An Identity Liability
Looking at a mirror I often times, more so now than in the past am startled by my reflection. I almost don’t recognize myself. My face, it looks, well, different. I’m not the young undistinguishable American looking back at me. I’m…I’m Indian. I look Indian. I mean, well, I can tell, just by looking at me that I’m Indian.
I always remember being surprised, almost insulted sometimes, when someone guessed that I was from India. I would always ask them in response, “Just out of curiosity, how did you know I was Indian?” it was a serious question, I did want to know how they knew, but really I wanted to know how they found out. Often times I felt exposed, embarrassed and like I had been found out. I’ll admit it happened a lot less when I was a preteen/teenager than it does now, as an adult. Nonetheless it irked me. I felt like in order for them to find out I must’ve done something to tip them off.
I think this all goes back to a few keys things in my upbringing, most notably that I didn’t grow up with any other Indian people around me. There were no Indian families, no other Indian children and scarcely any Indian adults that I interacted with growing up. In addition to the lack of Indian folks near me growing up the Indian culture I was exposed to was a mix of negative racial stereotypes about Indians and sheer ignorance. Like many people faced with no real life counterexample I chose to believe the stereotypes.
To me Indian culture was communicated as emasculate, heavily traditional religiously, weak, hairy, unattractive, physically inferior, primitive and short. I know, its fucked up in more ways than I even know how to begin to unpack in this post. The Indian male that I felt was communicated to me as my future made me feel destined for social ostracization. In the context where tall predominately white males were most present I felt I needed to do whatever I could to push back against Indian culture and excel at things Americans excelled at. Believing the stereotypes about Indians meant I had to do whatever I could to disassociate myself with Indian culture.
On the one hand my response to Indian culture, predominately as a teenager but remnants last to this day, was rejection. I watched what happened to other kids who stuck out and decided I wanted no part of that. I chose to adopt a lifestyle that overcompensated for what I felt was an identity liability (being Indian). On the other hand I had no strong Indian figures in my life, or advocates of Indian culture and identity, for me to take ownership of. I felt I had no counterexamples to the negative portrayals of Indian culture and I went looking for none.
The experience of growing up without Indians and Indian culture has been a strange absence in my life. It makes me feel out-of-place and self-conscious when I am around other Indians. You know, that feeling where you feel partially one thing but partially the another. Or you feel some sense of obligatory kinship to a group of people but you don’t know what that kinship is made up of. You know that feeling? It’s a weird feeling and it makes that sense of kinship feel fake. Just like when your friends go and visit India and come back and talk to you about things they expect you to understand because, well duh, you are from India. Its embarrassing. I feel fraudulent a lot of the time. Like I am co-opting an identity I haven’t earned. As I’ve said in other posts I often think my lack of knowledge of Indian culture offends other Indians as well (somewhat justifiably I’d say), which reinforces my feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence.
This whole rejection of Indian culture and identifying as Indian is coming full circle. I still lack strong Indian role models or images, but for the first time ever, in my life, I have begun to see myself (quite literally) as Indian. It’s terrifying in a way. I don’t know what or who I am looking at in the mirror. Not because being Indian is terrifying or inherently weird, but because I feel I have spent much of my life building an identity that rejects what I see in the mirror today. It’s difficult to embrace who I see in the mirror because I have such strong negative connotations with that image (myself). It’s not that I now hate myself or something equally self-deprecating and depressing, it’s that the foundation on which I have structured my identity has begun to shift and it is hard to feel ok with that shift.