Being a Second Generation WOC in America

“Where are you from?” 

“Born and raised in Shrewsbury, Mass.” 

“No, where are you really from?”

It is difficult being of Indian descent having grown up in the United States. It’s like being caught between two different worlds, forever being pulled and shoved back and forth between two nations. I’ve always felt like I was having an identity crisis: am I Indian or am I American? Can I be both when it feels like people always need me to just make a decision? It’s like the whole nature vs. nurture conversation we’ve all had at least once in a high school science class. Are we defined more by our genes and roots or by our environment and upbringing?

My parents grew up in India, raised in the colorful, vibrant culture of our homeland. They had an arranged marriage when my mother was 21 and my father was 28 and moved to America a few years later to start a new life. I always wonder what that must feel like: leaving behind everything and everyone you know, packing up your entire life, and moving to a foreign country with a person you just met. Terrifying, confusing, and… thrilling.

Both my sister and I were born in Framingham, Massachusetts. I have always felt like we were raised in different ways. When my sister was born, my parents were still very attached to their Indian culture. She grew up only speaking our native language Tamil and didn’t hear English until she started going to school. I think my parents felt that they hadn’t assimilated her into America properly. That was what it was always about for people moving from India to America; it was about assimilating into the new culture and fitting in, not bringing in a taste of an old culture to a new world. So, when I was born, things were different. I was raised on an eclectic mix of Tamil phrases and English sentences. I could’ve grown up to be fluently bilingual but my parents stressed English with me much more than they did Tamil. I’ve grown up understanding Tamil almost fluently, and being able to speak it pretty well, but viewing Tamil texts as meaningless, confusing symbols.

As I got older, into middle school, that’s when I started realizing I was inevitably “different.” I had skin as tan as roasted almonds, eyes darker than twilight and a head of black waves. I didn’t look like most of my friends, who were pale-skinned and blue-eyed. This is when I started recognizing the pressures of society to “choose” a side. And as most tweens and teens, I chose the side of fitting in with my friends. From late middle school to high school, I found myself doing as much as I could to dig out my Indian roots and conform to my American culture. I stopped watching Tamil movies and listening to Tamil music with my parents. I ate Indian food at home, but would never have done so in front of friends. I wore scandalous clothing, fought with my parents and spent as much time as I could with friends. I donned the reputation as “the whitest Indian girl” at school, and it filled me with immense pride. Finally, finally, I was cool and wasn’t known as just another Indian girl. I was special because I fit in with my white friends. I had chosen my side and that side was America.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how wrong I was. Emerson has taught me so much about embracing your culture, your roots and who you truly are. I had never been in such a welcoming, diverse environment that celebrated each other’s differences. I had never been appreciated for being Indian by non-Indian friends. This is where I have finally embraced my title of a woman of color. And ever since coming to school here, I have made efforts to speak in Tamil more often with my parents, talk about my culture with friends and enjoy the rich traits and lifestyles of my homeland.

Being a woman of color in America is hard because your family is constantly reminding you to stay true to your roots, while your friends are reminding you that you are in a different world. As if being a woman isn’t already difficult in this world, being a woman of color means less opportunities, less rights, and being taken less seriously. It means picking and choosing which aspects of your life you want to remain true to which culture, and making sense of how your heritage and environment coincide and have worked together to create the individual you are. I know I would be a completely different person if I wasn’t raised embracing two different cultures, and for that, I am thankful. But, most of all, I am thankful to come from parents who have never once pushed me to do one thing or another, but have let me make mistakes, forget and remember what is important and finally understand who I am all by myself.

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North of Hoi An

Hoi An

Vietnam continued: leaving Hoi An and heading north.

Wow, how to catch up on a whirlwind of a first week in Vietnam. This country has been emotionally tolling for me, and I can’t shake that I’m-almost-about-to-cry feeling all the time. The places I’ve seen, how they have made me feel, and the people I’ve met.

It’s hard to process travel when you’re moving at a speed of a hundred miles a second. Waking up every morning between 6 or 7 a.m., hopping on a bus/boat/some mode of transportation to get to our next picturesquely beautiful and partially destroyed Vietnamese town, stopping to eat delicious food with freshly squeezed juice and wondering how long my bank account will support my incessant Vietnamese coffee craving.

The differences between Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia are more obvious than I thought they would be. You have to be pretty blind to not see them. Vietnam, destination of tourism for hundreds of Brits, Aussies and kiwis “prides itself on it’s central and north coast beaches; destinations of relaxation, recreation, and inspiration”. The undeniable money and tourists beach culture brings with it has given Vietnam a vibe absent in Cambodia and Laos; a vibe of ability. These people are able to have lives separate from the rice paddies; they can jog, converse in expensive and overpriced but chic bars and choose their clothes and cars based on what they WANT, not was is available. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An alike are filled with evidence of an already-developed-developing nation. It is as global and luxurious a culture as any, but still desperately stuck in the paralyzing turmoil of 1974.

Just a few kilometers outside the gorgeous colorful town Hoi An, it seems to be mega resort after beach getaway after mega resort. Each resort’s entrance is uniquely Americanized; big gold letters advertise island getaway bungalows on the secluded beaches of Vietnam’s central coast, with towering high rises that could easily exist in Miami.

But walking next to these perfectly 21st century resorts is a woman stooped over from years of picking rice, in a traditional triangular Vietnamese hat, missing a limb from god knows which bombing incident. She is the old Vietnam, the Vietnam that so many 20-somethings try to claim dissipated with the end of the war.

But the war is strangely alive. You see it in the vastly disproportionate number of older Vietnamese people with missing limbs walking down the street unphased, carrying massive bamboo trays of mangosteen and rambutan fruit on their heads instead.

I know I’ve spoken about paradox in Southeast Asia before, but this place is haunted by ghosts of 40 years ago. You can’t ignore it if you want to. It seems every few hundred kilometers there is a large billboard promoting communism: two young Vietnamese soldiers holding their hands up in solidarity with a bright golden communist hammer and cycle, next to the contrasting red and gold of the Vietnamese flag.

Underneath the flag in bright gold is an emphatic Vietnamese phrase proclaiming the end of Capitalism in Vietnam forever. And long live Ho Chi Minh.

Do these rich and spoiled Westerners know the story of this country? Maybe the Brits do, but they don’t understand what images of young American GIs pointing guns at babies, dead bodies and blown-up pictures of napalm girl do to my mind. I’m passing by the most postcard-worthy scenery of large jungle-infested mountains looming over pristine calm ocean water, Vietnamese women walking by slowly, pushing their carts of fruit.

Hoi An