I discreetly leaned across the aisle in my first period high school algebra class and whispered to my trustworthy friend, “Hey dude, do I, uh, smell like curry?”
“Um, not as bad as last week,” he responded faintly.
I daresay that most South Asians have suffered this unique kind of post-traumatic stress regarding the laden insecurity of smelling like a bazaar after they leave their homes.
My own adolescent insecurities were mainly the consequence of my reluctance to embrace my involuntary marriage with Indian culture — the cuisine of which is an integral part. Mix all that coriander, curry powder and cumin together with the pain of social exclusion and you’ve got a recipe for exquisite unhappiness.
My discontent often manifested as subconscious resentment for my own culture in the midst of dominant American culture. American dietary staples such as pizza, hamburgers and pasta are tidy, but importantly, they’re odorless and don’t threaten leaving a permanent yellow stain on white clothes. My insecurity about the smell of chicken curry infused into my linens reflects a larger insecurity; being bicultural often feels like a precarious balancing act between the two sides of my identity. Yet it was in perhaps Berkeley’s most white American environment that I truly came to embrace the intoxicating aroma of curry — within the walls of my fraternity house.
It’s a tricky thing to be a non-white person in an institution, such as a fraternity, that is historically rooted in white supremacy and elitism. The first time I entered the regal library of my fraternity house, I was mesmerized by its tranquil mahogany walls lined with the portraits of Anglo-Saxon ghosts for whom this house had been their racially homogenized home nearly a century ago. How was it tenable for me, someone whose grandparents had been modest farmers in South India, to potentially consider this place my home?
Much of why I was willing to subject myself to the … adversities … of joining a fraternity was the diverse, full-flavored ethnic composition of the house I chose to rush. There seemed to be a redemptive silver lining to the ethical quagmire of literally “pledging” myself to an institution with a problematic past. Much to my dismay, however, I observed that many of the fraternity’s non-white members had largely relinquished their cultural identities to neatly assimilate into Greek life’s preeminent white American cultural archetype.
In this environment, you feel compelled to try to blend in with said celebrated fraternity archetype: tousled dirty blond hair, immaculate jawlines and Bass Pro Shops hats. I was insecure that it wouldn’t even be the way I looked that would prove me a rogue fraternity member, but that via the nostrils of the other members, they could tell I didn’t quite fit in. We can’t change how people see us, and so this insecurity manifests itself in other ways such as in adopting a palatable nickname to abbreviate a 26 letter name or in being self-deprecating about cultural origins.
I recall how, as a pledge cleaning up after a party, I simultaneously picked up red plastic cups and hummed along to a song from Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (a popular Bollywood movie) that I was playing on the house speaker. With the speed of Barry Allen himself, an international Indian brother hastily scurried down the stairs to unplug the speaker. He glanced around to ensure no one else had heard my music before admonishing me to never play Indian music in the house again. Yet it was none other than this New Delhi native who gratefully relished my South Indian chicken wings when I cooked dinner for the brotherhood to celebrate Eid months later.
“My amma would be so proud,” he drunkenly confessed to me, highlighting the dichotomy we both faced of wanting to leave our culture behind but loving it too much to ever really do so.
After completing the pledging process, I learned that the chief characteristics of a good brother is authenticity, followed by confidence. So, to the horror of my high school self, I began to embrace the pungent smells of chilies and turmeric that wafted through the dining room whenever I cooked. I boldly played my favorite romantic Bollywood songs, displayed colorful Indian tapestries across my room and set a historical precedent in the house by enacting a no-shoe policy in my room.
In these small but significant ways, I made the fraternity house my real home, a place I could be completely myself. My fraternity brothers responded positively to my bravado and convictions. It was the features of the idealized fraternity brother that had made me capable of embracing my South Asian culture. This then empowered me to rethink how I viewed my bicultural identity: What if I understood my biculturalism through unity instead of through division?
I won’t relinquish part of my cultural identity in order to fit into the template of a “real” fraternity brother. I’m learning that those of us who are bicultural have beautiful compound identities, and that only upon embracing this reality may our identities truly be wed.
So I now rejoice in microwaving my mom’s curry, in being boldly liberal with my chili powder and in ravaging the esophaguses of my fraternity brothers — because now, I am at home.