Updated: Nov 15, 2020
PHHS '17, Lafayette College '21
Being from Parsippany, we know how much our town likes to boast about its cultural diversity. Nonetheless, when I was growing up and going through the PTHSD system, I didn’t feel like being an Indian American living in the town of “Parsindia” (a nickname so ~tenderly~ bestowed upon Parsippany, typically used by the majority population to express subtle xenophobia) was anything special and/or unique. I suppose for a good reason -- I could always count on being surrounded by people who looked like me, or at least other people who were acclimated to interacting with people who looked like me.
Despite the ability to seamlessly blend and integrate in a community like this, I never did go out of my way to connect with my “home” culture. I made it a point to NOT join the Indian Cultural Club and I put myself in a position to reject whatever cultural ties I did have, desperately trying to disassociate myself from any Indian stereotypes that may have been conjured up within the minds of my white classmates. It was a self-inflicted case of “whitewashing”: a term that has become all too familiar to identify people of color in the United States, and a term I have come to resent.
Funnily, once I got to college, something changed. My school is a predominantly white institution and on campus it became abundantly clear that there were very few people who looked like me. Within the first few weeks of college, I joined the South Asian Student Association and I was added to their group chat of a mighty team of 26 brown bodies, in contrast with a sea of thousands of white people.
At the first meeting, I remember being greeted to a group of not just South Asian-Americans, but many people directly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Guyana. At first I was definitely overwhelmed as I was coming from a place in which I had denied myself of really understanding my identity, culture, and experience for years. It would have been easy for me to say that I couldn’t relate to this group and just walk away, but for some reason, more than anything, I wanted to be able to connect with these people.
I realized after a couple years why I wanted so badly for that group to mean something to me. On a predominantly white campus, I’m usually the only or one of very few women of color in any room. It takes a decent amount of energy and confidence to be able to assert myself, prove why I should be valued in a certain space, and justify why my contributions are just as, or even more, valid than those of Kyle’s from Chi Apple Pi fraternity. I recognized that in the South Asian Student Association the color of my skin could be reason enough for me to exist comfortably in that space. If I really wanted, this could be a place where I didn’t need to work so hard to explain myself.
I may have come to this conclusion a little later than some of my fellow Indians from Parsippany, and I know this is not everyone’s experience. I envy those of you who appeared to have found a home in where you came from, immersing yourself in the already lively Indian culture in Parsippany from the time you were young.
For many first generation kids in the US, forming an identity is a balance of understanding what it means to be American while also maintaining your family’s traditional “culture.” It’s definitely still something I’m working on. I couldn’t tell you how to drape a sari, but I could tell you a thing or two about “the elephant god” (but literally -- just a thing or two). I haven’t made any curries lately (sorry mom) but I certainly can provide some sound advice on what to order from an Indian restaurant.
Once I got to college I recognized that the places I came from (Parsippany, India, etc.) would always inform my experience, and therefore make up different parts of my identity. As an incoming college student, it’s difficult at first to understand what parts of your background you identify with. But, your next few years present a perfect opportunity for you to really dig deeper into that search. So, for those of you who don’t necessarily have a straightforward answer to the “where are you from,” I hope you continue to develop an acceptance, and even pride, in your assorted identity, enabling you to more easily find comfort and community wherever your future takes you.