The Reflections Committee asked us for a TED-style talk on our “big idea” for the Asian-American community. I don’t claim to have a “big idea,” but I do have a “small idea,” and it begins with my own story.
It’s easy to weed out your roots in the larger picture of being an “American,” or at least it seems that way. I grew up in a Long Island public school district that was over 50 percent Asian. We had samosa sales and Chinese new year festivities. And yet I graduated and came to Harvard feeling somewhat detached from what I thought was “Indian-American identity”, and assuming I would always feel that way. I had only seen about ten Bollywood movies in my lifetime; I had absolutely no speaking ability in any Indian language, and I knew next to nothing about cricket.
Four years later, none of that has changed. And yet now I identify as Indian-American not with hesitance or awkwardness, but with pride. What has changed?
Well first I think I need to step back and look at what has changed me. The South Asian Association found me whether I wanted it to or not, freshman year. I still remember Nic Roth, an SAA freshman rep at the time, knocking on my Greenough door bearing a tray of samosas and a smile despite the pouring rain outside. The upperclassmen girls who did Bharatanatyam and other styles of Indian classical dance gently persuaded me to join the Fall show, Kalpanam. And swept up in the excitement of Ghungroo, I didn’t even realize how much of a chunk of February had been devoted to SAA until it was over. But still, when Nic asked me in the spring of my freshman year if I would be interested in joining SAA board, I had my doubts.
“There has to be someone more South Asian than me,” I thought.
Eventually I joined because I had friends on board, not because I thought I was particularly equipped to have any sort of leadership role in the South Asian community. I still held this conception that there was some sort of scale of “South Asianness,” and I was lower on the scale than most.
This was a misconception—not my thoughts about where I was on the “scale,” but the fact that there was a scale at all.
I realized this was a misconception, funnily enough, when I went to China the summer after freshman year. I was tall, a laowai learning Chinese, and from Hafodaxue, all reasons for people on the street to point at me. But they also almost always asked me FIRST, “Ni shi cong Indu lai de ma?” “You’re from India, right?” I responded I was from America, but I realized after a while that it wasn’t even a question, it was a statement. Even if I was from America, there was an inseparable portion of me that was from India, and it would always be recognized. As my summer in China went on, people asked me about Indian customs, dancing, food, music, and religion. The only Indian-American in our summer program, I was often called on by teachers to give an Indian perspective.
While I always felt awkward answering these questions, still plagued by what I felt was the inadequacy of my “South Asianness,” to them it was rational to expect me to know my own background.
And eventually, I realized I was lucky. I was lucky because a summer abroad showed me what the political correctness and unusual diversity of my hometown and Harvard hadn’t—my South Asian background would always be there with me, and I would always be called upon to represent it. I was lucky because here I was at Harvard, with the chance to meet and befriend South Asians from such a wide variety of regions—not just India, which I had traveled to, but Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan—and learn about their culture as well. If I was going to be expected to represent South Asian culture in some way, it was up to me to learn about it.
I know many people don’t join SAA or other cultural groups because they worry that they will be insular, that they aren’t diverse enough. I can tell you right now that in joining SAA and leading Board, I have made friendships with an incredibly diverse cast of characters. We tend to think of “diversity” as simply meaning “racial diversity,” but it’s meaningful to think about how diverse your friends are in interests, sense of humor, talents, values, or character. I have learned so much from my interactions with people in SAA from this diversity that comes from within.
I am also lucky because by being identifiably of South Asian descent, I was automatically tugged into the SAA community since freshman year. But I think that cultural communities are equally valuable for people not of that background. Identity is more complex than skin color or motherland. I think that how you identify with something is as important as how you identify as something.
Every weekend, I co-teach a 2-hour Chinatown ESL class to Chinese immigrants with my roommate Ada. For the last four years, I have been at the front of a class of about 20 students, most octogenarians, using a mix of Chinese and English to interact with them. Some would argue that we have very little in common. One of my best students from last year was forced at my age to take Russian instead of English, and her college education was forcefully interrupted by a move to the countryside during the Chinese cultural revolution. She immigrated here 10 years ago and lives alone in Chinatown. She’s fiercely independent and always thinks she is right. When I visited her one morning for Sunday brunch, she brought ten of her elderly Chinese friends, turning it into a potluck party. Amidst their Mandarin laughter and banter, I realized that I felt like I was at home at a Diwali party, sitting in a circle of my grandparents and my friends’ grandparents. That sense of warmth and home could as easily be found in my Chinese student’s home, as in my own.
My main message to you all today is that there are different ways to understand what it means to be Asian-American, whether you are Asian-American or not. I encourage you to explore all of them and find what you like. Maybe you would expect that I would enjoy leading an organization like SAA and exploring what it means to be South Asian, even if that was the farthest thing from my mind freshman year. But maybe you would not expect that I would find myself strongly pulled towards China and all its rich culture, history, and language. I’ve gone to China every summer and focused my classes and my thesis on education in China and Taiwan. Even the walk to Vanserg didn’t dampen love for Chinese. I didn’t expect to be so strongly involved in the Asian American community in so many ways at college. But I’m lucky that I didn’t let expectations stop me from doing what I wanted.
Don’t let people tell you that your “identity” dictates what you should enjoy. If that happened, SAA would not have had its fantastic cultural chair Nic Roth, my Harvard Beijing Academy classmates would not have the guts to speak Chinese to strangers, and my blocking and linking groups would not have been fantastic Ghungroo dancers every year. And I, most definitely, tangled in my own expectations of South Asian identity, would not have had the most amazing year of college with SAA Board.
Thank you to SAA-family 2009-2010 for showing me that loyalty, friendship, and compassion really have no bounds. You may not know that finding a family in SAA was a more roundabout journey than it seems at the surface, but you should know that now that we’ve formed this family, even if it’s been over a year already, it’ll never disappear.
All of us here today are lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and thriving Asian-American community. No matter where you are from, I hope each of you can graduate saying that you have contributed to it in some way, and gained something profound in return. Thank you.