This is a topic I’ve always wanted to speak my mind on. When I first came to the U.S., I felt the need to only express good sentiments toward India — primarily because I felt like if there was something wrong with what I said, then people would assume I’m part of the problem.
For example, when I’d say I’m from India, questions like, “What caste are you?” or, “Does the caste system exist?” would come up. The caste system doesn’t exist where I grew up, but a large part of India still believes in it — which sucks, but it’s the truth.
Another question I’d often get is, “Why don’t you speak like the guy from ‘The Simpsons?’” or, “How do you speak English so well?” English is actually my main language. For most of the country, Hindi is people’s first language, and there’s a region of people that probably have the same accent as Apu from “The Simpsons,” but 95% of Indians don’t speak that way.
My issue with these questions is that people fail to understand the diversity of Indian culture. If you looked at two people from neighboring states, their upbringings would be disparate. Indian culture is unlike others: It’s a vast continuum of values and belief systems varying from region to region.
I’ve been annoyingly asked, “Are you going to have an arranged marriage?” The idea of an arranged marriage is often misunderstood. In some regions, it’s the worst possible concept you can imagine. You’re forced to marry someone your family selects based on your caste. There’s probably also a dowry system in some regions, where the woman’s family has to pay the man’s family a certain sum or carry expenses of the marriage. That’s how it was in the past, but there’s been a long transition, and the idea is rather superfluous nowadays.
To explain this, I’ll talk about an arranged marriage of a cousin of mine. She went out and dated multiple people, none of who worked out, but she was set up later on with someone she knew through family. After they met, they dated for two years and then got married. Today, they have two kids and one more on the way and live an amazing life as successful adults.
The notion of arranged marriage is not what it used to be and has evolved over time. What’s the difference now between arranged marriages and Tinder? One sets you up through family members, while the other is an app. In India, family networks are widespread, and that’s why the unconventional system works wonders for many.
I’ve seen the strict Indian parents meme. And sure, there are some laser strict parents who don’t grant their kids the level of independence other cultures would get. But again, these aspects are a continuum. My parents allowed me to do whatever I wanted and asked no questions. I also had friends who were expected to be home by a certain time. These aspects of our upbringing aren’t exclusively justified by location: It’s a parent’s prerogative how they chose to raise their kid, but there is this generalization of ethnicity where people assume as an Indian I must have been brought up by strict parents.
Indian culture has always been associated with strong religious roots. Some people are very religious and guided by values, but some aren’t. My family isn’t religious in any sense: I grew up eating everything I ever wanted, which opposes my religious heritage condemning the consumption of meat, especially beef. On the other hand, I’ve had friends who consider this a core value: They were strongly vegetarian, and some of them had an issue because I wasn’t, too.
A lot of Indian parents may want their children to marry someone Indian or of the same religious sect, so there’s always this assumption that our generation needs to hide our dating lives from parents. But mine wouldn’t disapprove if I brought home a white girl I loved, and it helps that our family already has some Americans in it. One of my friends in college took years to confront her parents about her relationship, though — and she was still met with disappointment.
The foundations of Indian society are patriarchal in nature, and I think that really sucks. I personally have issues with this aspect of our culture. The place of the woman at home is a longtime belief that needs to end. My mother has a degree in architecture, and if given the opportunity she could achieve greatness, but she’s expected to care for my grandparents. No matter how hard I tried, I could never give my mother the opportunities she deserved. She sacrificed everything for me while the air under her wings were stripped away.
One of the biggest reasons why I yearned to come to the U.S. was so I could change her life for the better and give her the freedom she deserves after all she’s done for me. My parents don’t have the best relationship, and I really wish they could get divorced. I woke up to them fighting every day, and my father mistreated my mother. My grandparents acknowledge that their relationship isn’t great, but divorce is something they don’t want to entertain because of everyone else’s collectivistic thoughts. Contrastingly, I have friends back home whose parents are divorced, and their families are supportive of it. The truth is that our family has problems, but in various ways we are very loving. My grandparents, while faulty, are still kind-hearted people who I love.
I grew up in India, and by that logic anything and everything that’s part of me is essentially “Indian,” although I’ve been called “whitewashed” since living here for a year. I hear this judgement between Indian Americans in which people who aren’t “ethnically attuned” are considered whitewashed. I was raised on hip-hop Hollywood movies and shows and wholly non-religious. I wore clothes of European style and loved non-vegetarian food. But I had religious vegetarian friends who lived for Bollywood and Hindi music. While we enjoyed different hobbies, we never saw each other as any less Indian.
Our cultural identity is our skin. We have a choice over what elements of our culture we want internalize or not. Just because we don’t share the same values of our culture doesn’t make us more or less Indian or Americanized. There are areas of our culture that we can see beauty in or not. There’s always a component of one’s culture that we feel the need to change, and these adjustments take time. We’re way more than our ethnic background: We are a culmination of our ethnicity, environment, family and knowledge.
Indian society has its weaknesses, but so does American society. They have their own constructs of problems. Just like youth activists of the current American generation are working to override the atrocities of their society, so are Indians. Being “Indian American” means dealing with both the issues that impacted your parents and their home and ongoingly plague this country as well.
We need to change the narrative when looking at minority cultures. Just because you see someone doing or believing in something doesn’t mean every individual sharing that culture necessarily follows the same manner. There’s a failure to understand the notion of diversity within minority groups. Beyond that there’s a failure to understand that a marginalized person is not just their ethnic heritage, but a culmination of all experiences incurred over their lifetime.
I watched this show called “Never Have I Ever,” and right after I got preposterous questions like, “Would you be shunned if you married a Muslim, too?” When we see a minority’s actions, especially in the media, people are so quick to assume that everyone commits to that act. When you watch a show and the protagonist is white, no one stereotypes the portrayal of that character to the entire white population. Moreover, Indians are marginalized in America, but there are literally 1.2 billion Indians in another country on the other side of the world. How can one possibly imagine that a stereotype holds true to every single person coming from that background?
People should be judged on their merit rather than the labels stemming from their cultural influence.
words_devarsh desai illustration_jess morgan