I stand up for my culture in ways that some people may find over-dramatic or unnecessary, like the time I had to email a Residence Hall Director because I was upset that one of the dorms held a Lollapalooza-inspired event which included music, Frisbee, and henna tattoos. It’s frustration that arises from situations like this that some people may mistake as exaggeration or over-sensitivity but my love for who I am and my pride for the Indian culture are the driving forces in my choice to ignore comments made about my decision-making.
But while I engage in passionate arguments about cultural appropriation and while I re-tell stories of micro-aggressions towards myself, I also find myself complaining about the Indian community often.There’s always been a humorous but also fascinating force that drives Indian people together. After moving to new towns every four or five years in my life, I’ve discovered that in each of those towns my family has found its way into the Indian communities of each of these places almost effortlessly. In 2011 my mother and I moved to Memphis, Tennessee and our relationship with the Indian community was inevitable – but also inevitably bad. Talking to my grandparents and family members in India about the number of poojas (prayer services) and Indian holiday events held by members of the community made them laugh. “Here in India people don’t have poojas as often as people do over there,” my grandmother once said to me over the phone, chuckling. Granted, poojas may be a way to hold onto our culture while we are sitting thousands of miles away from our motherland, but I also often tell my American friends my problem with this:
‘Do people know what the priests are even saying during the poojas? Probably not. Have they read the Mahabharata or the Ramayana cover to cover? Most likely no. Are they aware of one of the most influential things Krishna ever said in the Bhagavad Gita? About ridding ourselves of desires and disregarding the need to collect the fruits of our actions? Probably not. I don’t know, it just all seems like a show to me. After the poojas all I hear are comments on how much weight someone looks like they’ve lost and how slender they look, or long conversations about peoples’ children’s accomplishments that sound more like conversational competitions, or gossip about people that happen to be missing from the event that day. It’s hypocritical. Like, I don’t think half of the time people have poojas because they’re truly super religious but because it’s an excuse for being social. I may be projecting but I think it’s all such a paradox.”
It goes something like that.
If you’re an Indian-American kid you may be familiar with the sights and smells of Indian get-togethers. Vegetarian food steaming from foil trays, the clink of heavy jewelry, kids running around and chasing each other. It’s so familiar. My experiences have ultimately brought me comfort, like community events or parties in people’s houses make me comfortable in a way. I’m around people who I don’t have to explain certain things to, around people I can practice Hindi and Tamil with, I’m around such damn good food. But I am also around people who say things like this:
“You’ve gained SO much weight!”
“Rajini, your daughter is so beautiful, does she do well in school?”
“You don’t play an instrument? How’re you going to get into college?”
These things I’ve heard back in high school. After I graduated my family moved to a town about 40 minutes away from Nashville, a booming city that has a small-town feel and a tight-knit Indian community. This Indian community is a lot more laid-back than the previous. People drink, curse. Crack sex jokes – something I was surprised about at first, then quickly comforted by. But of course, the men and women sit separately, people still talk about their kids in a way that sounds more like showing off than praise, and there are still Indian men who say shitty things like this:
“Your son should marry an Indian girl! They’re great. She’ll clean and cook for him and everything!” (An Indian man said this to my family’s white neighbor).
And there are still conversations like this:
“Guys, I have a small announcement. Upasna won the Freshman Leadership Award at her school! Only one freshman gets it every year, we’re so proud of her. She’s lucky to have people like you who love and support her.”
“Who cares? All this doesn’t matter if you’re planning on going to Med School.”
“She’s not going to Med School.”
And arguments like this with Indian boys:
“So you’re telling me Indian girls are ugly? What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know what internalized racism is my friend?”
“I never said that! I just said white girls are better looking! Yes I know what racism is but we’re not black so it doesn’t apply to us.”
And once someone said this:
“Oh my God you’re so DITSY!”
I am not saying the Indian community is FILLED with people like this. There’s always that one uncle who’s clearly a misogynist and that one Indian boy who’s a total douchebag, and that one auntie who’s super nosy. And that’s what I have come to realize: If I love my culture and my community enough, I should be willing to be forgiving. The same uncle never forgets to invite your family for a get-together,that same aunty is always willing to have you over and cook whatever you want, and that Indian boy – okay the Indian boy is probably still a douche but moving on.
I’ve realized that it’s time for me to stop being so critical of the people who make up my community and be proud that I have a community I can identify with at all.
Photo taken by Stella Fanega.