The following post is part of a campaign in partnership with the Washington Leadership Program (WLP), called #SouthAsianAnd. Together, we want to showcase the stories of South Asians in America beyond our race and the stereotypes attached to it. On Thursday, April 14, we’re hosting a Twitter chat to talk about our #SouthAsian identities and beyond. Join us by following the hashtag #SouthAsianAnd.
One of my family’s favorite past-times is ridiculing Food Network chefs: Guy Fieri’s aggressive masculinity, Ina Garten’s “nonchalant” elegance, and Giada de Laurentiis’s constant over-pronunciation of words like “mozzarella” and “prosciutto.”
When I mentioned to a friend of Italian descent that I found Giada a little over-the-top, he bristled. “People are mispronouncing those words!” he argued. “She’s just trying to be authentic.”
He wasn’t wrong—which got me wondering why some of us find Giada’s emphasized Italian accent so jarring. Words related to Italian cuisine are firmly embedded in mainstream vocabulary. Everyone has a basic idea of what ricotta cheese, rotini, or bruschetta are, and most can identify their cultural origins as Italian. Now that these words are so ubiquitous, though, it feels a little silly to hear someone try to return them to “authenticity.”
Our expectation is that their origins, while acknowledged, have become a little diluted. As they’ve incorporated into our vocabulary, their original, un-American identity has paled (and transformed, as the dishes we know often don’t resemble their initial conceptions in Italy).
With the recently increased visibility of my own Indian heritage, I’m starting to see that authenticity might be the cost of assimilation into mainstream culture. Growing up, I encountered an utter lack of knowledge about where I came from. Getting someone to understand that I wasn’t a descendant of Pocahontas was a victory in its own right; for them to know anything about the languages, cultural touchstones, or historical landmarks of India was a downright rarity. I fielded questions about riding camels and if people spoke different languages “over there”; when Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys” took over the radio, friends told me they’d always thought the non-English lyrics were in “Jamaican.” I dealt with similar ignorance about Hinduism. Some didn’t know it existed. No one knew what an Om symbol or Ganesha looked like; our festivals were never acknowledged in school (unless my mom championed for their inclusion).
In the last ten years or so, I’ve seen dramatic changes in the prevalence of South Asian culture. “Slumdog Millionaire” introduced Americans to A.R. Rahman’s transcendent genius; the practice of yoga has positively skyrocketed; and more South Asians in entertainment means we’re seeing ourselves in media more than ever.
When I was younger, any sort of visibility felt like progress. Hearing bhangra on the radio or seeing a brown character on television thrilled me, even if people didn’t know the song was in Punjabi or the brown character was a one-dimensional stereotype. At first, seeing my “othered” culture in the mainstream felt like seeing a hometown acquaintance star in a blockbuster movie—like someone was giving my underrated background some clout.
But as the visibility increased, I found myself growing dismayed. When white friends who had never heard of Bollywood raved to me about the “Bollywood dance scene” at the end of “Slumdog Millionaire,” I was excited that my ignored dance form was getting some attention. But “Jai Ho” disappointed me. Compared to the Bollywood-produced musical numbers I’d grown up watching (and emulating at the annual Diwali function), “Jai Ho” felt stale and low-energy. Its choreography lacked imagination; the dancing (because it was done by non-Bollywood actors) was devoid of the vivid expression and storytelling that is Bollywood’s hallmark. Instead of sharing in anyone’s enjoyment, I found myself correcting people’s interpretation of Bollywood whenever they brought up “Jai Ho,” or calling out their mispronunciation of “A.R. Rahman,” reminding them that he has produced incredible volumes of music outside of one British-directed film.
Similarly, my peers when I was younger wouldn’t recognize an Om when it was on a necklace around my neck; didn’t know that Sanskrit ever existed. As hippie culture makes its comeback, though, I see symbols of my religion everywhere—accompanied by a total lack of understanding of their true origins or meanings.
An Om tapestry in a friend’s brother’s bedroom—hanging upside-down. Images of Ganesh and Hanuman in my local yoga studio that are never explained or referred to by name. The Gayatri mantra playing on a loop in my yoga class, but sung by someone clearly unpracticed in pronouncing Sanskrit (their R’s sound American, they can’t enunciate the “bh” or “th” sounds). An Om tattoo on an acquaintance’s foot that made me physically cringe when I noticed it. “Color runs” where everyone wears white and throws color on each other, with no allusion to Holi, the holiday that Hindus celebrate the same way (for free, without running three miles).
I now feel a little like Giada when I encounter these symbols, desperately trying to ensure my origins retain some of the credit for pioneering trends or spiritual ways of thinking. Seeing my heritage get some publicity always excites me; it’s a natural reaction when you spent much of your life feeling like you hailed from an isolated colony no one knew about (a point well-made in this article about immigrant parents and cultural appropriation). But the publicity brings with it a faux-understanding, a comprehension-lite. India’s customs, religious practice, and language vary hugely from region to region, making it difficult to represent India completely inclusively. And as with any culture, Indian culture contains many more facets than its cuisine, movies, or music. In an attempt to relate or prove a level of awareness, some people end up using their patchy knowledge to demonstrate more ignorance.
So, that leaves me wondering: Do I prefer a total lack of knowledge—where at least I could then be in charge of educating—or this false awareness, with the pro of increased visibility and superficial cachet?
I know that many cultures have already experienced this assimilation into the mainstream; that it forms part and parcel of the “melting pot” ideal. Giada and my Italian friend may never have to explain that mozzarella is a type of cheese, but they do routinely have to tolerate its mispronunciation, or encounter American-perpetuated misconceptions of Italian cuisine and culture.
While there are positive aspects of allowing our identities to amalgamate, the watering-down of our origins can also represent the sad steps we take to avoid persecution. Nell Irvin Painter reminds us in her article “What is Whiteness?” that though we consider white a monolithic racial identity today, the existence of “plural white races” pitted Celts and Saxons against one another in the 18th century; followed by a denigration of Italians, Jews, and Greeks; and then, in the wake of World War I, a distancing from Germanic origins. The erasure of those identities has contributed to tense race relations today; whiteness in America is now characterized by a (subjective) lack of color, putting minorities in opposition to a reductively homogeneous white majority.
Our previous pressures to make immigrants forsake their identities in the name of assimilation has led to a climate in which non-Western cultures are constantly “othered”—despite the fact that many European nations may have customs that seem just as foreign to us as Asian ones.
I’m hopeful that we can prevent “cultural dilution” from continuing. The growing accessibility of media is giving modern immigrants a voice—a privilege that immigrants before us lacked. Shows like “Master of None,” movies like “Meet the Patels,” and websites like BrownGirlMagazine.com allow for the integration of immigrant culture into mainstream media without entirely sacrificing its complexity.
Telling our stories—through writing, visual art, television, filmmaking, or even just discussion—can help us ensure that we leave a cultural legacy with nuance, depth, and authenticity.
Meghana Kaloji is a second-year medical student with a B.A. in English literature and an M.A. in public health. She is passionate about narrative medicine, women’s reproductive rights, and the role of social justice in healthcare. Her other obsessions include Parks and Recreation, carrots with hummus, used bookstores, and fuzzy socks.