It was my senior year of college. I sat at the end of a long oval table in a meeting room in one of the academic buildings. Surrounding me on either side were professors from different departments. Some of them I’d taken classes from, but most I had not. They were interviewing me for a fellowship for which I’d been nominated. It was a very selective process, and only three other students from my school were up for it.
I’m generally okay speaking under pressure in front of a group, but I was absolutely terrified. The professors asked my about my identity—my understanding of who I am and where I came from. I felt paralyzed by fear, and stumbled like a desperate entertainer trying to keep the audience on her side.
I could see the crestfallen face of a religion professor whom I knew wanted to like me. She watched helplessly as I spewed out one badly composed thought after another. I knew what I was saying was complete junk. I tried to distract them with academic buzzwords: “dichotomy,” “paradox,” “equilibrium,” “organic…” Nothing. All I conveyed about my identity was that I had no clue about it.
It was my own fault. The fellowship was based on self-discovery through theme-related travel for a year. The subject was meant to be of personal significance, but maybe I’d taken it too far. My topic was the gaping hole of my family grief—a search for the missing half of my cultural ancestry.
My proposal was to examine my hybrid African-American/Indian identity by studying the impact of Bollywood on the Indian Diaspora (my personal connection being, my father’s from India and my mother is African-American). I’d go to countries with Creole Indian/African mixed populations to observe how popular cinema impacted people’s idea of what makes them “Indian.”
I thought it was a good idea for a project; so did a lot of others. Thus, I found myself at the end of that table of professors. But when the panel asked me questions about Indian culture, basic things that any person with an Indian family should know, I drew blanks.
I might have saved myself by admitting that I had no relationship with my Indian-born father. He abandoned our family when I was a toddler and left me without a dad or any ties to his family. All I inherited was an Indian name and physical features that could belong in South Asia. My family history had ambiguity, but also enough clues about my origins to constantly leave me answering questions and explaining a story that’s sensitive as a wound whenever I’m forced to recount it.
I had plenty of curiosity about my background growing up. I read whatever I could about Indian history, took classes, joined Asian-American student associations. I grew up around immigrants in Queens, New York, although whenever in the presence of my Indian classmates, I always felt like we looked at each other with mutual suspicion. Certain parts of an upbringing can’t be simulated.
Being divorced from your cultural ties can create a deep emotional strain. I once traveled to a remote village in Africa and had to narrate to locals how my mother’s ancestors came to be in the United States and not know where their home in Africa was. People in the village had never heard of the transatlantic slave trade. I described the deadly ships, the pain, being treated like chattel, families destroyed and so on. It felt like I was summoning the memory of a past trauma, but I couldn’t really blame their curiosity and I wanted to help them understand.
When people casually ask me how my Indian grandparents reacted to my father marrying a Black woman, I struggle to think of a more cheerful way to explain that they threatened suicide at even the insinuation of such a thing and, according to my mother, my father eventually caved to social pressure. I always try to quickly change the subject when Indian people quietly (sometimes not so quietly) judge me after I explain that I don’t speak my family’s language and have never visited India. Other questions inspire anger—like when a White person (especially someone who’s been to India) asks if they possibly know more about Indian culture than I do.
This is an extremely uncomfortable topic for me. So much so that I gave nothing in my defense to that panel, not even when I clamored for a lifesaver to get me back on their raft. I could have said, “But wait! I’m not willfully ignorant. Please don’t judge me. Let me tell you a sad story that will make you hate my dad and give me this fellowship, if only to spite him.”
Instead, I lost an opportunity I’d put all my hopes into and decided I would prefer to appear clueless than feel ashamed. The religion professor was of South Asian origin. After the interview was over, she approached me looking dumbfounded. “What happened?” she asked. “I thought I was throwing you softball questions.” I had nothing to say.
A more recent phenomenon in my life is knowing mixed Black and Indian couples or, as one of my Indian-American friends married to a Black man calls them, Blindians. Such relationships still suffer challenges and initial disapproval from parents. But times have changed, and these children of Indian immigrants often grew up with American culture and values (unlike my father, who came to the U.S. alone as an adult). The lines are still formidable but they have blurred, and these once unheard of relationships now have a better chance to thrive.
How do I feel about it? How do I react when my friends compare their mixed kids to me? Part of me is happy for them and for the progress. Another part of me, quite honestly, feels the sting of self-pity. Whereas my experience was often isolating and lonely, some of these families get together and bond. It sounds awful but I secretly envy their kids and their functional, multicultural upbringing.
Many Indian-Americans I know feel judged by the level of their assimilation to U.S. values and norms. Authenticity and cultural proficiency sometimes feels competitive among Indians. When people from the Indian diaspora travel to India, it’s not unusual for them to report not feeling “Indian” enough. In my case, I understand rationally that I am not at fault for my ignorance. However, feeling like an outsider for so long makes it hard to even imagine fitting in.
A friend in a Blindian marriage suggested that she host a party for Blindian families where I would be the guest of honor. As much as I appreciated the thought and thanked her, it’s difficult for me to be the center of attention at such an occasion. I worried that my own story would be too much of a downer. Even describing to her why the idea was uncomfortable made me feel like the world’s greatest killjoy.
My hope is to someday find the strength to celebrate my origins, however messy they are. I strive to escape that ongoing sense of discomfort, like I’m sitting at the end of an oval table, feeling analyzed and forced to explain who I am.