I Only Recently Gave Myself Permission To Start Embracing Life As An Indian-American

“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her development years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” — Ruth Van Reken

People find wonder in being in two places at once, as though one is defying her human capabilities and transcending into the impossible. But I know firsthand the suffering, the questions, the inconsistencies and the inner torment that comes with straddling two spaces at once, with no sense of belonging to one or the other. 

It’s only in the last couple of years that I starkly realized I’m a brown girl living in America. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like I never knew I was brown, but since I was born here, I assimilated seamlessly into American culture with a quintessential American childhood – including school dances, league sports, male friends, growing pains and heartbreak.

But along with my adaptability into the American lifestyle came long discussions and arguments with my parents over the fact that I was very “American” — and whether that had to mean traditional Indian values were sidelined. Sleepovers and school dances were threats to my focus on education (and came second to community obligations). Male friends were a threat to my purity. Discussions on love weren’t even on the table until I was old enough to suitably marry. But nonetheless, I fostered and catered to my individuality, directly opposing the collective mindset deeply rooted in my family and our Indian culture.

My adaptability into the American lifestyle brought long discussions with my parents over the fact that I was very “American” — and whether that had to mean traditional Indian values were sidelined.

The constant debate of whether I was “acting” like an American or an Indian forced me to defend my choices and my third culture mindset with an intense necessity. Conversations, even now, on how thinking one way or doing one thing makes me more American, have nurtured a deep inner conflict on who I am and what I can identify as. By coming off as American in certain ways, I’ve assumed by default that it means I’m less Indian.

This was reaching a boiling point for some time, but after Trump’s victory, this idea was completely shattered. The country I was so enthusiastic to be from and identify with forced me onto the other team. 

I am realizing this is inherently the problem, though — that I’ve felt like I needed to stand on one side of the line. 

I have spent so much of my life defending being American that I have only recently started to give myself permission to embrace being Indian. 

I can be an opinionated, assertive woman who will submit to my elders and help clean up in the kitchen while the men get up and go do anything else — not because I think it’s ‘my place’ but rather to be respectful and helpful.

I can cut my hair and still identify as Sikh, write about our struggles and attend conferences to learn about the religion and connect with other people who practice it to varying degrees. I can be an opinionated, assertive, free-speaking woman who will submit to my elders (even if I disagree) and help clean up in the kitchen while the men get up and go do anything else — not because I think it’s “my place” but rather because I want to be respectful and helpful.

I can have male friends, get dressed up to go out dancing and unabashedly enjoy my weekends… but still prefer a modest one-piece bathing suit and female-only dorms when I travel. I can know how to take care of myself first but still struggle to not immediately drop everything to be available when a family member calls me (as so much of my identity is wrapped up in being a good daughter to my immigrant parents).

These (seemingly minute) differences in how I act and think are ways my two cultures have shaped the way I occupy space in this world. It’s most definitely a perpetual struggle, but I am realizing that I get to pick my battles as I continue on my long personal journey.

These differences in how I act and think are ways my two cultures have shaped the way I occupy space in this world.

I suppose this is my definition for what is known as biculturalism — facing the incessant inner conflict and appreciating that I have the luxury to pick and choose my favorite values from both Indian and American cultures and redefine them for what they mean to me.

I am American. I am Indian. I might feel more one than the other, but neither personal experience negates the other. 

This piece was originally published on sahajkohli.com.

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