Being first-generation American comes with cultural challenges

By Jessica Rajkumar | LTVN Reporter

I don’t like going to India. Well, I didn’t before.

Like many American children of Indian immigrants, I dread a summer trip back to the Motherland. While I know complaining about a summer vacation is characteristically bratty, this vacation’s purpose is to visit the world that my parents left behind. Although visiting India has definitely broadened my perspectives on life, I can still find a way to complain about it.

Whenever I tell my Indian friends that I’m going to India for a summer, it is usually followed by a wince and a sympathetic look.

“Shoot, girl. I’m sorry. That sucks. Good luck, though!”

India is evolving into a technology hub, and it is up to date with the rest of the world. However, it is still culturally naive. Racism, sexism and societal norms heavily impact the culture, inhibiting progression.

Coming back to India shows me how privileged first-generation Americans are. We happily waste all the power, clean water and air we want while people in India have to work twice as hard to maintain those privileges 24/7. The wavering electricity and faulty air conditioning make the living quality that I am used to seem luxurious.

But all these troubles do not stop the memories.

Coming back to visit family so far away helps us reaffirm relationships with the ones we love. Although plane tickets are expensive, you can’t put a price on those memories of being surrounded by great food and deep conversation. Nothing will ever replace my grandmother’s signature dishes in my heart and my grandfather’s economic conspiracies at the dinner table.

Alas, I still have sour memories of taking this biannual trip. While coming to the Motherland might be a good opportunity to reaffirm my roots, every attempt I make only reminds me of the isolated alien I am.

My passions like makeup and fashion are a reminder of how I’m different — and a distinction that my family enjoys making apparent in every conversation. My family would often point out how my interests in writing are a “dead end” in terms of a career and how I should stick to a safe job like a doctor or a teacher. Anything that does not help my career, apparently, is a waste of time.

The language barrier is another big issue that isolates me from India. My family is from the state of Tamil Nadu, which is basically the South of India. I strive to improve my Tamil speaking, but every time I do, my cousins make fun of me for my lack of accent and unnatural grammar — which, as one can imagine, does not help my self-esteem.

My ideas as a person and an American are always second-guessed, and they treat me like the foreigner that I am. My physical appearance is always discussed, whether I like it or not. My relatives have suggested skin bleaching and weight loss treatments to me so that I will be a more “desirable” partner in the future. While these comments are usually from random ladies at parties whose names I cannot remember, they still hurt.

So, while I desperately want to connect with the Motherland and all of her wonders, my teasing family who Americanizes me ultimately prevents me from the judgment-free assimilation that I desperately look for. I still strive to continue to speak my language, communicate with my relatives and make sure that the ties I have with India are not broken forever.

Coming from an environment that preys on fractured identity, the U.S. has its own special way of including everyone, and the progression of culture makes it easier to become your own person without the judgment of others. Many countries like India struggle to include the idea of the unknown, and they find themselves judging one another without a second thought.

These two contradictory cultures have led me to live two separate lives from a young age. The fractured identity I have managed to maintain often leaves me confused about where I belong. Living in America has led people here to call me white-washed, while going back to India treats me like less of an individual and more of an investment to my distant family.

However, in my later years of college, I began to see the light in the differences that can separate my culture. Being made from two different cultures broadens your perspective on issues in the world.

Interactions where I experience sexist behavior from my elders push me to be more compassionate back home in my surroundings. The food I used to loathe eating after long days of travel, I now crave and want to learn to make. I now embrace the traditional South Indian clothing that I was stuffed into as a kid, fully acknowledging the weight of tradition it carries.

My advice is to embrace every part that makes you yourself. Your culture plays a big role in making you who you are, even if you don’t know much about it.

I have spent many years of my life debating how to hide certain parts of me that I didn’t think were necessary, only to learn how prevalent and essential they are in making me who I am.