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.