Culture, Race, and Identity: Growing up as an Indian-American / by Shivang Patel

Preface: I recognize and understand the privileges I have/have had growing up in a comfortable upper middle-class home in suburban America. I recognize the privilege I have being a male. My parents’ sacrifices have allowed me to grow up free of concerns that many fellow Americans and many people around the world have to face on a daily basis. I am fortunate enough to have received a world-class education at no cost to myself. I have had many opportunities and experiences that have allowed me the chance to reach my full potential every step of the way, and for those I am tremendously grateful. Even though I am a minority, I recognize that my “race” and ethnicity have afforded me certain privileges.

Growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, life was safe, easy, and usually delightful. I always had more than enough food to eat, went to great schools, and had most comforts I would need/want. There was not much to complain about in my town of West Chester, Ohio. Although my life at home was heavily influenced by the culture my immigrant parents brought with them, outside of my house I felt like any other child even if I was only one of a handful of non-white kids at school. I dressed the same, I acted the same, I liked the same TV shows as any other kid. In my head, I saw no differences between me and everyone else.

It wasn’t until second grade that I began noticing the concept of race that society forces upon us. One day I was looking at a poster that had all the American Presidents’ names and portraits, and I asked my teacher why everyone on the poster was white and a man. She didn’t have a real response for me, and just said she didn’t know why and that’s how it was. I can’t blame her for her response as I was only a 7-year-old. That same year was when 9/11 happened. I don’t actually remember 9/11 when it happened, but I definitely felt it as it changed the discourse in the U.S, impacting many aspects of life.

After 9/11 there was a lot of fear in the country, rightfully so. But this fear along with ignorance and misinformation led to discrimination and hate. I first felt this discrimination as a kid when I was called a terrorist by peers. I remember when it first happened, and then again and then again. I remember the kids who said it. I remember other kids laughing. I remember teachers not doing anything about it. I didn’t know what to say then, and I don’t think I realized the full extent of what they were saying or why. But clearly it was because I had brown skin, and clearly this mentality was taught. No one is born a racist; it’s taught.

Since then and throughout my life I have faced racism and discrimination. There are several incident I don’t like to repeat or write about because they still sting. I have never told my parents about any of them because as much as they’ve hurt me I know they would devastate them. They came to the land of opportunity not for themselves but for their offspring to have a better life and upbringing than they did back in India. Knowing that this country where you in theory are free to be whoever you want has been nasty to their son just because of just his skin color would kill them.

Individuals have been racist toward me, but Indian-Americans rarely face violence or institutional racism in the US like members of the black and Latino communities do. The institutional racism that many young, black men in this country face is abhorring and shameful, as highlighted by current events. In no way am I saying that my experience as an Indian-American is worse or even comparable to the average black or Latino experience in America that the media portrays. Asians in American did have it bad in the past. Between 1880 and 1965, Asians were by law excluded from the country. It wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Asians were even allowed in the country. Times are different now though. I know that I can walk or drive down the street without being questioned or inspected by the authorities. As thankful as I am for this privilege, I know that wherever there is privilege, there has to be discrimination. They’re two sides of the same coin. My American-ness, however, does get questioned.

There have been many times when others think I am not American (or American enough) because of my skin color. No white or black person in the US will ever get his or her American-ness questioned because of his or her skin color. An example of this is when people have asked where I am from, and then after not being satisfied of my answer of “Ohio,” they proceed to ask where I am really from. This is very annoying, and happened rather often when I worked at a country club. No white or black person in the US will ever get asked where they are really from, even if they themselves are immigrants.

Outside of my home I was not/am not American enough. Inside of my home I was not Indian enough. Growing up, we had Indian food nearly everyday, primarily spoke Gujarati, and I lived in a multi-generational home like Indians do (or did). My parents made sure to instill within me the culture in which they were raised. It made sense that they wanted to preserve their culture. I, however, remember my parents sometimes telling me not to “act too American” whenever they deemed that something I was doing or a way I was behaving was not “proper.” My parents and I were often at odds with each other because of this. It felt like I was living two lives, balancing my American-ness and Indian-ness.

It wasn’t until I went to India as a 15-year-old that I realized how American I am. For the first time in my life I was not a racial minority, but even then I was still so different from everyone around me. My skin color was the same, but I dressed differently, I behaved differently, I spoke differently. It was definitely an enlightening experience.

I do take pride in my Indian heritage. There is so much richness in that culture. The older I get the more I appreciate it. When I was younger I was not fond of it, and that began with my name. Other kids would always make fun of it and bully me about it while in elementary school. I dreaded substitute teachers because they would somehow find a new variation on my name’s pronunciation, and then the entire class would be in an uproar using it to tease me until this newly found mispronunciation was beaten into the ground. Eventually, I had learned that I had to say my name before the substitute did (when he or she did roll call) in order to minimize the teasing.

I would go through it all again though because my name allows me to have a connection to my heritage and to my ancestors. Naturally I am more assimilated to the general American culture than my parents are, and I know my kids will be even more so. I don’t know how effectively I will be able to pass on this Indian heritage to my progeny, if at all, so I know want them to have Indian names because I hope it will also serve as a bridge to their roots as it did for me.

Traveling these last couple of months, I have seen many different peoples and cultures. It has been really interesting to observe, and it has forced me to reflect upon myself. It has also made me appreciate the fact that I have grown up in two cultures because it has afforded me so many experiences and given me a unique perspective. Balancing these two facets of my identity has been (and is) challenging and complex, but I know now that I would never change it.

Thank you for reading!

There are many other aspects of being Indian-American (and Asian-American in general) that can be addressed like being the “model minority,” not having role models who are in the public light, affirmative action, being grouped together as one people by the government/ society. Those are topics for another discussion. The Atlantic recently published a couple of pieces on the topics of the model minority and affirmative action that are interesting to read.