an out-of-the-box identity

“Kya aapke paas chicken tikka masala?”

It was a Saturday night. I was in my waitressing uniform – a silk purple dress shirt with a pair of black pants and shoes – hair up, working the evening shift at my mom’s restaurant. I juggled a tray, two menus and a water jug as I walked over to an Indian couple that had just been seated. The man, dressed in a traditional kurta and dhoti set, looked over at me and rattled off an order in Hindi. I held up a hand, explaining I do not speak Hindi. He threw me a disdainful frown and turned to his wife.

As a slightly out-of-the-box Indian-American, some variation of this scene is a regular occurence.

I was born in India and spent the first six years of my life eating sizzling batata vadas (potato fritters) and sweet gulab jamons (a dessert of dumplings made with thickened milk). While there, I spoke Hindi in order to get by at school.

When I moved to the United States, I became a U.S. citizen, but still kept in touch with my Indian roots – maintaining an overseas citizenship, visiting regularly, working (and eating) at my mom’s restaurant. But Hindi became a thing of the past, my understanding of the language limited to tidbits gleaned from when my parents didn’t want me understanding whispered conversations.

My identity is further confused by the fact that my family is from Goa, an area in India colonized by the Portuguese. I spent my days in India visiting old Portuguese-East Indian villages and eating foods like Sorpatel (a spicy Brazilian-Portuguese meat dish) and kulkuls (a dessert of deep-fried sweet dough). And as a result, family is also fully Catholic and Protestant.

This all boils down to a sense of “cultural outsiderness” here in America. When I meet the typical Hindu American-Indian, I am greeted in Hindi and criticized for not being able to respond. They furrow their eyebrows at my Portuguese last name, asking me if I am “sure I am Indian.” When asked where I’m from by Americans, I claim to be from New Jersey, and my answer rarely satisfies. I’m asked, “Where are you really from?” and told that I do not look Indian (I regularly get: Hispanic, Brazilian, Tunisian, Spanish, Italian, and/or Aborigine).

Back in India, nothing changes.

The first time I felt like an outsider in India was when I was 10. On my visit to Mumbai, and looking forward to my favorite pastime: shopping the city’s bustling roadside markets. My family and I strolled along Hill Road, one of the busiest markets, browsing through stalls of beaded tapestries and intricate jewelry, amid buzzing flies and honking rickshaws. Everything was perfect until we went to buy something. I started to point out a pretty necklace, when my aunt sharply nudged me and whispered, “You have to be quiet. They’ll charge us more!”

Apparently, my American accent, if heard, would lead us to be overcharged. Since the incident, I have been sure to keep my voice down in public so venders won’t rip me off and so I won’t be a target for pickpocketing. When I go back, I am silent in public not only because I do not speak Hindi, but also because I sound too American. Either way, I am rendered a foreigner in my own country.

In reconciling the conflicting pieces of my identity, I am painfully aware that I have the tendency to pick and choose.

India will always be my second home, filled with family, memories, food, and culture. But I still grapple with aspects of its history: a lack of openness to minority cultures I’ve seen from the older generation, an anti-Western mentality, a tendency to value women solely for their physical beauty.

One relative who I recently spoke to was unable to understand how I could live alone (as a woman) in New York City without the supervision of parents. She tried to appease me by reassuring me that she was not afraid I would go off the deep end, but was worried that the outside world would corrupt me. It is when I notice these “imperfections” and remember these stories that I feel the furthest away from India.

Yet I am never more in touch with my heritage than when I’m eating dinner with friends who are averse to “ethnic” food (you’re missing out!), when I realize how lucky I am to have traveled even a small part of the world,  when I think of the unique blend of cultures I have been exposed to.. And I am proud when I think about how India has overcome the battles it has fought – how it continues to surpass the obstacles it faces.

I have long tried to figure out if it is possible to be both an American and an Indian, and if so, how I can do it. I used to think I belonged to neither culture, forever a girl without a home, destined to never find solid ground to stand upon. But I have realized through my time here in New York that I can be both Indian and American, that identity, strong and binding as it is, is astonishingly flexible. And while I have found no way to define who I am, in the meantime, “Indian-American” is what I am happiest being.


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