The Juxtaposition of Indian-American Culture

The issues I will talk about are both temporal (generational, tradition vs. modernity) and spatial (geography, environment). First & Second Generation Indian-Americans are Indian and American, trying to balance one foot in each world.

The world “bi-cultural” has been thrown around to describe this group, which is accurate, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Indian and American cultures do not come together neatly in every way, and even as someone that confronts both Indian and American culture in everyday life, I find that I, more or less subconsciously, try to compartmentalize those two parts of my identity rather than integrate them.

There are ways in which Indians tend to assimilate easily (professionally, linguistically) and less easily (politically, religiously).

Many Indian-Americans I know resolve this problem by separating the private sphere, where they can be “Indian” (through religion, social life, culture) and the public sphere, where they are “American” (business, politics, different aspects of culture). Have I been called a “brown girl”? Certainly, but most of my white acquaintances know very little about me as an Indian, aside from the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes – and that’s fine. They shouldn’t have to care about my being Indian all the time. That said, the question I often ponder is whether one can ever really know me without knowing the Indian half of my identity.

So here’s a little about me: I’m a proud Keralite (a Malayalee to be exact) who loves her red fish curry. I don’t watch Bollywood movies. I don’t care for cricket (even though I played for a bit). But then again, I don’t really care for most sports. I don’t plan to become a doctor or an engineer and I’m having a bit of a crisis about what I should do to meet my parents’ expectations regarding income and education and save face in their community. I love Indian clothes and opportunities to dress up. I’m a classically trained dancer (bharathanatyam), but I’m one of the few that I know who likes to blend the traditional with the contemporary modern day aspects of dance.

And this is only my case, just one person out of hundreds of thousands of Indian-Americans. And it’s not even all of me. I don’t think I fit all that easily into models of what Americans conceptualize as “Indian” or what Indians conceptualize as “American”. I’m simply me.

As a woman, Indian-American identity can be even more difficult to negotiate because we are often expected to be protectors and defenders of Indian culture – traditional, religious, modest, even submissive. I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively progressive family and community. I rarely encounter outright sexism, but I still experience it subtly on both “American” and “Indian” fronts. Women are treated as nurturers, caretakers, and are responsible for housework and children in additional to working part or full-time. (This is true in the United States as well, but the attitude is far stronger among first-generation immigrants from India.)

First/Second-generation girls and women experience the cultural battle more potently than anyone because they’ve been raised in a public sphere that has experienced Second-Wave feminism and are simultaneously raised in a private sphere where they are expected to embody traditional Indian femininity.

Many Indian women are not independent. They are extensions of their husbands – or at least that’s the mask they wear in public even if they wear the pants in private. As an American that values feminism and individualism, this sits very uncomfortably with me.

American individualism and Indian communitarianism (terms used broadly and loosely here), come into conflict in other ways as well. There’s a pressure that Indian-American children face in school and in the high expectations that extend to career choices, which more or less come down to doctor, engineer, lawyer or businessperson. Aside from their professional lives, many Indian-Americans face additional pressure in their personal lives as well. No dating. No premarital sex. I’m sure that some of the more conservative groups still practice arranged marriage. (My parents joke about that frighteningly too often.)

It’s no secret that Indians value wealth, education, and religion – perhaps to an unhealthy degree at times, and those are the qualities they (or their parents) often seek in potential spouses. And sometimes, when you want to make an independent choice, you get written off as a child that doesn’t know better, or an ABCD (thus the creation of the term ‘ABPD‘).

While in most cases parents aren’t as dominant or heavy-handed as you see in the movies, there’s still this wormy, constraining expectation that’s almost as bad. You rarely fear that your parents will hate you or disown you for choosing your own path professionally or personally. Instead, you worry that you will upset them, disappoint them, that you will lose face in the community, that your parents will be ashamed of you when their friends talk about how their kids are going to Harvard Medical School while you’re earning a fine arts degree in a prestigious program that no Indian has ever heard of.

Sometimes you feel like you lack opportunities to develop your own hobbies, interests, and passions because you’re so convinced on a fundamental level that what your parents want is what you want. I fought with myself quite a bit about deciding to pursue a pair of communications and non-profit degrees, (and I consider myself to be one of the more independent Indians I know) but some Indian-Americans lead lives of delusion, having convinced themselves that they really, truly want to be doctors or engineers when it’s plain as day to anyone else that they don’t. It may seem simple for a lot of Americans to say “Just follow your dreams!” or “It’s your life!” but it’s not that simple for me.

Of course, the pressure isn’t entirely one-sided. In the United States there is a historical culture of assimilation (melting pot?) and “Welcome to America” has usually carried the unmentioned connotation of “Leave your cultural baggage at the door!” In order to fit in, to be treated as “normal” and as a cultural peer and equal, I have to “act white” in public, and when I don’t act white enough, I get called out for it.

So basically, as an Indian-American, you have all kinds of balls in the air: race, religion, class/caste (which I didn’t discuss), gender, nationality, career. And you have to juggle them. Sometimes you let a ball drop because you can’t put the rest of your life, your dreams, your passions on hold to keep it up in the air. You feel terrible about it. You feel like you’ve let down your parents, your community, your nationality. It distracts you from the other balls, but you have to keep going and try desperately to keep the rest of the balls in the air. Most often, in time, you find a balance. You learn to get the hang of it, even if it means performing Indian-ness or American-ness at times.

For me, an important subtlety is the felt experience of just how fluid, impermanent and even illusory the notion of “identity” can be, being able to gradually recognize both American and Indian cultural conditioning as constructs, and not as fixed traits.


I don’t mean to downplay the influence that both cultures have had on me — on the contrary, a lot of what I think of as “me” has been constructed and conditioned by these cultures. From the very language I’m using here, to the way I speak, the way I think, the way I feel — the hallmarks are everywhere. But over time this “me” has become more transparent; there’s less of a need to prop it up over “not me”. There’s an expanding sense that whatever “I” am, it can’t be that which is limited by concepts or percepts, even though concepts and percepts can provide helpful guideposts.

The question “Who am I?” can be a compelling one on so many levels for Indians who grow up in the U.S. Whether we approach it mystically or secularly, it influences our lives in profound ways.

As an Indian who was raised in India and currently spends a good portion of time in the U.S. and India, I have come to the following observations:

  • Indians in the U.S. follow the Indian cultural traditions and religious aspects (regardless of religion) more than most Indians do in urban India. (I don’t know about rural India, so I cannot speak to that.)
  • Indians in the U.S. cling to the image of what it was like when they left India and are thus frozen in time. India has changed in the meantime and they seem quite oblivious to this fact.
  • Indians in America are more Indian than the Indians in India and likewise, the Indians in urban India are more American than the Indians in America.

To the credit of Indian-Americans, a plausible explanation of why they follow their cultural traditions more rigorously may be that they feel as though if they don’t celebrate the holidays (say Diwali or Onam) the way they do, their children will never know of them. Whereas in India, even if you don’t celebrate a holiday, you are most certainly aware of it because everyone around you is doing it.

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Life After Being In the Limelight

Writing this post has been a struggle. I felt as if I completed the final piece, it would dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” making what my life is at this present moment set in stone.

I had been fortunate enough to have had a platform, primarily in the Malayalee community. I was the dancer, the humanitarian long before anyone else in our community really knew what the word meant, the youngest dance choreographer/business owner of the arts in our local community, an RJ, an aspiring American-Born Indian actress… … I shattered the beauty stereotype when I claimed a few pageant titles and well, I became a voice of the voiceless through this online platform.

I thrived being in the limelight. It was a blanket around my petite frame and it gave me a platform to explore various passions of mine. I was excited about everything I was doing and worked hard to keep it afloat. To be transparent about it all, being recognized and commended felt amazing, but in actuality, it was the work I was producing that kept me going.

However, no one ever really thinks about what happens after all of the attention ends…

It’s easy to be lured in by all of the opportunities flying at you and I did it alone. I would sit in my room, experiencing the feeling of dread of how many randoms messages I would have to look at… or lack thereof…

It’s easier to know who you are when you’re existing as a mildly famous, incredibly vilified figure for that moment, instead of a real person. When people are slinging insults at you it’s easier to distinguish “this is not me” and “this is kind of like me,” and by process of elimination you think you’ve figured yourself out…

As I constantly defended myself and was asked questions about my life, I felt like I had some idea of who I was at the time…

When the messages begin to taper off, and the likes on the photos and posts as well, it gets kind of depressing in a shallow 21st century way, as that’s unfortunately a main form of validation of a millennial.

My window for fame-mongering is over, so I’m not about to force it back open by doing something crazy because I’m sadly inches away from being a real person.

As of now, my “limelight” status has diminished to a candle flickering at the end of it’s wick.  Yes, I carry an aura of confidence when I walk into a room, yes, I carry this “presence,” but at the end of the day – I am a simple human being and that’s ok.


To come to this realization of my present “outwardly” status was difficult, but comforting for I have something new to work for and that is to be successful for me…

Success happens when you quit living your life to please everyone around you. Success happens when you quit listening to the noise of the world and focus on what’s important to you. Success happens when you quit thinking reality is anything but what you want it to be. I have started to quit viewing the world with the preconceived notions taught growing up.  I quit being worried about all the superficial layers of my life and started living.

Having been in the limelight – it’s not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your mind focused the light at the end of the tunnel and doing your best to keep it lit.  It’s about laying the groundwork for success, and then standing back and letting the brass shine.

 

 

 

“It’s Not Going to Be Easy” – A Call to Action for Representation in the Arts

I promise the title is not clickbait (nor is the picture 😉 )  If anything, it’s a legitimate call to action.

I write this piece as the ‘American Born Proud Desi’ (ABPD), and it has grown to become more than simply a platform for voicing out for those who feel voiceless. It’s about making a change, and in order to do so, we as the “brown people” of our community must understand the disadvantages we carry in terms of representation.

Sure, we are somewhat politically represented and whatnot (what a bang-up job they’re doing, right?), but I’m going to talk about representation where it really matters – in the arts.

We can sit here all day and argue about what shapes our lives mores, and from what I observe while living here in the United States is we are a celebrity-oriented culture. We are fed images of these handsome and glamorous stars since birth. If you want to understand the power of a “celebrity,” look no farther than the highest office in the land…

What you see very much influences how you feel about yourself. It’s equally important that what you don’t see does the same.

While the lot of us are busy becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers, the ability to shape our own narrative was taken out from under us. The single-minded pursuit of security has left us forgotten as a culture; we’re still very much a stereotype, locked out of certain pursuits.

And, while we are witnessing a “revolution” of sorts right now in terms of representation (Hasan Minhaj, Priyanka Chopra, Kamal Nanjiani, etc.), keep in mind something I hint at often when it comes to our upcoming as a “brown community,” – we are allowed one at a time. We are still, for the most part, a side role, if we are even thought of; and even then, I can pretty much guarantee the role would prefer a “quiet, shy, smart, light-skinned ethnic actor/actress with overprotective parents.”

And that’s just the TV/film industry.

It’s difficult to blame anyone but ourselves for this. I’ve worked in a variety of roles and one thing I’ve often noticed when it comes to the arts/entertainment/public communications sector is that I am oftentimes the only brown face in the building…


To be an artist today is to confront continual uncertainty. There is economic uncertainty, and also uncertainty of purpose. Modern society seems to value art — art is preserved in museums, and purchased for large sums by “collectors,” and yet the normal artist is strangely disconnected from the top levels of success. There is far more wealth in the world today to purchase art than in any time past. The difficult position of artist today is therefore something of a mystery, so if there is a general appreciation of art, and money to buy art, then why is it so difficult to fulfill the role of artist?

Compare this with other professions. A competent pilot, trained at a good flight school, is more or less assured of a successful career. He or she might not get the opportunity to fly the biggest and newest commercial planes, or fancy jet fighters; but a stable career is a reasonable expectation, certainly compared to what an artist can hope for.

Now take this idea of becoming an “artist” and have a minority pursuing the field. We’ll use myself as an example: I chose to “break free” of the path of becoming a doctor and instead, decided to pursue my passions. In choosing to being an artist, I was outcasted for a while and didn’t get all the “luxuries in life.” There were times where I created masterpieces of creativity that mostly went unrecognized… There was no doubt about it that I struggled immensely, but I figured it was all part of the field – only to see in some circumstances that it wasn’t…

I believe once you know your weakness, you can work on fixing it. What I have loosely outlined here is where we are undoubtedly weak…

I see everybody as an artist. Art is all about creation; being creative, having ideas and this applies to all aspect of life. As an individual, it is best to do what you have passion for and focus on your talent, that way living or surviving won’t be hard but as easy as breathing.

A true artist believes in passion and talent. The work we create brings joy, happiness, a lovely, great feeling that can’t be expressed in words but various ways and living can just be easy for an artist if he/she believes in themselves and their artwork and not what the world thinks. Be different, confident in yourselves and artwork, be patient and love what you do and everything will come naturally.

*Please support the brown artists you know, in any medium. And not just when they are sparingly co-signed by the mainstream, because it’s less of a risk for you. These beautiful, brown artists are on the front lines every day and may be your only hope at being remembered.*

First Female Superstar No More

I literally was in a state of shock to hear the news. I have no personal connections to this Goddess of a being, but to learn of her passing tugged a string at my heart.

Sridevi Kapoor, 54,  was a woman I idolized for years. She was the reason I fell in love with cinema with her expressive eyes gracing the screens transfixing me to the art since I was a child. From  Julie, to 16 Vaiyathinile, Nagina, and English Vinglish (just to name a few), she has captured the audience of India (and world), with her ethereal presence.

She was and forever will be the finest actress of time.

As time passes on, the pieces that made my childhood seem to go along with it…This reminds us that we are not immortal, but the impact one can make in present life will stay alive in millions of hearts. This legend will be remembered always for her charm, personality, grace and wit.

 

 

Living a “Hybrid” Life

The idea being an Indian-American can be confusing is quite the understatement. It’s a complex juxtaposition in which I feel certain aspects of my being do not comply to the mold of the what an American girl should be like. On the flip side, the western norms that have shaped who I am seem to make me an outsider in comparison to my relatives back in India. This is perhaps why I feel alone most of my short-lived life…

Saying the thought aloud may sound rather pessimistic as how can anyone really feel alone right? You have your parents, siblings, relatives, friends, etc. so why feel this way?

It comes down to communication amongst those you grew up with. Being brought up in traditional Indian household – it was something which I could hardly recall as communication was quite minimal. I felt as if I didn’t belong anywhere. All we have is this very collection of individuals, every other Indian-American seeking a place where their entity as a whole, rather than only half, can fit.

Do not get me wrong here, I spoke with people about various things throughout my life, but I never fully opened up to a person. I never was able to talk to anyone about the pressures I felt, the confusions of college, romance, my extracurricular activities. Ultimately, these thoughts which I wanted to express just became ruminations inside myself.

Growing up and trying to find the people whom I belong to gave me a place to call home while simultaneously reshaping my thoughts on having a dual identity. I was always cautiously proud of it, knowing that while it was a beautiful mix of traditions and holidays and people, I was still split between the two. I could not give my all to one aspect. However, as I grew up, I began to learn what a blessing it is to have the knowledge and customs of two different cultures ingrained in you.

But I felt as if I had to live a hybrid life. When at home, I was to be the traditional, studious, Indian girl with no other regards to life other than my studies. Yes, I was blessed to have parents to encourage me in my passion for the arts, but I was constantly reminded that it was just a passion and nothing more. It could never be something which could make income and be something which I could survive off of. Oh, and romance was out of the question; the thought of a boy would bring shame and utter embarrassment so I suppressed such thoughts from my family.

Outside the home, I was the typical ‘ABCD,’ I just couldn’t figure out which group of people I could really befriend and hang out with. I had not the slightest clue as to what was ‘trending’ or what was going on in the social/entertainment world that too the petty local gossip that was going around. I was clueless.

All these confusions, all these questions I had about the basics in life, to blend in with society never will be answered by anyone but myself. It was a hard realization, but that’s life- it never was meant to be easy for anyone, but I can’t help but think that had I had someone to talk to, or at least some level of comfort with those close to me, things could have been easier…

I personally feel that the true reason as to why the connotation ‘ABCD’ was formed was because of the underlying reason of lack of communication and comfort. If you are raising your children only to be successful in studies and worry about getting a job, then how else are they to feel comfortable talking to you about anything else? Encourage your children, those around you, even yourselves to start breaking this idea that something has to be a certain way. Stop trying to control the lives of those closest to you and instead, raise them to be individuals that are brave, willing to step outside the barriers of society that could possibly make a change.

I know parts of our Indian community will find this a tough concept to grasp and for us second generation, it is even harder because of the gap, but that is exactly why topics like need to be spoken about. If we ever want to move away from the ‘confused’ insinuation, then start talking and listening with an open mind. All of us should be able to talk about the various instances we face in life with someone so rather than instill a sense that they will be ridiculed when they open up to you, create a lifestyle so that the person will feel safe and at ease.

I’ll be honest. I still manage to feel as if my everyday life cannot relate to my peers in America while simultaneously feeling as if I have inherited too many American ideals to fit in with my family in India. It makes me feel like an alien, divided into two parts that create the person that I am. However, finding the people who are just like me has made me realize that this fusion of cultures has given me perspectives on life that you cannot learn. I have the knowledge and the thoughts in me that can only be inherited if you lead a dual life. Being an Indian-American has given me the chance to be the person I am today and that is something you could never change.

Finding Your “Dream” Career

I believe most people wish to wake up and go to a job where they are excited to expel their creativity, improve their skills, and accomplish goals where they can be proud of, all the while balancing a life in general. And of course, somewhere amidst the 24 hours in a day, we’d be getting a paycheck that provides us with a comfortable lifestyle.

That’s the dream, right?

Reality is, we often settle for less. We put our dreams aside in order to put food on the table and to pay whatever bills and loans that pile up out of nowhere. That ideal career is exchanged for a livable wage, decent commute and stability.

To say, “you should never give up on pursuing that dream career,” does sound a bit naïve, especially in today’s technical age. Yes, it’s understood that the world requires – no, expects us to make sacrifices above our personal desires for career fulfillment…

But I still encourage everyone to hold tight on that dream, to continue doodling in that notebook of what it is you aspire to do, because (as I’ve been told more than once), nothing is permanent in this life. It may be that you momentarily let go of the idea, but that doesn’t mean you sideline it completely.


The Pathway

I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have told me their path to their dream career was nothing what they expected. It required taking those less-worn-out trails, exploring uncharted territory, and bruising an arm (or two), to get there. It will feel as if the world is against you for a while, but eventually, they are able to hold onto the reigns, take control and move in the right direction.

This is presently happening to me right now. I am in transition of pursuing that “dream,” that “passion,” I have for so long suppressed and be told not to follow, but I’m stepping up and out. I am taking a risk. I am simply being me…

It started out small, in fact, it was through this here blog, “Voice of an ABPD” where I started to channel my creative energy into somewhat, formulated thoughts. It started out as rants, then it became rhetorical-humanitarian questions and eventually, it became a place where I start to challenge stagnate idle ideas, we as humans choose to abide by. It became a place of realization of what I really wanted to do and that is to be an Evolving Voice… a communications entrepreneur for those who feel voiceless by any means to pursue what they wish do.


Change

In all honesty, I didn’t envision this to be my career. I didn’t envision of becoming an “entrepreneur.” It developed over time and after networking with different people on a daily basis.

The world and its people are constantly changing and growing and with it, new careers are emerging. Our limits are ever-expanding, and what this means is our possibility to grow professionally is growing each and every day.

I was that person who didn’t believe in the college education system, for it wasn’t going to be pertinent to whatever it was I was going to invest myself it. It is after all, the experiences “on the job” that will mold you. But it was in attending University that my mind was opened to new ideas, opportunities and people. I grew up in a rather orthodox, sheltered life and had I not taken the decision to expand my educational knowledge, I wouldn’t be so inclined to pursue learning today.

I certainly am not the same person I was five years ago, let alone yesterday – neither are you. Ultimately, we’re all changing every minute of every day. Our dreams are fluid. What may have been a dream career may no longer be your size of suit.

Be willing to allow yourself for dreams to change and not feel guilty about letting them do so. Sometimes, you have to let go of those old dreams in order to let new ones in. It’s not giving up… it’s “growing up.”

Don’t be afraid of your dreams and what drives you, and certainly don’t try to stifle or forget them. They are a part of you. They may not happen tomorrow, so if you don’t see them appear suddenly, don’t feel bad. It will take time, but it will be your time. Everything in this world is always moving, so let it. Allow it to surprise you.

And remember, no matter how hard it seems, always try to follow your dreams.

 

It’s Time to Self-Love

 


Sometimes, it’s just a manner of forgetting what you feel and remembering what you deserve…

In reflection of this quote, I came to the idea of self-love. When you have no self-love, you will be much more accepting of people when they are not treating you the way that you deserve to be treated. You will be much more likely to accept abuse and not stand up for yourself if you don’t believe there is anything worth standing up for. Having a lack of self-love tells the rest of the world that they don’t have to treat you with love either. It also tells everyone that you are not worthy of being loved.

Self-love is one of the most important things you can have. Self-love can do so much for us. It can determine what we think of ourselves and it can help us to project out onto the world what we expect from others.

If you are in a space where you really love yourself, you will find it easier to love and forgive other people, and ironically, you will feel more connected to everyone else.

It took me a while to come to this understanding of myself. I wish only for the best in people, I wish to uplift those deserving of a second (or first), chance at life. I wish for change – but in order for this to happen, I needed to either set my feelings aside or deal with them as they come…

Everyone is flawed, but everyone also is special and talented. Everyone has something unique to offer to the world. Self-love happens when you recognize whatever it is that makes you unique – whatever it is that you have to offer the world. When we have self-love, we experience confidence and pride in our accomplishments and our achievements.

When you have self-love, you also believe that you are worthy of love from others…

selflovecourage