Sunday, November 15, 2009

Perched on a Hyphen

I said I would do a post a day in 75 words, but I didn't say I would give up my longer posts (and I didn't say I wouldn't, thought that was mainly because it didn't fit under the 75 words). And this one is most definitely long, but it's okay, because I've finally discovered how to put things after the jump!

I've mentioned this before, but I'm Indian-American. I don't mean American Indian, or rather, Native American (honestly, just because Columbus got his geography wrong doesn't mean we all have to). I mean I'm a desi. I'm from the Indian subcontinent. Except I was born here in America.

As I used to say when I was younger, I'm 100% Indian (genetically, from both my parents) and I'm 100% American (born and mostly raised here). Unfortunately, I've always been extremely skinny and I have no twin or clone, so anyone who looks at me knows that I am obviously not 200% of a person.

At the time, there didn't seem to be much Indian-ness infusing my behavior, and I believed it pretty easily split down the middle like that. I didn't care for Telugu movies (though I understood the language just fine), Carnatic music (it seemed more boring when I was 6...wish I'd stuck it out a bit longer then), or classical dance (really any dance at that time - I was kind of a tomboy).

And then I got to high school, where that didn't change too much until my last two years. That was the first time I went to a dance, and surprise! I liked dancing. Who knew? There weren't too many Indians at my school, but there were enough to create an Indian club. I only joined it since my best friend was the president (I keep putting off joining Indus or ISA at Berkeley). Because of that association, I was forced to learn some Bollywood dancing. As it turned out, I liked that too. And that re-introduced me to the world of Bollywood and Tollywood movies, which had increased in quality in the time I had ignored them. And now it wasn't so simple.

My English teacher senior year gave my friend a quote to use in her college application essays that had to do with being Anything-American and being "perched on the hyphen." At the time, and even through my first year of college, I didn't really feel I could apply to myself.

How I feel. Original bird photo credit: Furryscaly

Now, though, I understand it. More and more in college, I've had trouble figuring out where I am. It's not just a matter of my interests anymore. I can see that I as a person am different from most, and I can see that a large part of it comes from my upbringing. So maybe I didn't learn Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. So maybe I stopped my sangeetham lessons after a few weeks of sa-re-ga-ma. But I knew how to understand, speak, read, and write Telugu. I went to India every couple of summers to visit the vast majority of my kin that live there. And my parents, who had done their PhDs here a while before I was born, were relatively liberal. But they were still Indian, and the way they brought me up reflected the way they were brought up.

I also don't have all that many Indian friends. I make friends with those who are in my classes, or people I meet otherwise, but I don't seek them out any more than I seek out people of any other ethnicity. So I suppose I lack a base of comparison. And compared to most other Indian parents I've met or heard of, my parents were more liberal with expectations and yet somehow better at keeping me "angelic" (rather than just expecting me to be so). So I still don't quite fit in.

My freshman year, I didn't have Indian friends. But I didn't have this feeling either. My roommate was an Israeli-American jazz singer, and to be honest, we identified with each other much better than I have with any other Indian. Our backgrounds seemed so similar despite the cultural differences.

This last year and a half has been harder on me. My best friend from high school, who got me into the Indian stuff, went to college as well, so I see her much less often. My roommates now are all Chinese-Americans. I'm extremely fond of them, but there are some things that they just can't get, that require a long explanation of the cultural background (which my jazz singing roommate always seemed more interested in), or that they don't particularly care about.
(Except Dizzle, thanks for coming to Bollywood dance class with me!)

So sometimes I don't know what to do. I get split between American culture and Indian culture, and I feel like there's nobody who knows both sides of me. The two roommates I've had who could kind of see the words on either side of my hyphen are both living elsewhere now (neither of which had anything to do with how well we got along). But you know, when one door closes, another opens. Each time I lose a roommate (or suddenly have to share attention with a boyfriend), I get to know another one better.

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