NEITHER HERE NOR THERE:
REFLECTIONS FROM THE DIASPORA
BY: ARJUN JOSHI
All my life, I’ve been identified by people as “basically white” or “not super Indian,” because I don’t practice Hinduism or conform to the Type-A stereotypes like Apu from “The Simpsons” or Raj Koothrapali from “The Big Bang Theory.” On the flip side, my non-Indian friends have gawked at or joked about my love for Bollywood cinema and Indian food (I will swear by my mom’s biryani), and I more or less accepted the jokes as well-intentioned ribbing. But recently, my cousin was ranting about the marginalization of people of color at her university. She addressed how they are a rare presence in Greek Life (and more to the point, not expected to be a part of it), how other friends have claimed, “The only Indian thing about you is that you’re brown” and yet strangers view her as Indian because her parents work in Silicon Valley. These points finally spurred me to ponder the jokes my own peers had made about me growing up, and I came to a disturbing conclusion: the performances of race and culture are constructs of white people and the West.
For those who don’t know what that means, “performance” is acting out a culture that you come from, whether you truly identify with that culture or not. For example, as the son of Indian immigrants, speaking Hindi, following the Hindu religion, and participating in Indian cultural activities like Raas Garba and Karnatic singing would all be performing that Indian identity. Because I do not do any of these things, I am not performing my racial identity, and thus I am not perceived as a proper member of the Indian community.
I don’t say this because it’s another example of “white people say silly things sometimes.” I say this because it is a problematic and deeply damaging concept to POCs around the world. This concept that the cultural mainstream is white, heteronormative, Christian, and male, is a troubling concept because it erases the beauty and uniqueness of other cultures and philosophies. It pits the “assimilated” POCs like me against those who are more “in touch” with their mother-culture, and for what? At the end of the day, people of color are marginalized whether they assimilate or don’t; while the assimilated can avoid judgement of their “foreign” traditions and customs, their skin color will always mark them as outsiders in the mainstream. Culture may often involve the dynamics of sociopolitical groups and artistic movements, but at the end of the day a culture exists because individuals buy into it. Why are we defined as “too white” or “too Indian” for these groups? Why does it matter that we choose the traditions that work for us, and more importantly, who earned the right to judge others for their culture? It’s outrageous that POCs and their children are forced to choose between their heritage and acceptance because it’s a false choice. Only we as individuals can choose what we identify as authentically “our” culture.
This is something that resonates with me as I am caught between these two worlds as an Indian-American from Missouri, the heartland of the United States. I don’t speak the languages of my parents or grandparents, I don’t practice the religion of my caste, and I’m not a participant in dance and music from India like Raas or Classical. But on the other hand, I’m not a Christian, I’m not white, and I was raised in a household that fit the stereotypes of academic discipline and overachieving. These characteristics live side-by-side in my heart, habits, and identity. Growing up, I hated the feeling of embarrassment when I explained why I’d brought an Indian snack from home, or when I told my parents that I did in fact want food like pizza and burgers over something more traditionally Indian. Having to explain our preferences in food and music, which are the building blocks of any culture, simultaneously alienates first-generation children like me from peers and parents alike, and leaves us uneasy in either world we inhabit. Whether it’s because we don’t speak the language or follow the religion, we feel ill at ease when attending poojas (prayers), holidays, and birthdays in the culture of our grandparents and nominally more “authentic” peers. By the same token, we are treated to moments of jarring discomfort in our country of residence at birthdays or holiday parties because we question if we were somehow deprived of an important experience in our childhoods, when in actuality we weren’t raised any better or worse than our peers, just differently.
This is something that I’ve felt build over all 20 years of my life, but I finally have the words for my frustration. At the end of the day, you have to know the individual by their story and thoughts. Don’t assume our socio-economic status because of our skin color, don’t question our intelligence because of our accent, and most certainly don’t question our politics and social attitudes by the presence of a yarmulke, hijab, or bindi. I am an American, but that does not mean I will ever renounce the Indian roots of my family. I live in both worlds, and that is beautiful.