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WP2: What does “Indian American” really mean?

As an Indian American, my racial identity lives in flux. At times Indian American, and at other times Indian American. My life has been measured by the words individually, their incoherent intersection, and the ocean-wide gap between them. Introducing myself to others became exhausting — how could I describe my identity to you if I didn’t even understand it? Finishing grade school in a town that was 99% caucasian made this all the more difficult — there was a moment in my life where I lived alongside numerous first-generation Americans, but my time in New Hampshire was a never-ending reflection on my skin tone, culture, and how isolated that made me.

At USC, I’ve been fortunate to dive deeper into Indian culture and Indian American culture. It has been a much-needed, refreshing experience — sharing my stories and hearing the stories of others. These conversations have changed my perception of what being Indian American entails, and I’ve learned that all of our experiences collectively shape the real definition of what it means. Below is my exploration of some of these narratives.

“Our shared American experience is how Un-American we feel.”

Shantanu Jhaveri grew up in Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of Los Angeles. When I first heard of SCV, the city seemed like a progressive, wealthy suburb — but my intuitions were far from the truth. As one of my closest friends, I’ve spoken with Shantanu in great detail about his experience as an Indian American, and recently had a conversation with him to reflect more about what the term means to him.

I chose to record these conversations (another below) and present them in podcast format, so you can really hear the raw, authentic context these concepts are presented in without losing them in translation. I didn’t want to sacrifice the voices of the people I spoke to, so you can truly hear their voices and the stories they tell. Come sit in the room with Shantanu and I as we discuss our experiences as Indian Americans:

Listen to Shantanu and I’s conversation here.

shantanu (left), me, our friend julia, and pavan.

Shantanu’s experience speaks miles about the Indian American experience we share. While definitely different in many respects — the other side of the country, different languages, and different rituals at home — we still connected on quintessential similarities: needing subtitles, feeling lost in either country and constantly searching for more on making our identity feel cohesive. One point that stuck with me since that conversation was the feeling of being Indian vs. American, and how Shantanu defined that.

The mark of feeling American is how out of place I feel in India, and the mark of how Indian I feel is how out of place I feel in America.”

That was a statement I needed to hear, and something I know I’ll carry with me. It seems like the most accurate description of my identity as an Indian American — out of place in either culture, but more importantly how out of place you feel. Furthermore, we discussed the idea of how we are shaping the definition of Indian American, probably more so than any generation before or after. This statement helped me find peace in the fact that “Indian American” is so loosely defined — it’s barely existed for more than a couple of decades.

“When speaking with other Indian Americans, they have their own spectrum of how in touch they want to be with their culture.”

Pavan Garidipuri was one of the only other Indian American kids at my high school. He and I instantly gravitated towards each other because of that, but Pavan’s experience was largely different from mine and Shantanu’s. I couldn’t relate to Pavan as much as I could relate to other Indian Americans. Pavan was born in Connecticut, but lived in India for much of his formative youth — he moved back in late elementary school. He’s fluent in Telugu, his parent's language, and — unlike us — still lives with much of their culture, tradition, and norms. He rarely felt out of place when visiting India, and struggled more with the American part. Stories like Pavans are a big reason I want to develop more into “Indian American” means. Pavan has a very unique way of telling stories, and you can listen to our unedited interview below. Take a listen:

Note: Pavan was in New York at the time of recording, so we had to record this on zoom, thus a lesser audio quality.

Listen to our conversation here.

me (middle left) and pavan (middle right), with our friends kara and josie.

My conversation with Pavan taught me a lot about more of the variety within the Indian American experience. Both of our experiences constitute what it means to be Indian American, yet seem entirely different. He feels at home when in India — I don’t. He’s able to speak the language and engage more directly with a lot of the culture, and I’m not. The flip side of his experience, however, is that he is sometimes alienated by other Indian Americans for being too Indian, as he spoke about. Very hesitant to call the Indian American experience “shared”, he touched a lot on the diversity within India, which I hadn’t thought much of. His experience with casteism and colorism, even around other Indian Americans, shaped his vision of being Indian American in a way I hadn’t experienced.

“I don’t want to necessarily choose. I don’t want to be 50–50, I want to be 100% Indian and 100% American.”

Since speaking with Pavan, the way I conceptualized being Indian American changed in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I always believed that being Indian American was a struggle between being Indian and being American, and I continuously found myself at different places on this spectrum. Pavan showed me that there’s much more dimensionality to this spectrum, in his journey to feeling entirely Indian and entirely American.

These two conversations are something I’ll reflect upon for years — even in the short period of time I spent dissecting the audio and creating those brief podcasts, my conceptualization of the Indian American experience has grown significantly. Shantanu brought to light the measure of how feeling un-Indian and un-American actually signifies how Indian and American we are. He also helped me realize how our generation is the one primarily defining what “Indian American” means. Pavan forced me to look at the intricacies of the differences within the Indian aspect of being Indian American, and the colorism and casteism that exists within the Indian American community.

In short, being Indian American, or first-generation American at all is complex. It’s a balance between simultaneously becoming more at ease with our family culture and becoming more American. I have found that there is strength in the gap between those two words, and I hope that conversations like these will help push the definition behind the label of being “Indian American.”

“Do you think it’s possible to feel 100% [Indian] and 100% [American]?”

“I think the pursuit of it is good enough for me.”



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