My South Asian culture is something that I have always cherished. The traditional folk music and dances, flavorful cuisines, and colorful festivities native to Kerala have always managed to mesmerize me ever since I was young. But at what cost was I finally able to start appreciating these aspects of my identity as a young Indian American?
I remember laying down when I was younger, perched next to our Casio stereo CD player and listening to Indian music from my native language, Malayalam, while I would sing my heart out in random gibberish, thinking that I was reciting what I thought were the lyrics to each song. This was quite a common sight to see for the rest of my family, and they would smile and chuckle, proud of their little child for at least trying. Some days, I would sneak into my older sister’s closet while no one was around, and dress myself with her intricately woven churidars from Kerala, or the vibrantly patterned silk and chiffon sarees that were folded neatly on the highest shelf in her closet. They were placed that high on purpose, because I was quite notorious for “borrowing” things that weren’t mine, yet this was never an issue for me, because I always found a way to get up to the clothing that I had longed to wore. And after dressing myself in layers of clothing, I would waddle over to the large bedroom mirror that rested against our burgundy walls and admire my outfit choices, despite the fact that they were all multiple sizes larger than me. Sometimes I even catch myself reminiscing about how I used to sit in my mother’s lap while she would feed me traditional dosas and vegetable sambar every morning before school. My little heart fluttered every time I saw my mother pack me her mouth-watering dishes for my school lunches, and I wouldn’t be able to sit still during class. Just the thought of her delicious kitchen creations made me smile because it felt like a part of her and my home would always be with me. I quite frequently visit those fond memories of mine, and everytime, I catch myself grinning or simply laughing out loud.
As a child of two Indian immigrants who resided in suburban Illinois, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood introduced me to how others within my own community viewed me, and made me truly question whether or not I wanted to continue associating with my culture anymore. I would be called various nicknames and words or be treated differently, simply because I didn’t fit the standard profile of the “American child”, and I vividly remember instances of this happening. The disgusting looks that I was given by my own classmates during lunch and the sight of children squirming in their seats because of me will never subside from my memory. With all of the name-calling and insults, I truly began to feel embarrassed. Embarrassed of they way I looked, of my family, and of my culture. As a child, I had felt like a misfit. I was timid, and felt alone in those very instances, disappointed after being greeted by the same faces that proceeded to taunt me every day.
One day, however, I ran home with weary eyes from school, towards the confused and worried arms of my mother, and the first thing I asked of her was to let me be homeschooled. My mother was puzzled, like anyone would be, and I remember sobbing in front of her as I told her how other students in my classroom mocked me because I was different. My mother tried reasoning with me and told me how silly I was to feel that way. She instead, encouraged me to focus on my studies and not mind what others were saying, because to her, that was a part of “life” for people like us in America. I nodded and went to my bedroom, and she stood there watching me while her heart ached.
Slowly after that day, my Indian identity began to fade over the years to come, as I pursued my better “American” identity instead. It began with my refusal to eat Indian cuisines outside of our home, and slowly but surely, I began to speak in English instead of Malayalam to my family, replace the old Malayalam music CDs from the Casio with the voices of American pop singers, and watch the channels of Nickelodeon and PBS kids every night alone, so that I could create new conversations the next day at school with my American friends, while my family took pleasure in enjoying their Malayalam sitcoms in the room beside me.
I would do anything to be like the children at my school. Anything to be like them, because I was told that I wasn’t good enough. I would never be good enough.
Now, I look back at those times of my life, and I truly feel sorrow for myself, and unfortunately, this is a very similar reality for many Indian and South Asian children in the United States.
Microaggressions, racism, insults, and the constant mockery from society and peers have made it difficult for children to feel comfortable with themselves and their cultural identities. Thankfully over the years, I have learned to love my vibrant and traditional culture again, and I have been able to come in closer touch with my South Asian roots, as well as cherish the little things about my Indian heritage that used to make the child in me smile. I begin to grin again at the thought of my mother feeding my dosas and sambar every morning, and my father teaching my how to sing classical Malayalam music, and although it did take quite some time for me to find comfort in my own identity and be where I am today, I wouldn’t change it for the world. And that is something no one can take away from you, no matter how hard they try.