French fries or Dosas? Hollywood or Bollywood? America or India? These are questions I grew up hearing and navigating in ways that did not offend anyone around me.
Some people define the term ‘ABCD’ as American Born Confused Desi (Desi means native to India). This generally refers to the idea that people of Indian origin born in the US feel as though they belong neither in the US nor in India. I always thought that this term was comical and that I was not confused. Why would someone want just one culture when they could have two? I was always both Indian and American equally, and I figured out how to reconcile the values of both cultures very early on. However, the past 4 weeks have caused some confusion regarding my identity.
Growing up in America, I have always been proud of my Indian heritage. I love the colorful clothing and the bindis. I love dressing up and performing Bharatnatyam dances at school talent shows. I love eating Indian food (at least the kind my mom makes, free of all of my allergens). I love going to Indian functions, meeting my friends and family. I love my Indian culture. It has been a point of pride for me. Always.
On a similar note, whenever I came to India with my parents, I was proud to be American and a foreigner in India. Up until the start of high school, I spent almost every summer with my mom and sometimes my dad in my grandparents’ houses in Mangalore or Mumbai. I loved sharing my American culture in India too. I loved describing pizza (to those who were not yet familiar with the greatness that is pizza); I loved wearing my “American clothing” even if it drew attention to me. As someone who grew up embodying the Indian identity and the stereotypes that accompany that (I’m sure you can think of a few), the rare opportunities I had every summer to act the part of the American rather than the Indian allowed me the chance to embrace both sides of my identity, Indian-American.
When preparing to come to India this summer, I deceived myself in thinking it would be exactly the same. When I travel with my parents who grew up in India, I am the foreigner; I am the one who has an American accent so that my parents have to communicate with people in restaurants or stores. This summer, however, I step in to talk to rickshaw drivers to understand their accent (years of watching Hindi and Kannada movies and serials help me understand accented English). I call Dominos to order pizza because I can understand what they’re saying, and I can convey the message because my ears are trained to pick up words in an Indian accent. Suffice it to say that traveling with a group that is more foreign than me has made me think about my identity a lot and has been an interesting adjustment that I did not see coming.
Indians, like any group of people, are fascinated by people who look different than them. On our recent trip to Kodaikanal, my group was stopped so that Indian youngsters could take selfies with the foreigners (this is a frequent occurrence). I noticed that they never once asked me for a selfie and often did not include me in the ones that they took. Our first day in Madurai, we went to the mall; the lady at the counter of the clothing store spoke to my friends in her broken English; when I moved up to the counter, she looked relieved and spoke to me in Tamil. I had to awkwardly disappoint her, saying that I don’t know Tamil. I have been called a tour guide for my friends though we are in a city that is foreign to me just as it is foreign to my co-interns. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I am not one of the people that people in India want in their selfies. I look like them. I am not a foreigner but an insider.
A part of me wondered why I was bothered by this. Hadn’t I wondered what it would be like to fit in perfectly somewhere? Wasn’t it nice to have a group of people that considered me an insider despite the way I talked and my background growing up in America? Was I just being petty?
A lot of soul-searching led me to the answer. It was about the way that I had formed my own identity. I always considered myself as both an Indian and an American. I had gotten used to the fact that when I came to India, I was the American and when I was in America, I was the Indian. I had become comfortable with that. But here I was in India feeling like an Indian for the first time and surprisingly I was uncomfortable in that situation. I was frustrated that people in India weren’t recognizing a part of my identity that I had formed when I was very young.
None of this means that I feel ashamed to be Indian-American. I am still as proud as ever of my cultures. I have never been given an opportunity like this one to feel like I fit in. For example, when introducing myself at the Bollywood dance class we joined, I mentioned that I am a Bharatnatyam dancer. For once, I did not have to explain what Bharatnatyam was and felt relieved that the students in the class understood me even on such a small matter. Fitting in and being an insider definitely have many perks. However, as someone who has gotten comfortable with not fitting in, I am uncomfortable with fitting in. Who wants to fit in, anyway? Standing out is way more fun.
Growing up, I was never the classic definition of an ABCD; I was the ABCD – American Born Confident (at least in my identity) Desi. I don’t want to speak for an entire group of people, but Indians born in America are confident in who they are and the term ABCD (C being confused) is not accurate. I am sure that this experience is solidifying my confidence in my identity so I would not change it in any way. I am Indian and I am American – no one can tell me differently.