Re-Ga-Ma at different speeds and intervals, to the beat my teacher taught me and my classmates. Indian movies or shows were always on in our house, whether it was Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Airtel Super Singer, or Neeya Naana. The apartment complex was mostly Indians, and this close knit community had gossip between aunties and potlucks every other week.
When I was older, around middle school, I tried to break away from my Indianness a little. I wanted to eat like an American, with sandwiches, pasta, and veggie burgers appearing in more frequency. I dressed and talked devotedly American, believing that swearing every other fucking word was somehow American as shit. I was wrong. It’s just obnoxious. I scoffed at the ridiculous expectations set by my family, and angrily wandered by myself in my neighborhood, trying to escape the culture waiting for me back home, equally in its abuse, expectations, and foreignness.
High school came, and I slowly entered a routine. I stopped really going out or hanging out with people save for a few close friends. The outside world was this weird place that I would never fit in, so why bother? Home was an ironic term; I didn’t really fit there either, with the standards set by every other Indian in existence on me. Not meeting them resulted in many of the same words said outside, but more vitriol and frustration than fear, and more beatings. It hurt worse knowing it was my mother and father. My room was invaded by a closet full of gods and goddesses. I was never alone; Lakshmi and Ganesha, among others, were always there and always watching. I slowly considered just giving up and skating by; no one was going to complain about a B average student who turned in his homework, save for my parents, and they would always complain: they’re Indian. But junior year came by, and it became too much, and I started meeting expectations. Teachers were amazed that I was fulfilling their evaluations of my genius. I didn’t have the heart to say that I didn’t want to be beat down at home and at school. I switched the edgy silence for edgy brashness; I would say the stupidest and most outlandish things possible. If people were laughing, it probably meant they accepted you, I reasoned. As senior year rolled by, my father made no secret his dream for me to go to MIT, that I could apply as a Math major and get in, and maybe even graduate in 3 years. In a rare act of defiance, I refused to pay the $90 to apply. I graduated, with an unclear idea of who I was, and the too familiar feeling of being an alien within the sea of beaming students during the ceremony.
My friends started saying that I was American or “white-washed”. My family reminded me that I could never truly be American, and that if anything happened, I would end up in India. This was during freshman year of college, and I had both a tenuous grasp of my mother tongue, and by extension, my culture. My mother made me an entire box of palkova freshman year; I neglected it for Hershey bars and Arizona. I participated in the belittling of my own culture and the international students from Delhi and Chennai, thinking it would help me fit in and be an “American”.
I’m now a 4th year student and staring at the cusp of the green card that I have been waiting for since May 2001, and upon receiving it, the end of my Indian citizenship will be nigh. I chose to switch majors from Aerospace Engineering to Mechanical, since my citizenship is years away from ever being granted, and I would not be able to work in Aerospace without it. Essentially, I am repeating my junior year, a far cry from the 3 year MIT student that was desired from me. I know that I needed to do this for my own security and happiness, but I can feel the disappointment that my parents and all of the Indian uncles and aunties in their friend group have knowing that their prodigal son couldn’t cut it in 4 years. They use me as an example for all of their children, that they should be as polite, respectful, and intelligent as I am. I hope none of them have to deal with the same lack of identity that I did.
India has a policy that one can only hold an Indian citizenship; dual citizenship is not an option, and if one chooses to become a citizen elsewhere, they forfeit their tie to India. For most of my life, my identity was defined as American or Indian most of the time, but in reality, culture and identity do not work at all like citizenship does. I don’t like wearing sharvani or veshtis. I can love apple pie and grilled cheese as much as I want, barbecue during the 4th, and listen to the Top 40 hits all the time. However, I can also speak Tamil habitually with family and close friends appreciate the Mahabharata and Ramayana to pieces, watch Bollywood, Kollywood, and Tollywood, love dosa and sambar and crave them 24/7, celebrate India’s Independence Day on August 15 with firecrackers and Jana Gana Mana, and listen to classical Indian music from time to time. I never had to be American or Indian; both are intrinsically part of me and forever will be. I can be me, an Indian and an American.