Growing up in Sammamish, WA in a predominately white town, there were many times in which I had to reshape and redefine my identity as I went along my life. In school, the majority of my friends were white, I listened to American Top 40, and I ate your classic American food from the school cafeteria – fries, fake cheese, etc. But when I came home – it was like I turned on the brown switch. I was surrounded by Indian family friends, B4U top Bollywood hits was constantly playing on our fat ass TV, and my dinner routine consisted of eating rice, Dahl and some sort of vegetable (strictly vegetarian and with my right hand). The person I was at school was completely different from the person I was at home.
As I got older and more cognizant of my pathetic social standing I became more aware that these two parts of me, my Indian identity and my American identity, could not coexist. My Indian self could not comfortably exist at school. One time in the 7th grade I went to school with beautiful henna tattoos on my hands. I naively expected the students in my class to gawk at how SICK my temp tattoo was. The only comment I received was from the cute white dude in my class: “Shar-da did you stick your hand in a waffle maker!?”. OK. First of all, what the fuck. I’m more of a pancake girl. Second of all, my henna tattoo was beautiful, took two hours of me sitting on a stool that made my ass hurt like hell, and it was done with so much attention to detail. After this, I knew I didn’t want to share my Indian identity with anyone at school every again. I had my Indian friends from the South Asian community, and I had my school friends. They would never be at the same place at the same time. As a matter of fact, I segregated them so much that each year I would have two birthday parties – one for my school friends and one for my Indian friends.
I thought I could make myself fit in more at school by being more “Americanized”. I started listening to more American music at home, rejecting the free and healthy home cooked food I would get for pathetic, floppy subway sandwiches (still better than Quiznos), and even started eating more meat (?!). I was able to find that meat balance where I only picked up eating chicken, and not beef (I didn’t want to be that much of a disgrace to my family). I was trying to assimilate to the American culture at school, and at the same time was rejecting the Indian culture at home. I was constantly trying to be someone else, and that was exhausting. Most of my South Asian friends know the story of having to date someone behind your parent’s back, or secretly chuckling under your breath when your white friends say that they have never been spanked in their lives (hangers, belts, brooms = TRIGGERED). Home is somewhere you’re allowed to feel like yourself, but I didn’t even know who I was.
By the time college came around, I was so lucky to be able to get out of my hometown and go somewhere new. In my case, I went to college at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. By my freshman year, I was surrounded by so many people who had faced a similar identity crisis. At first, I thought that joining the South Asian American organization at school or joining an Indian dance team would solve all of my identity problems. But after the first meeting I knew it was not something for me. I had to learn that finding your identity really isn’t as easy as joining a group of people who share the same ethnicity as you, it’s about discovering who you really are and curating your own community for yourself. From my freshman year, to my senior year, I surrounded myself with people who helped me learn about who I really am. I joined a wonderful organization called Women and Youth Supporting Each Other. It taught me how passionate I am about educating girls about how much potential they have to change the world. I took classes about race, class, and sexuality and learned about how privileged I am, and about how much more I have to fight for as an Indian woman. I took a feminist class, and learned about how I can be a better feminist. I took an improv class and learned that I am actually kind of funny. And I made amazing lifelong friends that taught me what it means to love, laugh, cry, feel, and be dumb.
I wrote a lot here, but my point is, discovering your identity is an endless journey that most everyone, especially children of immigrant parents have to go through. I am still trying to figure out my identity – whether it’s questioning parts of my Indian culture that I don’t agree with, challenging my religion and discovering new sorts of food, there is so much more I have to learn about myself.
And I know I’m not the only one.
So many of my peers go through a similar journey and I want to share it here. Whether you’re discoing your identity through cooking, dancing, writing, art, entrepreneurship – I am creating Mother Tongue as a platform where we can define our identities together. Use this space to connect with others, showcase something you’re really proud of, question and debate. Hopefully using Mother Tongue we can help each other figure out what makes us who we are.