Study in India

Finding Identity as an Indian Heritage Student

The Immigrant Dream

Since its birth, America has prided itself on its values of equality and fairness, making sure all people regardless of religion, race, and ethnicity are given the same constitutional rights. Because of these purported values, many people have classified America as a melting pot which has been molded by foreigners. Being built on such an inclusive nature is part of the reason America is such an attractive hub for immigrants all over the world. Though America doesn’t have a perfect track record of equality, the idea of the “American dream” still drives immigrants to the U.S. to this day. Along with themselves, they carry a piece of their home country. They bring with them their culture, religion and traditions. They bring with them their heritage, holding onto the hope that they can carry their practices from back home to a foreign land unknown to them.

But it’s just hope — my parents are those immigrants. Being a first-generation Indian living in Memphis, Tennessee, I often found myself living in two different worlds. There is a stark contrast between Memphis — a city which prides itself on it world-famous barbecue, groovy blues music, and is filled with “southern hospitality” — and  the world contained within the four walls of my home, where my family practices vegetarianism, speaks Hindi, bops to Bollywood music, and practices Hinduism. To add another level of complexity, I attended an all boys, majority white Christian school, where I was one of just a handful of students of color, which often created cultural conflict.

On one hand I was trying to retain my Indian roots while also assimilating into white American culture — I was Indian at home, but I felt I had to be “white” at school. This is often the conflict that many first-generation children feel. This so-called “assimilation” or in my words, “Americanization,” often relies on a person having to chose to value assimilation over their cultural practices in order to be American enough. Because of this, I never honestly felt I was in tune with my heritage. I wanted to learn about where my parents came from, how they lived and where they grew up. I wanted to learn about my culture, my religion, and my traditions. More importantly, I was in search of my identity, which had been split by two contrasting environments back home. I knew my study abroad experience in India would at least show me a glimpse of all of these things.

Being Accepted

During my time in India, I realized how much easier it was to live, communicate and understand the culture and lifestyle that was practiced. To me, it was much harder to navigate my environment back home. I felt an instant connection to India. From the Bollywood music that was played continuously in every dorm room, restaurant, and rickshaw, to the conversations that people had in Hindi, the Indian clothes worn, the hundreds of Hindu temples scattered throughout the city, and most importantly to me, seeing the thousands of people who shared my same skin tone, I no longer felt like a brown stain on a white-t-shirt. I finally felt comfortable in this new homogenized community.

Whereas back home in the United States, I struggled to find myself while  “assimilating” to the American culture for 19 years, I almost instantly connected with the culture, traditions, religion and lifestyle in India. This was extremely evident when I saw my counterparts in my program struggle to understand why Indian people behaved the way they did, whether it was the way they talked, had fun, cooked food or even relaxed. But how could they? The American culture that we all knew back home is a complete 180 from the culture in India. For me, on the other hand, I already had the exposure from my family and the Indian community back home. It was interesting to see how my white friends dealt with being in India versus the way I did. Though each person has their own unique experience abroad, I knew mine was different from the rest of others in my group considering my circumstances.

The Dilemma

Though I thought I was assimilating well into my abroad program, I started to realize that even though I might practice the same religion, eat the same food and am brown, I was still treated a lot differently. Making friends for me was not an issue, but I soon found out was that I was a unique case. Many of the people I met were very intrigued that I was an Indian living in the United States. What surprised me even more was that many people didn’t believe I was Indian at all. In fact, I was often referred to as “white.” I asked my friends why they would think of me like that and their response would be, “well, it’s the way you walk, the way you talk, the clothes you wear, and your skin color. You’re very light skinned.” The last comment was especially intriguing to me because I had always seen myself as brown. Especially after going to a the majority Caucasian High school, I was always discernible in a crowd because I was Indian. But in India, I was easily discernible as white, something I never expected. Whereas in America I would be thought of as Indian, in India I was thought of as American. This made me feel like I didn’t really belong anywhere and in turn I struggled to find my identity.

The Answer

Studying abroad made me realize how the perceptions we form of each other can be completely different than how we think of ourselves. I always thought I was Indian, but to many, I was not, and for others I was. During my study abroad I worked on the dilemma of my seemingly chameleon identity: Where did I belong in society? Though I still don’t have the answer to that, studying abroad gave me a new perspective to appreciate who I am and where I come from. What I realized is that instead of wanting to assimilate into a community and be accepted, as I had always tried to do, I should instead embrace the fact that I was different from others. Through the adventures, experiences, and interactions that I had with people, I began to better understanding of myself. Though I still haven’t figured out the answer to my question, my time in India was definitely a step in the right direction.

Chaitan Mishra is a Public Health/Premed major at American University. He studied abroad with IFSA in India in Fall 2018.