Whenever I am asked the questions “What are you?” or “What ethnicity are you?” I always pause before replying. Having been born in America, I want to reply, “American.” I celebrate the Fourth of July every year, listen to American pop music, attended American schools my entire life and grew up chasing after the American dream. However, because my Indian heritage can be traced for generations and because of how much Indian culture is a part of my day-to-day life, it also makes sense to me to reply, “Indian.” I mean, I cannot count how many times I have begged my parents to take me to the Indian grocery store so that I could have kulfi or the number of pictures I have taken in traditional Indian clothing. Further, based on my appearance, people usually judge that I am Indian. So, feeling that both places are equally a part of me, I usually settle on “Indian American.”
There is no easy answer to those questions, just as there was no easy answer for me as I navigated being a first-generation Indian American growing up.
“You can’t trust boys,” my mom would repeatedly tell me. Yet right after, she would turn to tell my brother, “You can’t trust girls.” I remember finding this funny growing up, but I never questioned it to my parents’ faces. Both hailing from small villages in India, my parents had for the most part studied in schools that were single-gender. To send their kids to coeducational public schools here was an adjustment. When it came to play dates, they would encourage me to only have girl friends over, and when it came to school projects, they thought it best for me to choose girl partners.
When I started high school, I chose to go out for various extracurriculars that my school hosted. But to my parents, my focus should have been mainly, if not solely, on academia. It was there where I would get the most returns on my efforts. Despite these expectations, I went into high school open-minded. I was on my school’s tennis team. I was an editor for my school paper. I joined service organizations. And while all these activities were draining, they were also what made my high school experience worthwhile — something that I think my parents see now, realizing how these experiences have helped mold me into the person I am today.
In my 10th-grade honors English class, I was assigned to read “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan. Initially, I saw how thick the novel was and was scared off. We’d have a reading comprehension test on the material later, and if the material was dense, I knew I would have trouble. Yet this was not the case.
The book was on Chinese immigrant families who start the Joy Luck Club, where the woman play mahjong, and cook traditional food. This scene reminded me of my own small gatherings, where my aunts and uncles would exchange conversations about work and life with each other over traditional desi food.
These stories of daughters and their interactions with their mothers were extremely relatable. In the novel, Jing-Mei Woo talks of her mother’s unwavering faith in her despite her failures. When her mother gifts her her old piano even after a failed recital, the narrator is unsure if she can play again, yet her mother pushes her anyway. The feeling of not believing in myself to the extent that my parents did was one that I could relate to.
My mother has shared that same unwavering belief in me, even when I have not believed in myself. In first grade, I had gotten third place in my class spelling bee, misspelling “direction” as “direccion.” I ran into her arms crying, swearing that I would never attempt a spelling bee again. Yet she was calm, encouraging me anyway. Next year would be my year, she promised. She started giving me dictations to help me practice my spelling, and the next year, I did in fact win my class spelling bee. Reading the stories of other first-generation Americans has helped me realize that my experiences are not unique to me. They are universal, even if they are not national.
I understand the troubles my parents had raising my brother and me, having to move from a small village in India to a place that was foreign and different. The values that they brought with them were conservative, and helping them to see that certain aspects that were unique to American culture did not necessarily entail bad consequences for us children has been difficult. I mean, having a guy lab partner was not the end of the world, and neither was losing a spelling bee. I learned to find a harmony, showing my parents that I still respected their culture and cherished our roots while assimilating to life in America.
Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American. Contact her at [email protected].