Giggling, Aditi grabs my hand and twirls me along as her ghagra’s elaborate mirror embroidery catches in colorful lighting. The soft clinking of anklets and bangles follows her movements like an afterthought as I reluctantly dance with her, though I do it anyway, since I am relieved I got out of wearing the traditional clothing that Aditi wears. We jump up and down with the rough basement carpet burning our feet as “Disco Deewanee” blares in the background and bright blazing string lights blind our vision. The sharp scent of sandalwood incense pricks our noses like tiny needles.
“Auntie! Look at what we can do!” Aditi calls to a woman who is not actually her aunt, showing off the routine we have been clumsily practicing for the last half hour. Priya “auntie” laughs and claps appreciatively, calling out her encouragement as she sets down another dish onto the table. Dinner is soon, something I am both happy and annoyed about. I would rather be sitting down with quiet chatter than prancing around with a girl I see once every three years, but I never like the food at these things. To my parents’ never ending frustration, I continue to be a picky eater like no other. I desperately hope it is not chole or bisi bele bath with their mushy, grainy textures that sit unpleasantly in my mouth.
I glance around the room and bob in time to the music, wondering if I can convince my parents to leave early. It is the cruelest form of irony that my coloring of black hair, tan skin, and dark brown eyes fits in so seamlessly with the rest of the crowd, yet I couldn’t feel more out of place. Later in life, I will have a friend jokingly tell me I’m a “coconut”—brown on the outside; white on the inside—and this term for being whitewashed will be quickly brushed off as a joke, but it will be an aspect of me that is continually inescapable. Even now, as a child, I recognize this in some form. It is apparent in the way that I don’t speak the languages that aunties and uncles prattle on in over our little heads, even though I can understand them, and in the way that I feel no joy when I see the vibrant clothes and fragrant foods.
This is my heritage. My parents were born and raised on the Indian subcontinent amid fresh produce vendors and cows freely roaming noisy streets, so despite my very American roots and upbringing, I eat rice on a daily basis and occasionally go to parties with the Indian community at the Hindu temple or at the homes of other Indian American families where I hardly know anyone. Every time I am surrounded by this culture, I am reminded of how Indian culture is so flamboyant and unapologetic, as is often reflected in the amalgamation of spices found in Indian food and the colorful dyes used to make clothing such as ghagras. I, on the other hand, tend to be very reserved and quiet for the most part, and if one were to talk to my friends and family, they would tell you that I am overly cautious—which creates an automatic disconnect between my culture and me. It’s not that I automatically dislike everything there is about being Indian American, though if anyone had asked me that eight or so years ago I would have had a much more negative outlook, but I don’t automatically love everything about it either. There are things out of my control, such as unavoidable stereotypes about my level of intelligence or the ethnic ambiguity that comes with the occasional restaurant server speaking to me in Spanish—another language I don’t understand— because I vaguely look like I could be Latina.
On the other hand, there are things about my heritage that are entirely up to me. After a childhood of being told I had to go to Indian parties and wear Indian clothes and eat Indian food without my parents ever asking me if I enjoyed any of it, I grew to resent what it meant to be Indian American. How was I supposed to automatically adore the culture of a country I have visited maybe five times in my life? I stopped eating Indian food as often as I used to, I managed to find a way to avoid every party, I rebelled against partaking in any sort of religious celebration, I had even stopped wearing traditional clothing since I was eleven. The Indian culture faded in me until I almost forgot about it completely. I used to think this was a good thing, but as I grew older and became exposed to differing cultures and opinions, I regret not trying to connect to my heritage more. I wish I had seen the positive side of having a rich cultural background instead of trying to assimilate to the point where I don’t know how to find my way back to being Indian anymore.
One of the first memories I have where I remember not relating to Indian culture was when I went to India for summer vacation when I was four years old. I remember loving the fresh tropical fruits and animals like monkeys skittering through the streets, bonding with my grandparents, traveling to the ocean to play in the tide, but I also remember being utterly bored after the initial wonder of a new country had worn off. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone or with adults, having no one my age to spend time with, so as a child who enjoyed learning far too much, I was enrolled in an Indian school for kindergarten. Indian students are in school when American students are on their summer break, due to the monsoon season in India dictating the school year. In India, I fit in just enough to blend in, but I didn’t know any of the customs or language. I remember coming home in tears, sobbing to my parents about how I didn’t understand how to write in Hindi. To this day, the only good things I can look back on for that particular trip were the parts of India only a child could find magical, and the fact that spending time in school on summer break put me ahead when I returned to school.
I doubt I’ll start learning Hindi or watching Bollywood movies anytime soon, but I still want to try and connect to the world of my family again. Maybe I’ll actually put on the ghagras that I dreaded throughout my childhood the next time I have to go to a more formal event in the Indian community. I want to be more like the other second generation immigrants who are my friends, the people who have achieved a balance of America and India without neglecting either culture. The little girl who used to be me would say that there is no power in having toffee colored skin; the person I am today would say that there is more power in understanding one’s self than in anything else in the world.