Cultural Inheritance vs Assimilation

The Trials of Being a First Generation Citizen

Language. Food. Religion. Tradition. All these things and more combine to create what we think of as cultural heritage. Both of my parents come from India, but I was born in the US. I lived in Canada for most of the formative years of my life before returning to the US for high school and college. When someone asks me where I’m from, my immediate answer is Canada. I sometimes follow that with a, well… Michigan, now, I guess, but instinct tells me to say Canada. That’s always going to be true. What I’m never going to say, not without being asked and intentionally thinking about it, is that I’m Indian.

My parents speak completely fluent English with barely any trace of an accent—if you’re listening closely, you might catch a small indicator that they aren’t from here, but nothing obvious. They both grew up speaking the language. Their families come from different parts of India, even though they’re both from Mumbai, and while my mom learned Bengali, my dad never learned Tamil. As a result of all of this, I’m fluent in English, capable of getting by with rough Bengali, and able to mostly understand, but not speak, Tamil and Hindi. It feels like I’ve lost something. I may have never had that something to begin with, but by not being able to speak my parents’ languages fluently, it feels like I’m missing a huge part of my cultural inheritance.

I’ve never lived in India. I don’t really know how to make Indian food. If I try to drape a saree, I look like a child playing dress up. I feel uncomfortable and unnatural in Indian clothes. When I speak any of the languages, it’s with a heavy accent. I try, with all these aspects of culture, I do, but in some ways, it’s too late for me. It’s not something I can adopt as an adult without a lot more commitment and time than I really have.

Neither of my parents are very religious. I’m definitely not. I have a statuette of Ganesha on my dresser, but not out of any belief. My father is a staunch atheist who occasionally goes with my mom to a temple for the food. My mother will occasionally say a prayer or light some candles, but those are rare occasions. We’re certainly not a family where we go to services every week. Hinduism means next to nothing to me.

I’m Canadian. But to a lot of people here, I don’t belong. I have a funny name that people struggle to pronounce and dark skin that marks me as clearly different. The first time any guy has called me beautiful was a few months ago. The descriptor I usually get is cute—something that could apply just as easily to a puppy or a baby. I’m reasonably confident in my physical attractiveness, but that’s really damn hard to be when the most validation I get about it is from my mom and my best friend—two people that are pretty much obligated to say I’m pretty. I make a lot of jokes about being the ugly friend even though I don’t think I’m ugly, or even necessarily uglier than my friends, because what else am I supposed to think when I don’t get asked out or get compliments?

I’m just as Canadian and just as American as anyone. But it’s tough to fit in despite that. It’s not enough for me to just be a regular North American college girl. No, in order for me to be seen as what I am and not just as an Indian engineering girl, I have to throw myself into every aspect of what people expect from that demographic. Even when it’s not expected from white girls, especially white engineering girls.

I can’t just go out in sweats or yoga pants without being perceived as a gross slob, not just a tired student. My eyebrows always have to be threaded because it’s obvious when they’re not. I have to always be showing some skin because otherwise, the first assumption is that I’m super religious. With a lot of people, I can’t suggest going out for Indian food. I have to point out that I’m an atheist. Actively avoiding every stereotype is the only way for me to avoid at least some automatic assumptions—which probably results in me being stereotyped as something else.

That’s not me.

I’m a perpetually exhausted engineering student. I don’t have it in me to put in so much effort every time I meet friends. I don’t understand the concept of romantic or sexual attraction, so I shouldn’t feel hurt when people are attracted to my friends and not me, because I can’t reciprocate anyway, but I still do. I want to be secure enough in who I am to not have to do any of that, but I’m not. I’m a girl that’s struggled to make friends her entire life, that’s always been the weird person that can’t relate to others or pick up social cues, that never got asked to school dances. If some mascara and a little pretending is enough to change that, well, I’ll do it. I still remember what it felt like to be in elementary school and have kids laugh and make fun of the food my mom packed me for lunch. I’m not comfortable enough in my skin for that to roll off my back. I should be. But I’m not.

Sometimes it feels like in order to really be accepted, I have to give up on that last, tenuous grasp on my cultural inheritance. I don’t want to do that. I want to fit in, but I don’t want to lose the last ties I have to India. Not because they mean a lot to me, but because it feels like they should. It feels like it shouldn’t be so easy to let them slip away.

My maternal grandmother died several years ago, and I still miss her. She’s the primary reason I feel a need to hold onto the culture of a country I’ve never really known. I barely remember a time when she wasn’t sick. Unlike my paternal grandmother, she never lived in the same country as me. I saw her on occasion, once every couple of years, and never for overly long. And what do I have left of her? Some jewelry and clothes; a “learn Tamil in 30 days” book; and maybe in a box somewhere, the notepads she used to teach me algebra. I obsess over that language book. I never learned while she was alive. I should have. Now it feels almost too late. I’m 20, and starting now would be much harder than had I tried to learn as a child.

It’s a constant struggle for me to try to find some balance between being the North American college student that I am and remembering I’m the daughter of immigrants from a place with a long history. I should never be ashamed of or embarrassed by that heritage at all. My grandfather was a gunrunner before independence. The women in my family are all smart as whips and tough as nails. While it would be inaccurate to say I’m proud of said family history, I’m certainly not embarrassed by it anymore. Self-acceptance isn’t an easy path. I’m still working on it. But I’ll get there. I know it.

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