What I am
Born in Hyderabad and raised in central New Jersey, I never questioned my Indian or South Asian identity. The advantage of living in a South Asian cultural enclave is that you don’t necessarily feel the need to shred aspects of your culture to fit in.
I grew up with my mom always wearing kurtis or chudidhars and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her step foot out of the house without a botu or sindhoor on. I never questioned her confidence—something she wore nonchalantly. Seeing her own herself in such a way paved the path for me to wear my skin and culture with a pride alike. She gave me the confidence to unapologetically be myself.
I wouldn’t define my upbringing in the states as a fusion, rather a coexistence of two different cultures. I’m Indian American. Everything that I am stems from the fact that I’m Indian, and embracing that fact in this country, is exactly what makes me American.
It took me a while to acknowledge my American identity. I couldn’t find myself within the dichotomy of American race discussions. Brown didn’t seem to exist. There’s no structure or “right way to be” brown in America, so I latched on to the part of me that felt more concrete: my Indian identity.
Yet, often, when I tell people my family and I moved to the United States when I was ten months old, it’s received with an “oh, so you’re basically American.” I don’t know even what that means…to be “basically American.” It frustrates me—having people constantly dismiss my “Indian-ness” while still holding me to every expectation or stereotype that comes with a coat like mine.
This rejection comes from people in India as well. By ridiculing my curiosities with a “you’re American, you wouldn’t understand,” they erase a part of my existence.
On the other hand, my brown skin also makes me a perpetual foreigner and subjects me to exoticization and ethnicity confusion.
While some use the color of my skin as a marker of my “compartment,” others use just my residence. Very few consider my experience growing up Indian in America as a valid American experience.
My American life is grounded by my speaking Telugu at home, having the very Asian, South Asian values to do with family, respect, and education instilled within me, and listening to my mom narrate the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other Indian folktales as bed time stories, while still reading the classic “American” children’s books. It’s peppered with excuses to wear traditional, fancy South Asian clothes, grocery runs to Patel Brothers, Thanksgivings with mutton biryani and tutti frutti ice cream, coming together to celebrate July 4th with a barbeque, and pledging allegiance to the American flag.
At the end of the day, my “American-ness” is rooted in my “Indian-ness.” Both exist, and neither should be dismissed.