Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"My Subcontinent Is Always in My Subconscious: Indian Heritage in America" by Alisha Andrews

One’s identity can be found through life and the experiences within it. In our WSC class my peers found their identity in different ways: going into the army at the age of 18, living in a negative town their entire childhood, being a certain religion that is misunderstood in America. The experience that helped me find my identity was being the first generation, American-born citizen and living through the struggles of my immigrant parents.

The process of immigration is difficult, but the process of an immigrant adjusting to America is never ending. Both my parents came to America at the age of 18 with their cousins from India, all without their own parents. All 15 of them lived in a 3 story rental house in Queens Village where everyone lived paycheck to paycheck. My parents had 3 jobs at one point so they could live a decent life. My mom took on a job as a cashier at JC Penney and Walmart and as a bank clerk. My dad took on a job as a limousine driver, bank clerk, and a cashier at a local department store. Even though these jobs seemed simple, it was tough for my parents. They had thick Indian accents and would get yelled at by customers to “learn English” and comments like “you should not be working here.” When my dad was a limo driver he had to learn all of New York City's streets and directions to get his clients to where they needed to be. He had no GPS back in his day and would get awful comments if he made one mistake, but little did the people know that he was just learning about America, let alone these locations! Both my parents always got the comment to “go back to your own country!”

These comments reminded me of Gloria Anzaldua’s remark, “We know what it is to live under the hammer blow of the dominant norte-americano culture” (Anzaldua, par 43). The white Americans around her felt as if they owned this country. They believed not knowing fluent English, not having an American accent, and not having white skin means that you do not belong in America. They viewed people with brown skin as inferior and stupid and that they weren’t “qualified” enough to live in this white man’s world. But my parents had tough skin. They were ready to endure these kinds of indifferences and not let it affect them. I give them so much credit for staying strong because they are humans, too, who have feelings, but were treated like subordinates. They worked 7 days a week to save up money for a car so they could have a vehicle. Before they had a car, they were walking to all their destinations and this was hard especially in the harsh, cold winters of New York. Both my parents and their cousins saved up $3000 to buy an old, used car. Even though it was a junk from a shady store in Queens, it was something they could use to drive places. They gave the car dealer all the money they saved up for months to get a car that stopped working the day after they bought it. Yes, they got played. They were just learning the hustle for money in America. But this experience helped them learn that not everyone is who they say they are. My parents struggled so much their first years in America. They went through these hardships and sacrificed everything they had and started a new life all over again just for my brother and I to live a better life than they had.

My brother, Albie, and I were the first generation to be born and raised in America. We were the first to go to school and to university in our families in America. Both of us were exposed to the American culture right away as we entered the school system. We grew up with English as our first language and Malayalam, which is a South Indian language common in Kerala, India, as our second language. My parents made sure that Albie and I became adjusted to both the American and Indian culture. But these two cultures clash at times. In India there is a hierarchy with gender. The male is the head of the family and is seen as superior and has all the freedom in the world. The female is seen as inferior and taught to be conservative and quiet. My parents immigrating to America and seeing a different viewpoint instead of sticking with India’s traditional ways helped build my identity. “Some women can escape social conformity and become conscious of the incredibly sexist, patriarchal society we live in. Others are trapped and are incapable of realizing their true identity because they are the product of someone else’s identity formation” (Solis, par 2). Since I was fortunate enough to grow up in America, I was given the opportunity to put my education first before anything else. I could get a job that did not include housework and I do not need to settle to be a housewife like in India, where it is common for 18-year-old girls to get married off. America holds opportunities to show that women are just as equal to men and can succeed in anything they do through careers and having empowering platforms. In India these opportunities are looked down upon, so many women put a hold on their life so their husbands, fathers, or brothers can live the life they want. I learned that I am more than what a man sees me as even if it is an object, reproducer, or inferior. I was born a woman and therefore need to hold strong to this identity, especially coming from an Indian, sexist community.

The South Asian community also has a persistent point of view when it comes to careers. If you had a daughter, she was supposed to be a nurse or a doctor. If you had a son, he was supposed to be an engineer. Indian parents have such a limited mindset for jobs. They believe only the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) jobs can make you money and be successful. This gets me furious. As a woman not interested in any of the four choices, I feel as though my brown people look down upon me. I am a public relations major in the communications field, which is nowhere dominant with colored people. But this taboo on communications and how it is a “useless field” did not stop me. Constantly getting comments like “communications is not stable,” “you will never make any money with public relations,” or “you should switch your major before it is too late” did not hinder my decision. In fact, it encouraged me to prove them wrong! I chose Hofstra because it is one of the best schools for communications and will continue to go to this university for the next four years. “People might not always think the same way as me either because their identities have been more or less developed, or because their identities have been established in a completely dissimilar system” (Davis, par 9). The brown community does not see the value in communications, but I do. Communications is part of my identity. I am a social person who needs to see “the real” in every person and see the bigger picture of that person’s purpose. Working in public relations is not just a “hello” and “goodbye” conversation, which many people think it is, but investing value in a person, company, or venue. I knew that if I listened to these people, I would most likely be in a nursing program and dreading every second of it. These people have minimal capacity when it comes to career choices. I am proud of myself for keeping true to my identity and my own interests because my career in public relations will define who I am instead of being someone who I am not.

Staying true to my identity as a brown-skinned Indian woman was like fighting a battle with myself. Growing up I realized that I was different from other people in my elementary and middle school. The kids and teachers had lighter hair than me, different colored eyes, and fairer skin tones. To be honest. I felt out of place and wanted to fit in and the only way was to be white. This mindset of fitting in with the white kids destroyed my self-esteem entirely because the reality is that I am brown. I wanted to be from Europe and not Asia. In middle school we had culture day where we talked about our heritage and I was extremely embarrassed to tell everyone that I was Indian. I avoided using words like “curry” and talking in my native language so kids would not laugh at me and see me as the “weird girl.” I wanted straight, thin hair and not thick, curly hair. I remember one white girl coming up to me in elementary school and asking me, “Why is your hair so curly and black?” I just stood there and questioned my hair as well because I did not know why my hair was different. I wanted to be superior and not inferior. This hierarchy between races that I mentally created really affected the growth of my identity. When I was younger I viewed white people as a higher race. I belittled myself because of my own skin color.  I was one of the few colored people on my school bus in elementary school. This led to the white kids bullying me and calling me names like “Indian warthog” and such. This created the fear in my mind that the whites had power and control over me. If I saw a white person standing behind me on the lunch line, I would let them go in front of me. If I needed to pick a partner for projects, I would instantly pick the white girls first. In a sense, I idolized having white skin. I saw white skin as the key to having a successful, easy life.

Oh boy, was I wrong! As I got older I realized how limited was my mindset. There was no real reason to think of my brown skin and my culture with a negative connotation.“’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that Party, you’re not only a chump, but you’re a traitor to your race” (Malcolm X, par 13).  I needed to accept that I was an Indian, brown-skinned girl and that will never change. I had to be proud of who my parents were and who they raised me to be. I had to get out of this narrow-minded environment where I superiorized white people.

Going into high school everything changed. I viewed everyone as equal and that no one was better than another because of their skin color. I realized that skin color is part of one’s heritage. Everybody is still human, as cliche as it sounds, it is true. If you live closer to the equator you will have darker skin. If you live farther from the equator you will have lighter skin. This is just geography and not something you can control. So to belittle myself off these factors that I could not control was insane of me. I started accepting myself for who I was and started being more confident in my heritage. If I could go back to the girl who asked me why my hair was so curly and black, I would tell her it is because I am Indian and this is what most South Indian girls have. I learned to embrace my Indianness and become aware of the rest of the world. As I grew older I realized that there is more than the white race and so many other cultures to be exposed to. "Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or, in other words, of the good” (Plato, par 46). Plato explains how I felt with my entire Indian crisis. I needed to find strength within myself to identify as an Indian and not be ashamed of it. I was stuck in this close-minded mentality that limited my capacity and power to find acceptance in myself. My viewpoint needed to be expanded from this “white supremacy” to seeing all races as one.

My viewpoint changing really helped develop my identity. I am nowhere the same person I was a few years ago. My homeostasis changed. My parents made a pathway by immigrating to America to be exposed to many opportunities which I will forever be thankful for. Being in communications field for my career adds onto my identity as a socializer and a barrier breaker for the Indian community. Accepting my skin color and being proud of my Indian heritage, while conquering my irrational fear of white supremacy, evolved myself to be true to who I am. As they say in Malayalam, നിങ്ങൾ നൽകുന്ന ജീവനെ സ്നേഹിക്കുക (niṅṅaḷ nalkunna jīvane snēhikkuka), love the life you are given.

Works Cited
Anzaldua, Gloria. "How to Tame a Wild Tongue."

Davis, Brittany.  "Mastering a Free-Thinking Perspective." 1 Jan. 2017,

Plato. The Allegory of the Cave. VII, ser. 514a-521b,,

Solis, Lola. "Is Feminism the New F Word? From Resistant to Responsive,"

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