Growing up in and of itself is a stressful experience. When you're little you grow up trying to figure out how to walk, talk, make friends, and play. You learn quickly if you're introverted or extroverted, outdoorsy or indoor-inclined, book-inclined or hands on. What takes a process sometimes is figuring out your gender, sexuality, and cultural identity. I'm not trying to say that growing up isn't hard for everybody. Our emotions are all valid and I like to think that when I speak up here I am not ostracizing any party, whether they be the majority or minority. I just believe in sharing my own experience.
I grew up lucky enough to not have to question whether I was female or not. I never had to question my sexuality. The part of my identity that I have had to fight most with is my cultural one. This isn't because I find myself to not be who I am. This is because I found it hard trying to explain to the rest of the world my culture without being judged.
So here goes. Hi. I'm Kirti and I'm American.
Now, if you're reading this and you're from other parts of the world besides the United States of America, this might seem like a self-explanatory statement. But, somehow it wasn't when I was growing up.
When I was little I would constantly get slight comments from the girls at soccer or the private school girls on my skin, how I was different. I came to realize early on that I wasn't white. But, it never occurred to me that that fact would make me less American. I should also note that when I graduated elementary school, there was a grand old total of three girls of color that I can recollect (that and I want to say 90% of my graduating class white with a lot of them being second or third generation American)
In fact, it wasn't until a couple years after 9/11 that I realized that to some my skin shade made me inherently un-American.
Now, growing up, I grew up in an Indian American household. There was always curry, rice, yogurt, and chutney in the fridge. I grew up loving Indian food. Hell, I grew up bringing Indian food to school for a long time.
When I was seven though, a girl at lunch made a comment about how my food was smelly and how it made me smelly. As the way of elementary school social norms, no one would sit next to me.
I don't remember too much about elementary school to be honest, except for those moments that made me cry or at least want to hysterically cry. This was one of those moments. I refused to bring the food my mom packed me to school after that.
Still, despite the fact that every kid in my school found the parts of my parent's culture that I cherish weird, I was still American.
In middle school I came upon the question that I still get to this day, "But, where are you really from?"
Let me start this off by giving the answer I always want to, without the swearing of course.
"I'm from America. Like I'm from freaking New Jersey, exit 117A or 120 on the Garden State Parkway. I live less than a half hour from the shore. But where am I really from? Columbus freaking Ohio. OHIO. Round on the outside, high in the middle. Buckeyes territory. Where are you really from? I'm assuming you want some quote unquote exotic answer from me. So I guess I'll accept nothing less from you."
Yup, insert about 10-20 expletives in that and you've got the answer I always wish I could give. Most people that ask the question are really well-meaning. But unfortunately, that question brings up so so many internal issues for me.
It became clear to me in middle school why people asked that. People in my middle school grouped themselves based on their heritage. I'm not going to lie. I can't explain this social phenomenon. I've got no clue. It did lead to the unfortunate question that haunts me. And it did lead me to realize that I'm not considered truly American by a lot of people.
To me, American means growing up in America, in an assimilated home that embraces all the different customs and traditions of all the different cultures of the area. Somehow, though, it feels like sometimes to those around me that being American means my family has to have lived here for more than a generation. As a first-generation kid, it's almost like I'm still considered an immigrant.
My family never pushed my heritage on me. My parents actually made it a point to allow me to choose to be more or less involved in my culture and my family's religion. The lack of pressure and the enforcement of self-exploration made my childhood a very open-minded experience at home. It did however make it a confusing time for me when people tried to identify me as Indian. I wasn't purely Indian. I love my heritage. I love the way my parents raised me. But I don't identify as Indian.
I am American, clear as day. I grew up, experiencing the Christian and Judaic traditions of my friends' families. I grew up experiencing a historical education in the thirteen colonies and the Civil War, not an education about Mughals and sultans. I eat curry but also sushi and tacos and pasta. I grew up, never actually learning Hindi, only Telugu, Spanish, and English.
Despite what my skin color or heritage may be, I identify as American.
It may seem weird to identify as such when my parents identify with such a rich culture, but America's culture is rich and diverse as well. I couldn't imagine being from anywhere else.