What “my kind” of people means

When I was in IKEA once in Phoenix with my ex-husband, an Indian couple stopped me and asked me if was from India. I said yes and a conversation ensued. I was both put off by these strangers’ impertinent question and delighted by it, because, in actuality, every time I see an Indian person out and about, I think – oooh they are Indian, I want to talk to them! I guess this happens when you’re a minority and you see one of “your kind” out in the wild (especially in very homogenous white places).

Ever since I moved to the relatively diverse Bay Area from a very white Portland, I’m becoming clearer about what “my kind” means. As it turns out, it’s complicated.

I’m essentially what is called an ABCD, an American Born Confused Desi (desi is someone of South Asian descent). Even though I am not American-born, my family moved here when I was just a small child, an 8-yr-old, and I grew up here, so my connections to Indian culture are through what my parents kept alive for us in the household and through our connection to desi diaspora communities.

When I hang out with more recent desi immigrants, folks who have been here maybe less than 10 years, there is, surprisingly, a cultural gap between us. Our humor is a bit different, our cultural references are different, and even the way we use the English language is different.

For example, I went out with two more recently immigrated Indian friends and they sprinkled in a good dose of Hindi phrases in our conversation that were lost on me and made some references to Indian movies, songs, and food I didn’t know. My childhood musical references include Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Rush in greater measure than Bollywood music. Even though there was this cultural gap, there was a satisfying cultural overlap as well with these friends. On the other hand, I have gone on dates with men who are relatively recent immigrants from India and unfortunately I felt the cultural gap between us was too large to form a potential for a life partnership that would be fulfilling for me.

By the same token, I remember hanging out at all-white parties in Portland feeling very much like I had to morph myself to fit into the white American culture and repress my Indian Muslim culture and values so I could fit in and be liked. Frankly, I found that my white American friends’ understanding of Indian culture was pretty limited. Being only exposed to other white people will do that to you. I realized I become frustrated with American folks who have such little understanding of different cultures and I have a hard time connecting with them.

My mom has always cooked amazing traditional Kutchi dishes for us. She was influenced by Tanzanian cuisine too and after 30+ years in the States, her food is naturally influenced by American cuisine as well, like she sometimes prepares Indian-style quesadillas and pizza. Our Indian cultural heritage was kept alive for my wandering family through food and it still is. I can’t tell you how whole and complete I feel when I cook and eat the Indian food of my family.

My ex-husband, a Wisconsin native who grew up on meat and potatoes where even garlic was considered an exotic spice, had a hard time getting used to my family’s and my Indian cooking. So I didn’t cook a whole lot at home and we just ate out, normally food that suited his Midwestern American palette. While this was by no means the reason that we broke up, this divide did have a negative impact on our relationship, because it’s through cooking and eating Indian food that I connect with my Indian roots and it is so important to me to keep that tradition alive in my life. When the spices and flavors I grew up with were not a part of our lives together, it felt like an important part of me was missing.

Being Indian immigrants to Africa first then the US, our family culture is really a confluence of different streams, though the riverbed is the Indian culture that has shaped us most. Walking around as a specific confluence of cultural streams adds another level of challenge in connecting with people, in making friends, in dating and in creating community. And it adds an ability to relate to a wider swath of people than I would if I were a cultural monolith, which is a super power and in some ways makes it easier to connect with people, to make friends, to date and to create diverse and robust community.

The best cultural fit for me has been people of all races who are culturally American and who have grown up here and those who are relatively comfortable and somewhat versed in different cultures. This is not at all what I expected for myself. I really thought I would connect better with people from India, but the reality is that my best friends are culturally American and I feel more similar to them than I do with folks that are more culturally Indian. For a time I thought that this was a result of self-loathing, but I’ve stopped thinking about it that way. The truth is that I’m a cultural hybrid and I’ve decided to stop judging myself for being more connected with the American culture than I am to the Indian culture.

But even that statement doesn’t really get to the truth of it. I’m a fluid bi-cultural creature that’s hard to pin down. I’m part American, part Indian and not cut in half either but more of a tapestry woven together with interconnected strands of American culture and strands of Indian culture.

The trouble happens when I deny one or the other part of me.

I found this out when I lived in Portland, which is one of the whitest cities in America. For years, essentially all my friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and all the people I saw on the streets were white. Being in this environment, my Indian identity felt starved. I used to take infrequent pilgrimages to this wonderful Indian grocery store and restaurant a 30-minute drive out in the suburb of Hillsboro and my thirst for my culture was quenched periodically that way.

When I had a white American roommate in Portland, I was warming a paratha on the stove and she said, wow, that smells like really good tea. I was so taken aback by her cluelessness of what food I was cooking that I didn’t even correct her. Her lack of even the most basic understaning of Indian food made me feel really alone and not seen, which is how I felt in Portland in general because it was filled with white Americans who had such little exposure to different cultures in their lives that many were culturally illiterate and incompetent.

Nowadays in my life, I have learned that both parts of me are here to stay, my American self and my Indian self and they both need nurturing and feeding. I can’t reject either. I’m learning to navigate this hybrid life with different kinds of people, traditions, and situations that feed different parts of me and cobbling together a whole that makes sense for me, without judging it and by paying attention to what I need. And I realize how being a fluid cultural creature is a thing of beauty and of service to others as it enables and facilitates cross-cultural understanding.