ABPD Diaries: In Full Bloom

Whenever someone asks me “What are you?”, I once hesitated to answer… pretending to be unaware of the underlying question they’re asking (What ethnicity are you?), I typically would reply with the truth: I’m American. This usually elicits a , “No, but what really ARE you?”  After making the asker think twice about the irony of this exchange, I’ll give a more nuanced explanation, “I was born in Washington, but my parents are South Indian”. Then I’ll get the confirmatory nod of approval.

No doubt, most every person of color in this country has experienced a similar exchange at some point in their life, whether it’s their taxi driver making small talk or a slightly ignorant new acquaintance.

Having spent most of my life in an rural, developing region, my cultural identity has not always been something I’ve had to defend. Growing up, though I was the only brown girl in a class of brunette & blonde ballerinas, I think back and reflect about how I never really felt my Indian identity inhibited me from being a full-on “American”. My parents sent me to swimming and kung-fu practices while also sending me to Bharatnatyam classes on the weekends and playing 90’s Mollywood/Bollywood songs on long car rides.

As I’ve gotten older and encountered more individuals and perspectives in the melting pot of America, I’ve found that what really identifies me is not just whether I am solely American or Indian but the intersection of both of my cultural identities; that I check two different boxes on my Visa application when asked for nationality and race, or that I appreciate music by Beyonce, Shreya Goshal, KS Chitra, or Vidya Vox.

Multiple cultural identities have reinforced my relationship with my American and Indian cultures. For many people, growing up surrounded by American culture has, in fact, strengthened their Indian roots by challenging them to rely on their heritage to help define themselves. Since most of our parents didn’t pass through Ellis Island, we look to our other identities to answer questions about our culture, history, and lifestyle.

Most importantly, the intersection of multiple cultures has endowed me with a platform to relate better with people of both of my cultures especially through dance and music, two art forms with a universal language and appeal. Studying Ballet and Bharatnatyam together at a young age helped me become better at each. Now, when I dance or choreograph, I always draw upon elements of each respectively to create something new. Musically, we’ve witnessed the immense popularity of innovative remixes between South Asian music and all styles of English music. This has opened up a whole new genre drawing in elements from two very distinct cultural backgrounds and appealing to both.

Instead of choosing one identity versus the other when it’s under fire, many of us who were born in the US with the benefit of a second identity have felt an urge to express the unique relationship we have with both – an identity of its own – through art. 

In looking at various competitive Classical, Bhangra, and Bollywood circuits in the US – thousands of dancers, musicians and performers have created a massive platform to express this unique identity. Why? Probably because we live in a country still trying to ascertain its ever-evolving identity. It would be inaccurate for us to identify with only one culture, so we formed a way to express our dual one.

At the same time, each individual’s experience with their various identities can differ. Take a look at some famous Indian Americans on TV today: Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, and Mindy Kaling. In interviews and some of their semi-autobiographical works, they address the issues of their own respective identities in very different ways.

Hasan Minhaj tackles the question head on in his most recent stand-up special, Homecoming King. He explicitly identifies the experiences that molded him into a Hindi-speaking Muslim growing up in Davis, California. Aziz Ansari, for example, addresses Indian American tropes on TV in his show, Master of None and features his own parents quite prominently in many episodes. On the other hand, there are episodes where you could replace Aziz Ansari with any white actor (perhaps one of the Chrises of recent infamy in Hollywood) and not notice a difference. But as the second generation of Indian Americans grows, it’s really Aziz’s character Dev who is a truer and more relatable reflection of my own experience.

Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, has come under fire for coming off as a “coconut – brown on the outside, white on the inside” on her show, the Mindy Project. I take pause with this criticism. If her own experience with her dual cultures was just the color of her skin and maybe the fact that once in a while, she put on a sari and went to the temple, then so be it!

An advantage of having a hyphenated identity is that there’s no right answer to where one should fall on the spectrum between the two. Just as identity is fluid, having multiple cultural identities is a balancing act. And though by no means is anyone responsible for promulgating this conflation, we do sit at a unique nexus, able to liaise between both of our identities with ease. The common theme among Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling is that they each own their dual identities instead of hiding behind a façade of either being fully American or fully Indian.

With music videos like “Lean On” by Major Lazer and “Hymn for the Weekend” by Coldplay and Beyonce, there has been considerable discussion around the appropriation vs. appreciation of different cultures. While I do think it’s important for artists to be considerate and not offend or demean other cultures, accusing artists of appropriation for simply featuring a form of dance or setting a music video in a different country will only serve to inhibit creativity.

At the same time, it’s ironic that wearing bindis to Coachella has become the norm amongst female concertgoers while it remains an aspect of the Hindu culture that many Indian-Americans were often made fun of (I recall way too many experiences with this). This conversation around finding a line between appropriation and appreciation plagues not only the Indian American culture but Asians, African Americans and Native Americans as well to name a few.

A better approach to this issue would be to open up a dialogue from somewhere in the middle. The most effective voices in the conversation won’t be the shouts from either end of the spectrum, but a more hybrid perspective from those who can relate to both aspects.

We should try and be centered around the belief that our identity is fluid, constantly challenged and redefined, but unified through art– no matter one’s career, interests, heritage, background or religion. Instead of comparing ourselves to one another searching for the right way for us to express our multifaceted identities, we should come together to create new and thought-provoking art that expresses our collective identity.





How my Productivity Became my Identity

Whenever I am not doing something or occupying myself with an event or networking with professionals – I honestly don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am when I am not productively doing something.

Some may or may not relate, but to bare all and be truthful to myself and to you, I don’t have much of a real identity or a word that can personify my personality. Now you may be thinking, “what is she talking about? She does a multitude of things! An all-rounder!” but am I?

I am simply a hard-worker like my father, and as I get older and evolve alongside the world and it’s diverse group of people, I realize that whomever the higher creator is took this hard-worker personality and copy-pasted it onto me.

Though, I must say, in being the first-born child to two first generation immigrants – I carry a personality of grit which is something I guess I developed myself. In developing this personality, I felt it was my duty to make sure not only to impress my parents but my peers around me and thus; I started to become distinguished in my passion for dance, respected by my peers in terms of my work which almost always leads to people saying that I am over-qualified for the task assigned because of how I carry myself.

This isn’t at all a bad thing. I am simply a workaholic. I need constantly to work on something to keep my mind and body occupied. Every second of my schedule should be packed with tasks and mark checks all over the metaphorical and literal to-do lists.

I did say my father and I share this “workaholism”, but we are different in the sense, however, that my workaholism is there for a different and perhaps, even more sinister reason. My productivity is my identity. If I am not working, I am just a hollow shell that doesn’t have much of a purpose. Ever since I was in grade school, I always felt (and was told), that success was quantifiable. The number of extracurriculars I took part of, the amount of stages I performed upon and subsequently, the number of awards and certificates I procured displayed my worthiness. Each grade I got defined my intelligence and my ability to be successful. While other kids were carefree and could not care less about the award of extra gold sticker they got, I would be home almost heartbroken that I didn’t get that extra star than the other. While other kids were having fun, my mind would be burdened with how to work harder to get the extra gold star and the best grades the next year.

Slowly, because of that, my depression worsened. To try and make it go away, I would fill my schedule to the absolute brim – that way, I could, theoretically be better than everyone else… a habit I still try to do to this day….

But that just let me tired, still feeling inadequate and even more depressed. It was a subconscious vicious cycle that I could never really break free of. I would spend evenings upon evenings feeling worthless and every time my mom would bring up so-and-so’s kid’s success (obviously not to compare me to the kid but just sharing as daily news), a fire would singe in my chest telling me to continue to work otherwise I would never be worthy.

This is why I have tied my own worth and dignity to the ability to be productive. It is very unhealthy and painful but this is how I am wired. Like most parents of Asian descent, my parents would tell me, “you can be anything you want to be as long as you work hard and be the best at it.” Even though this was said with the intention to be encouraging, it almost reinforced the purpose of the vicious cycle of productivity feeding it more of a reason to exist.

I may be called the “jack of all trades” and “all-rounder” in terms of my work, and even though I work harder than most people I know – I am still never going to be close to being the smartest or most competent person in the room… and that is perfectly ok.

The struggle of working hard and never feeling adequate stems from insecurities that have never secured themselves into positivity, but have only been engraved into negativity. Every day I look at myself in the mirror and question my worth as a young adult. I realize that the more I care about my productivity, the angrier I will be. But for that day, I swallow my anger at my lack of quantifiable accomplishments and continue to participate in my stubborn, subconscious cycle of productivity. I just hope that one day I will gain the wisdom and mental strength to break free.


The Dying Indian Film Industry

Perhaps this post has a slight bias due to my personal investment in the Malayalam industry, but because of my bias; I can use it to my advantage. In no way am I a divulged expert on the industry(s) – Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood, etc. but in doing my thesis; I’ve discovered a few discrepancies which I shall divulge about in later posts.

Being a first generation Indian born in America to first generation immigrant parents; I grew up watching Malayalam cinemas. Mohanlal, Mammootty, Suresh Gopi, Dileep, Jayram, were my film idols before ever watching or hearing about names such Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise.  Even though the films were/are 2 hours long (sometime longer), I personally never felt that it was too long because the stories were carried out beautifully and the actors/actresses did their part to move the plot forward.

Right now, present day… I can’t say the same. The video quality may have improved (as it should), but the same cannot be said for the storylines presented before us and the characters who attempt to portray them along with how the media decides to spin stories.

In being “behind the scenes” for a couple projects; I know teamwork is a must for a film to go forward – but also a plan that is meticulous to the finest details. I’ve noticed that most Malayalam short films attempt to carry this desire of being a full-fledged film but only come half way with their production quality; thus bringing the question whether conducting short-films are even worth it?

Well, the answer to that question in this present time is yes, for our attention span to watch a full 2 hour movie with a weak story line (or what we Malayalaees like to call “pynkili katha”/time-pass), and actors/actresses whose faces and names we hardly remember makes short-films appealing, yet if not properly done (which most are), then they too are killing the once gregarious industry of cinema. That being said however, short films are a way to get many aspiring creative talents together to produce a dream aspiration albeit through direction, acting, singing, etc. It’s the opportunity for individuals to dip their toes in charted (and uncharted) waters.

In recent observations via the various media outlets particular within the Malayalam industry; I’ve noticed the “ethics” of journalism and production of cinema has waned. I’ve been having far too many conversations with folks asking me what I feel of the present “scandals” that are flying about to which I will not divulge further because it’s not my place to – and neither is it yours.

The quality of journalism today is nothing of what it was during the last third of the 20th century. Yes, news organizations back then earned profits and the best of the networks poured enormous amounts of money into finding, developing and sending into the field thousands of qualified journalists to report the news but unfortunately that image and quality has made almost a 360-degree turn as of late and I don’t blame the journalists — but I do query as to why the butcher to quality and ethics….

Because I am active journalist; I believe in relaying the hard, factual truth no matter how gritty it may sound. I recall reading and listening to the news in India praising them for their boldness to report on those daunting stories that some readers/writers in America wouldn’t dare to touch yet now – it has become a mockery. They are reporting with a style similar to Hollywood’s TMZ where they are seeking for news that isn’t there… for months at end…

The South Indian film industry was relatively clean when it came to scandals (though of course they are aplenty) but rather, the news outlets would report and talk about the film, directors, the storyline, actors etc. If I look to the news outlets now; it seems to only shed a negative light on the industry with theatres closing down, the black money corruption and actor scandals and divorces. I understand that some of the news is necessary to convey such as theatres closing down and the corruption of the industry but to pursue actor(s) and actress(s) and procreating stories without fact and legitimate evidence is wrong.

Oh, and to return to the point about having less than memorable characters – quit casting people with half the talent and can make a name for themselves rather than relinquish their morals and pay their way into the industry. It’s as simple as that.

Change is needed for this industry to thrive again. I want to feel that excitement I once had when I film was about to release. I want to be able to appreciate the film, the songs, the director and the team – but until the industry repair’s its internal organs, the outer appearance will continue to disintegrate