Growing up Indian-American helped me learn to stand up for myself

My first memory of being conscious of my race and identity was during a time it was very unexpected, and very unwelcome.

It happened in the fourth grade. Fourth grade is already terrible enough, with cliquey girls who judge  your for not wearing play makeup, and boys who only want to be your friend if you play soccer and run around with them. Being different, even at this young age, isn’t acceptable. I was already aware that I had limited options of who I could be in order to belong.

After recess one afternoon, I walked into the cafeteria with my Powerpuff Girls lunch box, ravenous and ready to eat the lunch packed by my mom. It was an Indian lunch — a spicy rice dish called biryani, one of my favorites. I sat next to my friend Andrew, who looked curiously at the lunch I brought, as I normally ate school lunches. He peered into my lunchbox with excitement, and maybe with the hope that I had a fruit roll-up to share. I opened up my lunchbox and commenced eating hastily as I needed to get back to the classroom to set up a project I needed to present.

Andrew’s face changed from one of curiosity to one of repulsion as he watched me eat. His nose scrunched up and he asked me to move away from him — he said the food I was eating hurt his nose. Though Andrew hadn’t actually said anything offensive to me about my race, it still hurt. He indicated that my Indian food was strange, and his observation unsettled me for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. My parents always told me that I should always be proud of my Indian heritage and culture, but in that moment I wasn’t. I felt isolated from my friend because of my background. I moved away from him, and felt dazed by the experience.

It wasn’t until this interaction that it had really occurred to me that I was different. I became more observant of myself, how I spoke, and how I looked, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I belonged at school, amongst all of my classmates and friends. Sometimes I would easily forget about the differences I noticed between myself and others when I was playing soccer or solving a math problem on the board. I excelled at school and it felt great to be accepted and rewarded for being studious. Those positive feelings would be replaced by confusion and angst on the bus ride home when kids asked me why Indian people wore dots on their foreheads, and if I had to wear one when I got married. My name was mispronounced often and altered beyond recognition at times, highlighting how distinct my name was from a name like Katie or Ben. No matter how I tried to escape my feelings, the idea of never belonging just kept plaguing me. It became unbearable at times.

Growing up in the United States as an Indian-American left me feeling vulnerable about who I was and who I would become for many years. I ran into situations in the Indian community where I was told that I wasn’t Indian enough, because I didn’t wear ethnic clothing like the other kids of the community at an Indian event. I was also told that I wasn’t American enough by the same people when I preferred dosa and idlis for breakfast over eggs or waffles. Living with constant exposure to this dichotic environment made it difficult for me to identify with one culture over the other — I constantly felt that I needed to choose one, and only one. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that becoming my own person meant that I could pick and choose which traits, habits, and traditions in a culture I wanted to absorb. Essentially, I realized I could create my own culture.

The early days of college brought in an influx of students with highly diverse backgrounds, and the air was electric with new friendships and acquaintances. The first week of college, I met a girl who was born in China who grew up in the United States for the majority of her life (very similar to my upbringing). She had what appeared to me to be the perfect Chinese to American ratio in her personality. I couldn’t help but be skeptical of her confidence, though at the same time, I was envious. She was clearly proud of her background, but she carried it around with so much ease, and it was never a burden to her. I wanted that ease in my walk. After much needed introspection, I soon began to shed my need to identify with one culture, and became less self-conscious of my race. College gave me a sense of belonging, and taught me that who I became as a person was in how kind I was, how motivated I was, and how helpful I was to others. I am still learning to see the good and bad in both cultures I grew up with, and I am continuously learning to purge the bad I observe.

This process wasn’t easy to jump into — I had to learn to fight for I believed in, even if it went against what was expected of me. I spent a lot of time thinking about what was right for me, and trying to block out what other people told me to do. In fact, I fought to move out of my house after I graduated from college despite being told that good Indian girls live with their families till they got married. I disagreed. The benefits of living on my own outweighed the duty-ridden, antiquated cultural ‘rule’ that I could never accept.

I’m finally becoming comfortable in my own skin. I’ve learned that it is perfectly okay to not fit into a certain crowd. What I should strive for at the end of the day isn’t what allows others to accept me but what I find acceptable for myself. Occasionally, I become unsettled by the same feelings I used to have in elementary school…what if I don’t belong? What if they don’t like me for who I am? I have to hit pause in my mind and tell myself that it doesn’t really matter. Those aren’t the right questions to be asking because pursuing the answers to those questions had only brought me unhappiness and frustration. The only question I ask myself these days is this: Am I happy living this way, and am I happy being me? The answer is almost always yes.

Madhuri Popuri is lady of the sciences, she came from a background of Biochemistry and took a special interest in writing. Her writings involve her daily musings and personal experiences. Her goal is to write engaging and positive pieces to foster and promote well-being all around. 

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