Ninety-eight pounds. That's what stared back at me. Ninety-eight pounds of skin and bones is what I had turned into...
…my identity as an Indo-American. How could I not be? I enjoy the freedom and liberty awarded to inhabitants of the USA, while simultaneously possessing a deep-rooted connection to my ancestry land, rich in culture, history, and long-standing traditions. This affiliation with two distinct, yet equally magnificent cultures has led to a plethora of unique experiences, and the formation of a dynamic global perspective. However, with this privilege comes an inherent challenge. The straddling of two separate worlds and their respective cultures, traditions, and social norms prevents perfect placement into either. The resulting displacement can considerably strain one’s self-identity and self-consciousness. Unfortunately, this topic remains in the dark, and far too many go through the journey alone, thinking their struggle is unique and unrelatable.
For me, it began in elementary school with feelings of alienation and displacement resulting from the social predation and judgment of my peers. My darker complexion, the food I ate, the accent of my parents, and my quiet demeanor immediately placed me in an out-group. The cultural norms passed down to me clashed with the status quo. Whereas I had learned a paradigm of humility, obedience, collectivist diplomacy and introversion, the present culture prized individualism, extroversion, and the vocalization of conflict and disagreement.
As the only Indian in my school, I was an easy target for bullies who sought to alleviate their insecurities. I grew up constantly attributing this treatment to inherent flaws within me and normalized the plight as experiences of the human condition. It took a parent-teacher conference to reveal I was a victim of racism. Even then what difference did it make? No teacher could instantly transform an entire culture to accept and embrace these differences genuinely. Nor could they fully change me. The South where I group up had little empathy or accommodation for divergence. The only viable option was to adapt.
By adjusting I found a temporary solution that helped me through the remainder of elementary, middle, and high school. However, the deeper underpinning issue continued to grow. In changing my personality to fit my current environment, I was letting go a significant portion of my identity and values. It wasn’t cool to be Indian. It was, however, cool to bash my culture and perpetuate ignorant media stereotypes for the comedic value and entertainment of my peers. Phrases like “you’re cool for an Indian” or the frequent comparisons to a coconut: “brown on the outside, white on the inside,” seemed harmless but silently contributed to considerable distress and confusion. My Indian heritage became a qualifier for all praise and criticism sent my way. I could not escape the expectations and preconceived notions that my Anglo-American peers and teachers associated with the Indian stereotype they knew to be true.
As I matured, I realized that most of the efforts in schools and the workplace to create a more inclusive environment could only create a superficial change, altering how people acted or spoke in public through conveying knowledge of politically incorrect and discriminatory actions and language. However, an authentic change in mindset takes time and the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies and stereotype threat remain subtle but very present.
I’ve seen numerous of my cousins and Indian friends remove themselves so far from any resemblance of Indian in order to cope with this added baggage. They pride themselves when mistakenly taken for another ethnicity. Being Indian became a cage that needed escaping from. On the other side, I’ve seen far too many Indian peers force the fit of medicine or engineering to please their relatives and to feel worthy in society with the false notion that such a career is the means of attaining success and happiness. Unfortunately for many Asian American millennials, the shackles of South Asian parental pressures and the constant comparisons of what they had to go through most often does more damage than good. What is intended to motivate ends up paving a destructive path that often significantly impairs one’s mental health and well being.
Entering college, I realized I had spent so much time mirroring my surroundings that I had a very poor sense of who I was at heart. What did I truly believe in? Who did I aspire to be? These were questions I was unable to answer. This newfound doubt placed considerable stress on me. It wasn’t until I was exposed to the open-minded, and inclusive environment of UT Austin that I realized what I had been missing. I found a community that I resonated with without having to change who I was. I started engaging in practices such as journaling, yoga, and meditation that allowed for deep introspection and self-discovery. The cumulative effect of taking action and engaging in self-care was the reestablishment of my self-identity and self-consciousness. I learned to embrace my differences rather hide them to fit a norm.
It’s not easy being different. I still struggle sometimes, and occasionally feel the urge to overcompensate for negatively associated stereotypes. But then I remind myself that this would be the biggest disservice. Our nation was founded and continues to succeed because of the amalgamation of unique cultures, ideas, values, and perspectives that an eclectic group of individuals brings to the table. It has led to incredible innovations otherwise unattainable to a homogenous population with a myopic way of life. We, therefore, must continually strive to be our true selves regardless of what others think or feel. This is the only way to obtain happiness. In the wise words of Tyrion Lannister “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
There is much to learn from both Western and Eastern culture, and it upsets me that we are far from an established harmony. A permanent change will take time, but know that you are not powerless on this front. Do not make the mistake of thwarting your growth by keeping your turmoil inside and changing who you are to fit a mold. Take pride in who you are and celebrate what makes you different. Don’t ignore the negative emotions or the difficulty you experience along the way. Acknowledge these feelings and work past them. Don’t forget to always communicate, practice self-care, compassion, and always know that you are enough just as you are.