A well-wisher asked me a question a few years ago, “Are you more Indian or are you more American?” She asked this question as we debriefed after my campaign for a local city council seat. I experienced some of the most vicious verbal and emotional comments about things I could not change. Most salient of all was my race. Being referred to as “curry eater” or “not one of us” did not help.
The well-wisher suggested that I need to pick one identity – Indian or American – and strengthen the roots. This was a tough call. I had since moved on and placed the question on the backburner.
Most recently, my 12-year-old daughter asked me why I was referring to her as an Indian American. She said she is an American. On this point, she stands firmly with all due confidence. There is no gain in questioning her further.
That got me thinking. Am I more American or am I more Indian?
I have to admit that I don’t have a clear-cut or conclusive answer.
Indians usually come here seeking better opportunities. Multiple stressors such as language barriers, cultural barriers and limited social support systems, navigating those systems, mental health and homesickness can all impact changes in identity and concept of self.
I cherish chai every day, wear traditional saree, watch Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood movies, and I guess I can personally claim the whole “Indians shake their head” thing. I speak multiple dialects of the sub-continental Indian language. I attend Indian events, participate in WhatsApp groups, enjoy cooking rice, idly, naan and curry. Is this not Indian enough?
I enjoy coffee, I can carry an accent-easy conversation and I’ve started watching the Super Bowl, even if only for the ads. I still find it difficult to use the four-letter “F” word, choosing to use instead the word “fake.” I have sought my individualism, ran for public office, become politically engaged, enjoy Hollywood movies, am able to express my needs and say “no.” I no longer make decisions based on what others may think, and I am able to make eye contact without difficulty and stand up for myself. I have learned to use silverware, and address teachers and professors by their first name. Is this not American enough?
Settling into another country is a life-changing event. I’m reminded of a recent lunch in an Indian restaurant with a good friend, a gynecologist. My friend is in his 70s and has never visited anywhere outside the U.S. He agreed to the challenge of trying to eat the food with his hands for the first time. He gave it his best as the sambhar-mixed rice kept sliding from his palm to his plate.
Watching him struggle to learn the delicate skill for the first time reminded me of using a fork and knife for the first time. You see, I have never taken classes for table etiquette, and even now I have to train my brain to hold the knife in my right hand and the fork in the left. Who could possibly understand the anxiety I have at a gathering of strangers when I have to use the knife and fork despite imagining a chunk of the food flying from my utensils and hitting the keynote speaker’s head?
For now, I have barely scratched the surface. Does becoming more American make me less Indian?
And then there is the question of whether I am more South Indian or North Indian? Not to mention that who I am is also filtered through the context of political affiliation and personal beliefs. Should reacting to a socio-political conversation in a certain way or supporting a certain controversy make me less of an Indian or less of an American? If I continuously compare and contrast my life here and in India, I will not be principled, fair or centered in my own personal truth. In America, a person can succeed as an immigrant, irrespective of skin color, religion, cultural distinctions or country of origin.
Now, I am a naturalized citizen of the United States and still hold to the culture and traditions of my state in India. I call America my home now. I cannot vote in India, but I am politically engaged in the USA. I can advocate for a social cause and have the impact felt in downtown Atlanta or my hometown in Dindigul.
Irrespective of being Indians or Americans, the suffering that humans go through is the same. Hunger does not see patriotism nor skin color. The fact of children and adults suffering abuses behind the walls of where they live and sleep and the reality of evil and hatred everywhere are not a condition of being seen as more Indian or more American.
The sincere pursuit of socially innovative initiatives can only improve the overall participation and contribution of the South Asian community. Starting more honest and candid dialogue can accelerate productive inclusiveness and germinate more cultural competency.
Communities and their leaders can still create lots of opportunities to work together more and to learn about each other. Because of this greater understanding, I decided to walk in harmony with the entire human race and be me and true to me in the process.
Am I more Indian or more American? With every learned experience, I’m proudly becoming more of both.
Nazeera Dawood has a Master's in Public Health from the University of North Carolina and a medical degree from Bangalore University, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.