They call us ABCD’s, American Born Confused Desis – an accurate acronym. We’re neither here nor there: too American to be fully Indian and too Indian to be fully American. Many of us struggle with our identities, not knowing which path to follow. Some choose to cast aside their heritage, their culture, as if it was never even a part of them. This choice is the greatest tragedy.
My parents immigrated to America in 1989 as students, to receive their respective master’s degrees. I was born in Plano, Texas on March 25, 1996. Eight months later, I said my first word, “Amma” which means mother in Telugu. Telugu is the official language of Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India, the state where both my parents were born. It is my mother tongue and my very first language. For the first three years of my life, I didn’t speak a word of English. Then, I started daycare and slowly, my knowledge of Telugu started to fade. Terrified that I would lose the ability to speak my mother tongue, my parents forced me to only speak in Telugu at home –a rule that still stands to this day. I was raised by my parents as a true Indian child, with the values and customs that go hand in hand with that upbringing, but I live in an increasingly American world.
My life is separated into two worlds: the world of home and the world outside. I didn’t make this distinction until about the time I went to middle school. It started with the little things. The first time I noticed the difference was when my friends commented on what I brought for lunch to school. Their tones were not cynical, nor teasing. They were just curious. That didn’t stop me from feeling self–conscious of the rotis and rice my mom packed for me every day. I started dumping my food from home in the trash and buying the cafeteria food. I never thought twice about how much it would pain my mother if she found out. I never thought about how much effort it took for her to wake up early every morning just to cook lunch for me, to make sure I had all the nutrition I needed. I just thought about how different my food was, and about how much I wanted to fit in.
Those were the little things, but they only gave way to bigger ones. I cast aside all my Indian clothing in favor of American ones, even at home. I wrinkled my nose at Indian food, and asked my parents for pasta or sandwiches instead. At one point, I almost decided to stop being a vegetarian, but realized that I could not bring myself to eat an animal after so many years of vegetarianism. I was, and still am, a devout Hindu, but I did my best to hide it in school. I stopped wearing the gold necklace my grandma gave me when I was born with the pendant of Ganesha: I grew tired of answering probing questions as to who he was, why I believed in him, if I was “Hindi,” or if I spoke “Indian.” I was exasperated, embarrassed, or flustered whenever anyone asked me these questions, so I tried to avoid them altogether. There were other second–generation Indians at my school, ones who had given up on our culture altogether. They couldn’t speak their mother tongue, nor had any desire to. They looked down upon all things Indian: our dances, music, and languages as if they were something filthy. In my middle school years, when I was still trying to figure out who I was, I tried to emulate them and only succeeded in making myself miserable. My parents had instilled in me too great a love for my culture to let it fade. They read me the fascinating stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata every night before I went sleep. They told me the legends of our gods, their magic, and their compassion. They took me to Carnatic music lessons twice a week for nearly ten years, until the melodious ragas and the harmonic sangeet were entrenched firmly in my mind. The Indian ways, values, and culture are such a part of me, that without them, I would become a shadow of myself.
It took me a long time to realize that I could not be true to myself if I did not embrace my heritage. I made this realization only when I went away to boarding school. I finally had the opportunity that I’d been waiting for, a choice that I had to make. I could choose to recreate myself and act completely American, like I wanted to do in middle school, or I could express my Indian side. Maybe it was because the community was more accepting, maybe it was because there were no other Indians around me, or maybe I had finally matured and understood what it meant to be Indian, but I chose the latter. I finally accepted myself, was finally true to myself. I wore my Ganesha necklace again and answered all the questions my friends asked me. Instead of shying away from their curiosity, I encouraged it. I wanted to share my love and my knowledge with anyone who was interested. Throughout high school, my parents brought me Indian food twice a week, and I introduced it to my friends. They loved it so much that every time my parents brought me food, they had to bring them some as well. I’m no longer embarrassed about my culture. I’m proud to be Indian.
This realization isn’t enough though. I will have to face many incongruous decisions in the future, ones that are difficult to fathom now. My parents, unlike most Americans, don’t have a romantic story of how they met. They spoke to each other for 30 minutes and were married a week later. They didn’t get know each other before marriage, only after. They didn’t know whether they would like each other; they trusted their parents to find someone for them. It may have worked for them, but that isn’t always the case. I cannot imagine marrying someone I’ve never met, and in this day and age, I know my parents wouldn’t ask me to. Yet, there are still so many questions I ask myself about the future. Will I marry a Telugu Brahmin, like they want me to? Will he be from India, or a second generation like me? Will I even end up marrying an Indian? If not, how would I ever be able to break that news to my parents? Then there is the issue of my kids. If they aren’t fully Indian, will I be able to teach them everything my parents taught me? There’s the possibility that they would know nothing about their culture, their background. The emphasis on education, what religion they’ll practice, and what language they’ll speak — will it all be lost? These are the questions I struggle with, and I know they won’t be answered until I am faced with those decisions.
Maybe someday the only trace of my Indian heritage will be left in the color of my skin. I want to hold on to my values on education, on culture, on religion, and on family, but I don’t know what decisions I’ll make in the future. I have to compromise and find a middle ground between my two worlds. I have to choose my battles, win some and lose some. No matter how much this American world changes me, I’ll always keep some part of my heritage with me. I’ll hold on to my language, my music, and my stories as firmly as I can. Hopefully, my beliefs won’t die with me and, above all, I hope I remain true to myself.