I’m still trying to figure it out.
“You’re such a good girl,” one of my Indian-relatives told me, “you have a lot of sanskar, other Indian kids in America don’t have that.”
“Just because I speak Hindi and identify as Hindu doesn’t mean I have more sanskar than other Indian-American kids,” I replied.
“No beta,” the relative continued, “you have more. Trust me we’ve seen it.” As my relative from India continued to ramble on about the difference between Indian-American kids and me, I thought of the many Indian-Americans I knew. They’re all different and cannot be placed in any mold. Although I defended them quickly, I noticed that I wasn’t friends with any of them.
“I think it has to do with distance,” my sister, Geetika Srivastava, told me years later as we sat in her apartment eating Gyros while Living with Yourself played in the background, “We didn’t have many Indian neighbors when we moved to Beavercreek.”
“Maybe,” I said while watching two Paul Rudds interact, “but we did have some when we moved to Centerville.”
“That’s true,” Geetika replied also watching the Rudds. As we idly watched, I thought about why I didn’t have many Indian-American friends. In fact, I only have one close Indian-American friend.
As many of you are aware, I had a hard time in school due to bullying. However, when I entered private school, I never was bullied about my race. Many Indian-American kids disassociate from their Indian-ness because of endless teasing and mocking of Indian culture. For example, in her essay, Divya Kumar recalls years of being laughed at for her “Indian-ness.” From the food in her lunchbox to the way she looked, Divya decided to distance herself from anything and everything Indian. She even celebrated Christmas “just like everyone else.”
My generation struggles with either being Indian or American. For many of us, there was no such thing as being Indian-American. When I had my first boyfriend, my mother said to me, “you can’t have the best of both worlds: you can’t be both Indian and American.” So, many Indian-American kids began distancing themselves from the Indian part of their identity. This may have been done intentionally or unintentionally. For example, I reached out to another Indian-American kid I went to high school with. This individual didn’t intentionally avoid the other Indian kids in school, they just were in this person’s circle. However, that changed in college. Again, it was unintentional to be friends with only Indian-Americans, but it was comforting. For this individual, having friends of similar cultural backgrounds made going through the tough times easier.
“All I Want Is a Donut.”
Throughout the show, Never Have I Ever, the main character, Devi struggles with balancing her Indian culture with her American one. She learns that there is no right way to be Indian-American. However, society will try to define the right way. Eventually, Devi vents to Paxton about being Indian. She says that people say she’s too Indian while others say she’s not Indian enough. But, honestly, all she wants is a donut. And, that is exactly how I feel about being Indian-American.
Many Indian-American kids find it more difficult to be such in Trump’s America. From our relatives in India to the Hindu nationalists drooling at Trump’s feet, many of us struggle with teaching our community to not vote for him. When dealing with the issue, I turn to my Indian-American friend to vent and strategize. Moreover, I turned to my Indian-American to feel less alone in the struggles of being a minority attorney. We can talk about our moms getting on our backs about marriage and the best Indian restaurants, but we also talk about our love for Marvel movies and the superhero genre in general. Oh, and we love donuts.
Also, I embrace my Indian-side with my cousins. We all wore our first saris when we turned 16 years old; we mock terrible Hindi films together; and, we can sing Hindi film songs just as well as we can rap Childish Gambino (okay, we are terrible rappers, but we try). Oh, and we love donuts. However, I never intentionally avoided my Indian community or didn’t want to make Indian friends. It had nothing to do with proximity to Indian-American kids or being bullied.
Many Hindi movies depict Indian-American kids as rude alcoholics who have too much sex before marriage. Apparently, these movies tell Indians that we are all horrible, selfish, and not proud of our culture. Other Indian movies show the dangers of Western culture and how it’s killing traditions. These stereotypes put Indian-Americans in a mold that we don’t fit. When we were young, my generation of Indian-American kids didn’t have many role models when it came to Indian-Americans. Later, we were exposed to many who define their balance of Indian and American. They show us that we can be whoever we want to be but it doesn’t mean we have bad sanskar. Simply put, it means we choose not to put ourselves, and others, into any molds.
If you wanna only watch Hindi movies and join Bollywood-dance-tropes, then do that! If you don’t want to learn any Indian languages or don’t like Indian food, that’s fine so long as you’re not ashamed of your culture. Be who you need to be! Don’t let the model define you. Break the goddamn mold!
My lack of Indian-American friends doesn’t mean I don’t love my culture or makes me a “bad Indian.” Rather, it means that I was figuring out my identity. I had to define what it means to me to be Indian-American. Now, I don’t judge other Indian-American kids for being themselves. They are who they are, and I am who I am.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned!