One of the most challenging tasks every family must undertake at some point in their lives is deciding what to watch together. One evening, the compromise for our family was Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix standup special, Homecoming King. It was a win-win: my immigrant parents got to see a young brown man rise to fame, and I got to hear relatable jokes on the trials and tribulations of growing up brown in America. As I laughed unabashedly through jokes about subtle racism in romance, school and beyond, my parents sat beside me looking amused but mostly confused. It wasn’t until many hours after the special had ended did I realize that my parents and I, despite looking very similar, had vastly different experiences in America. My parents came to America as Indian immigrants, knowing they were traveling to a new country, knowing they would be foreigners for a time and Indians at heart.
I, on the other hand, grew up feeling foreign in every sense of who I was. I was born in America, and therefore American. But, looking around, no one looked like me. There was no crayon in the box for my skin color, there were no movies in English of people that looked like me, there were no role models (at the time, Disney princesses) I could look up to.
I grew up ashamed of the intricate home-cooked meals my mom would pack me for lunch because it always attracted so many questions and stares. Why couldn’t she just pack me a sandwich and carrots like all the other kids’ moms did? I grew up ashamed of the classical Indian singing and dancing I did on the weekends: none of the other kids sang in a language no one else could understand.
So, I turned to Indian culture because it felt like the only thing I had left. Indian movies had people that looked like me, they ate the same food I did, and they spoke like my parents. I was convinced I was misplaced, and if I could just get back to India, they’d have crayons for me there.
I was wrong.
Even in India, I was different. I dressed differently, I spoke differently, and people still treated me differently. They’d ask my grandma, “is this your American granddaughter?”, never just “granddaughter”. I was teased for the way I spoke because my Tamil was simply not as good after having to switch back and forth between Tamil and English for so many years. I was lighter than everyone else because of the time I’d spent being vitamin D deficient in the northeast, and it attracted more attention than I wanted. I was an Indian in America but an American in India. There was nowhere I truly belonged.
It wasn’t until college that I realized there was an entire generation of kids that felt exactly the way I did. And I was right. We weren’t immigrants. We were our own race, our own culture, our own ethnicity. We were Indian-American, Chinese-American, Latino-American, Russian-American. And we had our own struggles, but we grew richer because of them. I spent my whole life resenting the fact that I felt like I was living a double life when, in reality, my life was so much richer because of it. I got to experience the cultural richness, color, and excitement that comes with being Indian and learn about what it meant to be Chinese, or Russian, or Thai, or Mexican from everyone around me.
Now, a 24-year-old grad student in Boston, I have learned to embrace the cultural nuances that exist within me. I replicate the intricate home-cooked meals that my mother used to pack me for lunch in my instant pot because, let’s be honest, the Indian food selection in Boston leaves something to be desired. I stock up on as many Indian spices and groceries as I can while I am at home because I still haven’t quite found a store in Boston that meets my needs (but Shalimar, in Central, does the job when I need something simple). My mother was pleasantly surprised when I begged her to send my lehenga (1) to Boston so I’d be appropriately clothed for the annual garba (2) organized by the MIT undergraduates. I love dressing up in my decadent Indian attire but people showed up in everything from jeans to wedding worthy gowns, all colorfully twisting and turning to the rhythm of the music. I even managed to convince many of my new graduate school friends to join me and everyone had an absolute blast (and of course, stopped by the lab after…).
1. Lehenga is a long skirt worn by women in South Asia that is often elaborately embroidered with beads, shisha mirrors, or other ornaments.
2. Garba is a dance form originated in Gujarat, performed during Navratri – a 9-day festival to honor the Goddess Durga. The garba organized by MIT undergrad is called Milan and usually happens in mid October.
While my lunch still invites a horde of questions, I have learned that the spice of my life (and my food) is what makes me uniquely me. I have chosen to answer and educate rather than hide behind my differences. When people point and ask what I’m eating, I tell them that it’s palak paneer, and that palak means spinach — and let me tell you, the paneer took a lifetime to make this time but it came out so well!
Deep within my cultural heritage, I discovered a love for cooking in graduate school that I share with my friends and labmates. I wish I could tell the embarrassed young girl I was that she did not need to water down her culture to make it more palatable for the people around her. I wish I could tell the ostracized young girl that the more we attempt to assimilate our culture to avoid being uncomfortable, to avoid answering questions, to avoid being different, the less we actually assimilate. And I wish I could tell the lost girl who kept asking herself if she was Indian or American that she was neither: she was something different altogether but just as culturally rich, if not more so. She was an Indian-American, and no one could take that from her.