Identity n. who someone is : the name of a person ; the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others
This is the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s definition of the word identity. According to this definition, I am K, a 19 year old college student. These are the basics. However, the second part of that definition is yet to be figured out. How exactly can I figure out who I truly am? How can I find my identity? Honestly, I still don’t think I’ve gotten it down. After 19 years of living my life, I can honestly say, I have no idea what I’m doing and I still don’t know myself as well as I should. As Ralph Ellison said in his book, ‘Invisible Man, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Am I free yet? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a constant battle and struggle, but that is all part of the process.
Growing up, I always had a sort of an identity crisis. I was raised by my loving, Indian immigrant parents. They always made sure I had the best of everything and I couldn’t be more thankful and grateful to them. They also made sure I grew up learning about my culture and heritage. Being of Indian descent, I spoke a different language at home, dressed in different clothes, practiced a different religion, ate different foods, and had a completely different culture than most of my peers. Growing up in a predominantly white city, I was constantly aware of these differences. Throughout my years in school, I tried so desperately to hide who I was and act “more white.” I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided I needed to be white. It was first grade. I was sitting at the lunch table with my best friend at the time, excited to chat with her about life and barbies (or whatever else first graders talked about). Being a vegetarian, I had brought my own lunch, curd rice. This was (and still is) one of my favorite dishes and you can imagine my excitement opening up my lunchbox that day. As I proceeded to devour my lunch, my friend turned to me with a curious look on her face and asked, “what is that?” I was thrilled to be able to share my favorite dish with her and started to explain what it was. After listening to my description, she was quiet for a minute and then started to giggle. I didn’t quite realize what was happening until I heard the whole table saying “ewww she’s so gross!” In that moment, I felt so small. I still remember everything I felt. As a 6 year old, none of it made sense, I didn’t understand why my friend would do something so cruel. I felt sick. And though I wished nothing more than to run out of the room and hide forever, my legs wouldn’t budge. In that moment, I was ashamed. I was ashamed to call myself Indian, I was ashamed to have been eating, I was ashamed to be myself. As a 6 year old, imagine that, a literal child. I was so ashamed of who I was. In the following days and even weeks, I shut people out. I stopped being the cheerful, outgoing child I was and soon became a quiet wallflower. I would refuse to open my lunchbox at school and never ate lunch. I would go home with a full lunchbox, empty stomach, and a heavy heart. At home, I became more irritable, refusing to listen to my parents and constantly lashing out at my little sister (who was 2 at the time). Obviously, my mother knew something was wrong (can’t hide anything from her) and continuously approached me about it. After weeks of refusing to speak to her, I eventually gave in and told her everything (while sobbing). My mother comforted me, listened to my story and tried to help me. She told me not to let them get to me, and that no matter what happens, I should be proud of who I am. One piece of advice she gave me still keeps me going.
She said, “K, in your life there will be horrible people, there will be wonderful people, but you should never let that sway you. Be proud of yourself and everything will be okay. And just remember, people come and go, but your family will always be there for you. Forever.”
Amma, I know you’re probably reading this, and I never truly thanked you for everything, but I want to thank you now. I love you. Soon after talking to my mom, I slowly started to revert back to my original self (but I still never ate lunch or even opened my lunchbox completely until high school). I tried to embrace my culture, my identity and finally, as a 7 year old, I figured it out. However, this was just the beginning of my journey to find my identity.
Growing up Indian in America is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Throughout my life, I never felt like I completely belonged in any group. At school, all the white kids would ask me why I had oil in my hair (Indians were on the coconut oil train way before it became popular), why I spoke a different language, why I went to the temple, why I wore different clothes, and smelled like curry (really? I don’t ask you why you smell like chicken wings and burgers). The micro-aggressions were definitely abundant but I let them slide. I quickly learned to embrace my ethnic background and was so proud when my mom came into my 3rd grade class to talk about India. I was beyond excited to walk around and introduce my grandparents to everyone in the neighborhood when they visited. I would squeal with joy when my mom bought me new Indian clothes and I got to wear them out. However, underneath all of this, I was secretly jealous. I was jealous of all the white kids at school who could trace their lineage back to the pilgrims, the kids who could walk around and not worry about racist comments, the kids that had names everyone could pronounce, the kids that spoke languages that people could understand, the kids that had their entire family in the states, the kids who looked and were considered “normal.” Even though I loved being who I was, I still felt out of place. I was always scared of being the “token friend” and when people joked about it (although I laughed along) I was uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to be somebody that wasn’t different. Part of me believed that if I had been born white, I could have been spared from all the relentless bullying that ruined my mental health. Growing up, I didn’t really have any Indian friends my age. Everyone was younger than me and that meant I was a babysitter, not a friend. I wanted a confidante, somebody that could understand me and went through the same things I did. Even though I didn’t get that, I was blessed to have met a few other POC at my school. I became very close to a few of them and they became my best friends. As fellow women of color, I felt like I could relate to them and their struggles as they could with mine. Being Indian, not many people considered me to be Asian (India is literally in Asia… South Asia) and that was such a weird concept for me. I never really felt like I belonged anywhere. I wasn’t white enough, Asian enough, and not Indian enough. I constantly struggled to find my place, my home, somewhere I could fit in. As I entered my high school years, I had completely learned how to embrace myself and my culture. I was beyond excited to showcase my identity and I finally felt proud of who I was. Even if the racist comments didn’t fully stop (some kid yelled at me for being an illegal immigrant and told me to go back to Mexico where I belonged. That’s a different story for a different day) I continued to grow and love my culture.
That brings us to present day K. College K. I started my freshman year and meet so many new people. I finally found people I could completely relate to and I became very proud about who I am. I joined some culture clubs on campus and embraced myself even more. Then one day, I started to lose that confidence again. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, like I wasn’t enough of a certain group to fit in. I obviously wasn’t white enough, still wasn’t the ‘right kind of Asian’, and I didn’t feel ‘brown enough.’ Even though the people at school were very welcoming and kind, I still felt like everyone hated me, didn’t want me to be there and thought I tried too hard to fit into a certain group.
But overtime, I realized something. I don’t have to justify my life, culture, experience and struggles to the world. I have to be myself and then everything will fall in place. I don’t need to find a group I belong to, as long as I have people that love and care for me as much as I love and care for them, I will be okay. Race is a difficult thing to define and figure out, and that’s okay. People will be rude, ignorant and mean, that’s okay. It’s okay to feel like you don’t belong, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to be scared and confused. But just remember, all those experiences help you grow and find your true identity. I struggled for so long to get to the place I am today. It took me years, and even when I was confident, I had to fall again and rebuild myself. It takes time, patience and so much strength. Sure, not everyone can relate exactly to my story, but I hope you can still learn a little bit from it. If you ask me today, what my identity is, I would tell you this:
My name is K. I am an Asian Indian American woman, and am 19 years old. I love to meet new people, see new places and experience new things. I’m still growing and changing. I may not be 100% sure of who I am, but I do know this. I’m happy. I’m strong. I’m proud.
Let me say it again. I’m proud.
I’m so very proud.
Till next time,