Author: Tanvi Varma
One of the biggest problems that I have faced growing up is figuring out who I really am. I am Indian by ethnicity, but somehow come off as Persian or Hispanic. Through my eyes, I seem to be the same as any other Indian. Apparently this was not the case to others, as I am quite fair-skinned compared to other people of Indian heritage. As time went on, it became increasingly evident that this was not the only defining factor setting me apart from others.
For a majority of my life, I have constantly felt isolated from the Indian community. I believe this is because I come off as uninformed about my cultural background as I do not attend cultural events and seldom go to the temple. The two festivities that I do celebrate are Diwali, (the festival of lights), and Rakhi, (a ceremony of the sacred bond between brother and sister). In the home environment, my parents never put much emphasis on learning about Hinduism, and thus the only way I learned was through religion classes and watching Hindi movies. As a result, I am labelled as a “farang,” a Hindi word meaning “Caucasian” in both Indian and American societies. As harmless as the label may sound, it continued to make me self-conscious throughout my adolescence.
The stereotypes and feeling of self-consciousness started in the fifth grade, when I changed elementary schools. On the first day of school, I introduced myself to the class, and mentioned that I was born in India and that my parents were first-generation immigrants. Afterwards, one of my classmates told me that she did not believe me because I did not have an accent. I was hurt that someone did not trust me. When I told my parents, they helped me realize that some individuals only know to associate being from a country with having an accent. Since I was born in India, naturally people assumed I would have the traditional accent.
A misconception, for example, was when I had just started middle school. During the first few months of sixth grade, I met two girls, with whom I became very close friends. One afternoon, in the initial stages of our friendship, I invited them over to my house. My mom had lit some lavender scented candles, and the fragrance wafted throughout the house. I still remember the surprise on the girls’ faces when they stepped in to a scented place, when they expected the house to smell like curry. Granted, Indian curry does have a strong aroma of spices and a lingering smell.
Also, people assume that Indians excel in math and science. This was a popular stereotype in high school. I went to a predominantly white school, in which only 5 percent of the student body were Indians. Most of the Indians there were very passionate about math and science, while there were a couple that were not. Because I was brown too, I was nicknamed “coconut.” . But I was very different from every other Indian and was therefore considered “white” on the inside.
In my ninth grade geometry class, a classmate asked me for help because she naturally assumed that I understood the concept. Contrary to what she thought, geometry was actually one of the harder subjects for me. Therefore, when I was unable to explain the concept to her, she gave me a confused look and asked me why I was unable to when I should be. At the time, I told her it was a difficult class for me, but I later realized why she was saying that. As more and more people started asking me these questions in various courses over the four years, I started to get increasingly annoyed regarding this stereotype.
Even people who ask me what I want to major in carry some preconceived notion about what academic path I should follow. I say Psychology and Pre-Health, and people are always quick to respond to the “Pre-Health” comment with “makes sense,” because all Indians apparently become doctors or engineers. This is frustrating because I do not see why a passion of mine should define me as the “typical Indian.” It seems that every move or decision I make seems to either distance or bring me closer to the model of the “typical Indian.” Every time someone responds with the “makes sense” comment, it angers me because they do not know me. It is almost like they are acting like they do. For the longest time, I always thought that being different from the norm was a bad thing, and that I should try to be more like every other Indian. However, it has taken some serious challenges in my life to realize that it is okay to be the “coconut.”
I will never have an answer to the question—what is a “typical Indian?” I have asked myself that question for as long as I can remember, and have still not found the answer. All I know is that when you get to know me, you will realize that I am different. I am okay with my identity, regardless of what others may think.
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