From the start, I was never raised as a “typical Indian kid.” When other parents gave their children tests at an early age, I was given beakers, encouraged to experiment, to learn by questioning. When other parents insisted that their children be the best, my father told me only one thing: “Learn Thoroughly.”
And I was encouraged to branch out, too.
When other parents pushed their children to take up an instrument in middle school only to make them drop it to take more AP classes in high school, my parents put me in choir, which I hated then, but am infinitely grateful for now, for music opened my mind to worlds that I, and my counterparts, never knew existed. I learned the traditional music of my people, but I also sang (and still sing) a cappella pop rather extensively, a decidedly un-Indian hobby.I was never raised as a 'typical Indian kid.' Click To Tweet
A fateful stopover that same year in Qatar was only a catalyst to my musical development, as my playlist became as eclectic as my interests and knowledge; I now listen to practically everything, from the latest fiery singles from Zara Larsson, Adele, and Lorde to the dulcet Arabic tracks of Fahad Al Kubaisi, Fayez Al Saeed, and Waleed Al Shami to the expressive, smooth Tamil tones of Sid Sriram, Aditya Rao, and Vijay Yesudas.
I am, in many respects, a hybrid with an insatiable curiosity.
This has its flip sides. Every time I speak my native tongue, you can tell I’m a hybrid. My Tamil is a mixture of different dialects and replete with anglicisms and English syntax.
And I’m perfectly fine with it.
But that’s not how many see it.
I’ve been fortunate to have had friends and family, who, for the most part, accept and appreciate my eclectic upbringing, interests, and demeanor, anglicisms and all. But as I grow older, I can’t help but be more acutely aware of the microaggressions that I’ve received from Indians both in the US and back in the mother country.
Sometimes they manifest as comments, like when people say that I sound “confused” when I speak Tamil, “not at all like any other Tamil girl.” Sometimes these comments get less innocuous, like when I hear Indian reporters and politicians make sweeping statements about our relationship statuses and sexualities. But more often than not, they manifest as labels.I can't help but notice the microaggressions that I've received from Indians. Click To Tweet
At Indian networking events and competitions, I’m often met with bizarre or scornful looks when I say that I want to study everything in college, from religions to science to history to culture to music.
I am often categorized as “lacking focus,” or “not like the successful Indian kids.”
In fact, a few months ago, just after Ivy Decision Day, I was part of a college admissions panel, and a parent asked me, point-blank, “How can I make my son an engineer at (insert Ivy League school here)? What did you do?” I told her about my essays and interviews on my passion for world music and poetry, recommending that her son set aside some time to indulge his fancies.
She refused to believe it, calling it “a useless waste of time.”
She couldn’t understand that this hybrid girl was successful despite not being the model Indian: hyper focused and steeped in training for a “successful” career in science.She couldn't understand that I was successful despite not being the model Indian. Click To Tweet
But what do we admire about the model Indian?
I’ve seen report after report in Indian media on prominent Indian-Americans highlighting their laser focus and wild achievements, which, should be recognized and commended. What’s unfortunate, however, is how they frame Indian-Americans.
Around the same time as that college panel, I read an interview with Indian-American actress Angela Goraphy in the Deccan Chronicle, an Indian newspaper. The article describes her native tongue as “a perfect mix of both [Kottayam and Kumarakom dialects], no Americanness in her words,” describing American lilts or anglicisms as flaws bastardizing an otherwise perfect language.
That quote made me seethe when I first read it.
I thought, “Are those lilts and anglicisms really flaws, or are they merely a byproduct of her upbringing as both Indian and American, a way for her to embrace both influences?” Yet again, I saw another insular attitude to culture as fixed, with every change being a loose thread in a shared fabric. It’s as though that reporter was trying to say “Angela Goraphy is not a hybridized, ‘bastardized’ Indian,” and this made me angry as heck.It's disappointing to see such a one-dimensional picture of Indian-American culture. Click To Tweet
But what if we changed the emphasis here? What if we learned to show the beauty in our hybrid ideas?
It’s disappointing to see such a one-dimensional picture of Indian-American culture, and, more than this, such a one-dimensional concept of culture as being immutable, being portrayed in Indian media when we go back, and there are certainly people that do believe such a picture. It’s up to us to create a counter-narrative that highlights the beauty in the unique blend of influences that makes the Indian-American culture great, and what we, as hybrids, have to offer because of this.
And how, you ask, am I going to create such a counter-narrative? By starting here.
I want Indian media to celebrate our hybrid ideas. I want them to understand that culture is not immutable, but a byproduct of the influences that surround us. I want them to understand that the intersection of these influences, through our thoughts, our beliefs, and our actions, is not a flaw, but part of the tapestry of the Indian-American experience.
I want Indian media to represent more Indian-American voices. I want them to help the public see the world through our eyes, to show the public the humdrum parts of our lives: going to work, interacting with each other, our passions, our daily joys, and indulgences.
But until then, rest assured: I am not confused.
I am a hybrid Indian-American woman. And if that makes me a bastard, so be it.
In the words of a fellow hybrid, Rwandan-Belgian singer Stromae, ni l’un ni l’autre, je suis, j’étais, et [je] resterai, moi.