by Shritin Patel – Houston Baptist University
I can still remember the feeling of embarrassment and contempt I felt at my culture when my 5th grade teacher refused to take any of the food I made because she thought I had a disease that afflicted my hands. That “disease” was my henna. Growing up in the suburbs meant to conform to the cookie cutter mold; being different was not a good thing. My henna, my mum’s Indian clothes at Open Houses, and the smell of spices permeating from my house were all frowned upon. I did not care though. I wanted to fit in so badly, so badly that I would happily give up anything. What was the price for my spot in the assembly line you ask? My culture.
As a child, I wanted so desperately to be a part of 90’s American culture. I pretended to know all the words to the latest Backstreet Boys and NSYNC songs. I got dressed up and fumbled my way through awkward middle school dances. I ate sloppy Joes and made sure to make a mess of my face and shirt. I entered talent shows and did renditions of Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” I harassed my parents for the latest fad: Giga Pets, Doc Martens, Pogs, etc. I did everything I could think of so my friends would think I was one of them. While I was hard at work on my self-transformation, I completely neglected my Indian culture. I shunned Bollywood. I scoffed at kids who came to school in Indian clothes. I made fun of girls with henna on their hands even though, secretly, I envied the beauty and color of it. I argued incessantly with my mum about why we were eating Gujarati food every day. Was it too much to ask for to have a pizza or some other typical “American” meal? My mum and I got into countless debates and arguments about my lack of enthusiasm for the Indian culture. She didn’t understand why I was trying so hard to hide a piece of myself, and I didn’t understand why she was sabotaging my quest to be a REAL American.
When I visited India a few years ago, I saw the overwhelming display of culture surrounding me, and I was utterly consumed by it. Temples made from pure white marble, chiseled by hand, and with more love and devotion than I could imagine were everywhere. Food stalls emitting heavenly smells of freshly fried Jalebi sent my nostrils into frenzy. Motorcycles, cars, rickshaws, and bicycles navigating roads filled with cows, goats, dogs, cats, and chickens left me awestruck. Bollywood songs blasting from small radios inside sari shops that offered the loveliest outfits in the most vibrant hues imaginable were on every corner. The vibrant colors, the beautiful textures, the scrumptious smells, and the never-ending love I saw made me stop in my tracks. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I spent half of my life trying hard to be something I thought I wanted to be, and in one breathtaking moment everything I thought I believed in was thrown out the window. What had I been doing? Thinking back to that moment, I have no idea why I ever thought adopting a culture was better than trying to understand the one I was a part of.
Living in one culture does not mean that we have to give up our other culture. The trick is to find a good balance. As a South Asian female living in America, I’ve struggled to assimilate my whole life. Instead, I should have been learning to be comfortable in my own skin. Life is not about fitting into a neat little box. It’s about gaining wisdom and strength from experience. At the ripe age of twenty-two, I think I have finally begun to understand that a balance between my American culture and my Indian culture is possible. Like a patchwork quilt, each aspect is unique and wonderful on its own; but only when it has been sewn seamlessly together can a beautiful and inspiring picture be made.