“Where are you from?”
These four words used to send me into a brief panic, a short emotional turmoil before answering with what I know they want to hear: “India.”
I’d rehearsed this before. “My dad’s from Delhi, my mom is from another city nearby.” It was easier to say where my parents are from if I couldn’t truly answer for myself.
They nod, satisfied that they guessed right and completely unaware that I’m having mild heartburn. Usually, they respond by either listing the Indian cities they’ve been to, or recounting the types of Indian food they like. My favorite was the wildcard that happened to be extremely well-versed in Bollywood.
Meanwhile, my heart is seesawing between following up with a clarification – “But I never really lived there” – or an explanation – “I was born in Dubai, raised in New York, but of course I am Indian.”
I felt the need to right-size the ownership I was taking over a country that is mine by ethnicity but not by experience. A country I love, wholeheartedly, but feel so far away from because I have not endured what my life might have been had I been raised in India – simply put, a harder life.
I wear India every day—it’s in the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes, yet I am privileged to be both Indian and extraordinarily cross-cultural. I never really liked the concept of being a “third-culture kid” because I found it reductive. It speaks to a situation, not a disposition. With rapid connectivity, you don’t need to be raised in another culture to feel disconnected from your own. Growing up in a world that became increasingly layered, I always felt my culture was undefinable, permeable, evolving. And most of all, confusing.
My sister and I, like many American-raised children, took standardized tests throughout our early education. Before testing, there is an identification form for general data collection. When asked about origin, I ticked Asian or Pacific Islander because I knew India was in Asia. My sister once ticked Indian-American – which she later came to understand meant Native American – because shouldn’t there be a category for people like us?
My parents were raised completely in their home country on the Asian subcontinent. Growing up, they could only be Indian – believing wholly that beef is inedible, tea is had three times a day and incense is lit in the spirit of our Gods.
But their children were raised among cultures quite far from their own. We began to adapt bits of Arab and American sensibilities, creating a strange blend of how we knew to interact with the world. As we grew together, a nuclear family of immigrants, we learned together. We were raised often as friends first and children only occasionally. My parents taught us how to enjoy a drink and good conversation, to indulge with no sense of responsibility, to carry ourselves in any environment. We swung from housewife to hostess, proper to party girl, in seconds. This is not the way a good Indian girl is raised, but it is the product of the constant influx of new and different, the need to stay rooted to values and to our own selves at the very same time.
At nearly 30, there are a few questions that come up quite frequently: Will you marry an Indian? Will you have an Indian wedding? Where will you settle down? Will you get a different citizenship?
To each of these, I have standard answers: Probably not. Maybe Spain. I have no clue. With each response, I see confusion, frustration, sometimes even betrayal.
When a specific culture or person comes into question, it gets more complex: Where is he from? Will you convert? How will you raise your kids?
At this moment, all I’m worried about is raising myself. How will each of my individual decisions impact the person I become, the culture I carry?
As a product of my surroundings – my parents, my cities, my beliefs – I wonder what I will take from each of them. I wonder what version of myself will emerge as a result of the inevitable augmentation that comes from each experience, each encounter. Do I have a choice in what sticks? Am I making the right choice? Am I becoming more me?
I see myself as part of a new generation, a generation of wanderers. Each of us lost in our own ways, burdened by too many options and given too many opportunities. We lack the sureness of a world prior to our own, one that felt smaller and more confined. What borders on excessive often feels nearly obtrusive; we’re overwhelmed by choice. But in this choice also comes liberty to create a personal culture, one that is cultivated through first-hand experience, and one that I imagine will continue to change as each of us do.
Today, where I cannot identify with any established culture, I have the luxury of saying that I have shaped my own. But most of the time, I just say I’m Indian.