Pt. 2: Am I Really Indian?
This short essay describes my ongoing journey in navigating my identity.
My grandparents are from Gujarat, and according to 23andme, I’m 100% North Indian. Often I ask myself, am I really Indian? Am I only Indian through my race? Does this mean I’m actually American? I can’t be American, though, since this land is not for people of color. How can I identify with a place that wasn’t built for me? Does this place even represent any part of who I am? Onlookers scream, “go back to your country,” when I’m currently in it? It’s frightening to identify with a landscape that might not recognize or be able to identify me back.
Many South Asians in the US connect to their home countries through dance. My mom danced for twenty years, practicing for weddings in her dimly-lit basement. South Asian kids in my high school connect with each other through the Bollywood dance team. But I can’t seamlessly do Garba or Kathak. I also can’t speak Gujarati or Hindi fluently; I can only understand and say my name. When watching Bollywood movies, I read the subtitles. I eat Gujurati food every night, even daal – which I’ve grown to love -, but I can’t roll a perfectly circular roti.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out how American and how Indian I am. Am I more American than Indian? Do I even have a cultural right to call myself Indian?
Throughout the year, in the conversations with my mentor and the personal creative work I have done, I realized that I want to delve deeper into the question of who I am. In my process, I’ve learned that observing my own habits and tastes for things such as foods, rituals, and interests and how they connect and relate to my life allows me to see the two parts of my identity mingle.
Each pocket of New York brings out or hides a certain part of my identity. I visit my grandmother in Forest Hills often, and we usually go to Jackson Heights to bargain for Sarees and buy 40-pound bags of basmati rice. I grew up as one of the four Indian kids in a K-8 school, but now I go to a school with a sizable South Asian population. At school, I’m exposed to South Asian literature and history to an extent where I’ve grown to be appreciative and proud of my culture. Many of my peers can relate to my stories and experiences. I don’t know if I’ve become more comfortable with my identity because I’m growing up or because my learning environment has shifted drastically. However, there are still pockets where I don’t feel my full self. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood, and no one looks like me when I get off the subway. The two parts of my identity feel like they are at war instead of mingling where I currently live.
My curiosity led me to ask questions, so I started asking my family members. I’m learning that I have to pave my own way to identify myself instead of relying on those who paved the way ahead of me, like my parents and grandparents, because my experiences will never be like theirs and my connection to my heritage is different from theirs.
The first part of this project is a poem where I describe a moment early in my life when I questioned my identity. The second part describes the ongoing tensions and my current view of my identity. The third part is an interview with my grandfather.
Shivani Shah is a high school student from New York City. She enjoys playing volleyball, cooking, creating music and writing poetry.