On navigating culture: between home and society


You always felt you grew up fighting an invisible war. Sometimes, you look into the faces of friends and acquaintances and see strangers looking back at you. This war is you against everyone: friends, family, strangers. With your back to the wall, you can only rely on yourself. Your friends are for fairer weather, there to share only the good times – and even those can turn sour. Even the best of their intentions can cause harm, and no one knows which words and actions bite into you and hurt. You never feel comfortable enough to tell them where the tripwires are.

As a woman in your culture, you are expected to be subservient above all: obedient to your father, and eventually your husband. In your immediate family, you’ve been punished countless times for ‘backtalk’ – for trying to have a conversation, reaching out to say, I can’t do this, I need someone to understand me. Today, you rarely express clear anger and frustration at anyone because you are so afraid of the consequences. All you ever wanted was for your parents to understand you, but every attempt was read as insubordination and ill manners, because you are just a girl. You don’t even belong to your family; you belong to your future husband’s family. After all, you are the only one able to eat the offerings when your family celebrates the dead– you do not belong. When you were eight years old and the new student again, you wanted to fit in and be like everyone else, but you were far too timid and aware of your otherness. You were quiet and hesitant–a good student simply because you couldn’t afford to be subpar. There were too many expectations laid on you. Every joke made about smart Asians and Indian nerds rubbed you raw. Every time you heard the phrase ‘under God’ in their pledge, you clenched your teeth – their God does not belong to you. You were excruciatingly polite, wellspoken and well-behaved, because if you were anything else, there would be consequences.

Perhaps it is easier for others in similar situations, but for you it has always been a struggle. Your classmates turned their noses up at your ethnic food, colourful, flavourful, completely vegetarian, nothing like their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pizzas, burgers. They stared at you when you wouldn’t change with them in the locker rooms. They sounded out your name and mangled all the syllables, took a beautiful name and made it rough and ugly. You didn’t celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, and you worshipped multiple gods all quite unlike the omniscient Christian God most of your classmates believed in. You went to temple instead of church. To the fury of your parents, by high school, you refused to wear a kumkum bindi on your forehead. After all, the red dye stained, and it was such a pain to explain the next day when someone inevitably asked. When they found out why, your parents said so what, said let them stare, said why do you concern yourself with their opinions? Your skin has never been quite that tough; you have always been aware of scrutiny. It would have been one thing too many. You grew up needing to ask your parents for everything: spending money, permission to go out with a friend, to pursue extracurriculars, to do anything that involved leaving the house.

This is worlds away from how they treat your brother. He never fears punishment as severe as yours; he has never had as many restrictions placed on him. He is coddled, he grows wild. Neither your mother nor your father can control him, young, impetuous teenager that he is, and this is okay. You cannot even imagine what it would be like were you even half as rebellious as he. He still has some rules to obey, but they are tethers rather than chains.He is not held to the same standards in anything – you have to work twice as hard to earn half the praise, and all praise you earn is faintly damning. You will never be enough, while he is enough simply by virtue of his being. Your parents are not known for being fair, and when you lash out under the weight of injustice, they turn it back on you and make it your fault. Let the weight of blame be yours as well.

Once, you used to fight them for being overly authoritative. They claimed you only thought that because you compared yourself to Westerners, whose parents do not care about what their children do. You were not allowed to go out with friends near exams or tests. You were rarely allowed to go to sleepovers, and then only with friends you’d known for years. Your father spat out the word ‘love marriage’ like it was a curse. You know without ever explicitly talking about it that you aren’t allowed to date, let alone anything further. You aren’t allowed to pick your husband or your job or your classes. However much you don’t really belong to your family, you still belong to them enough that they feel justified in controlling the greater portion of your life. It makes a difference when everyone you know is free to make their own choices, and you must always consider what your parents will say. Your life must be one of quiet rebellion, nothing so obvious that they can pick up on it.

And now your tan is ‘exotic’, people keep asking you about your food, and celebrities appropriate your traditions and make them something desirable, but not for you. The ‘true’ Indians shun you, subtly, because they think you are too Westernized. As for the Westerners, they don’t shun you, but there’s always a sense, after some time, that you’ve misstepped. You’ve done something that they don’t consider normal, and you remember, again, that there is a huge gulf separating the two of you. And always, always, there will come a time when some of the people around you will treat you as an example, as their opportunity to learn. They will consider you the foremost authority on everything about Indians. They will ask you about your culture, but they don’t really want to learn. They just want to feel good about themselves for asking, for seeming ‘multicultural’ and accepting. There is always a thin veneer of distaste and disgust; they will not say it to your face, but they think you barbaric as you try to make them understand even a fraction of where and what you came from.

All you want is to be left alone. All you want is to be just another face in the crowd. You do not want to be who you are, a damn good actress and a liar; someone who bends to the point of breaking and still does not break. You want to wash the other off your skin. Even here, in a place filled with all sorts of people, you spend a lot of time unbalanced, unsure of how you fit. There is no helping the disparate, and the road to acceptance is littered with pitfalls. You may be able to cast off your family one day– but you cannot cast away the past, so you must resign yourself to it. Accept yourself, and don’t. You will only ever exist in contradiction.