Recently, my boyfriend was over at my house and asked if he could defrost some of my mom’s homemade Indian cooking. I tried to get him to eat something else instead—a sandwich, some mac and cheese, but what he really wanted was the kebabs my mom makes, the rice I make, the dhaal and tomato chutney that I defrost and revive by frying. I am lucky: my mom spoils me by sending frozen food back with me when I visit her, a tradition she started when I first moved out to go to college and realized how utterly homesick I was for her cooking after days of bland spaghetti and cereal at the dining halls.
In that moment, I realized that I hesitated to make the food because my roommate and her friends were over, and I was embarrassed that they would smell it.
“Embarrassed? Your mom’s food smells amazing,” he reassured me when I confessed the reason.
He was right. I knew better than to be embarrassed by a part of my identity, a part that I loved and wanted to honor. But the moment had triggered so many moments before just like it: moments that are layered with the realization that there is something in me that is different, and because it’s different it is maybe not as good, something to be embarrassed of. When I was in elementary school, I marveled at the contents of my friends’ lunch boxes. Peanut butter and jelly seemed like an exotic combination. A cold slice of pizza was a dream. I was jealous of every single friend who had macaroni and cheese for dinner. Meanwhile, I strategically hid my lunch in my lap, beneath the picnic table surface, and slowly unwrapped the foil. I never knew what my mom would pack: dishes that would have names too long to list here, sometimes fried okra wrapped in roti, other times plastic boxes of cold rice and curry. It didn’t matter what it was; I was always torn when I uncovered my lunch—half excited to eat my favorite meal, and half embarrassed by the colors and the smells—so different from what anyone around me was eating. I ate quickly and as much as I could manage, secretly.
“What’s that?” was something even some of my closest friends would ask sometimes, scrunching up their noses in disgust.
“Indian food,” I answered shyly, never knowing how I felt about revealing the origin of the food, or of my identity. My parents had immigrated to the United States long before I was born. They did their best to uphold their cultural traditions and sometimes it was passed on easily to me—I loved speaking Urdu, for example—but other times it was a struggle. I did not want to trade in my jeans for the shalwar khameez my parents wanted me to wear so often.
I felt the same confusion when people would look at me as if trying to figure out where I was from. My hair was dark and my eyes hazel. My last name was hard to pronounce. I spoke without an accent.
“Where are you from?” people would always ask me, in cafés or in classrooms, wherever I went.
“No. Really—where are you from?”
At this point in the conversation I felt tired and a little defiant.
“I was born here. I’ve never left here.”
“But like, where are you from from?”
By now I would give up and tell them what they wanted to hear.
“My father was born and raised in India. My mom was raised in England, but her family is from India too.”
That was the answer they had been looking for. It always felt odd for me to give it to them. I was slightly annoyed that their questions implied that I couldn’t possibly be from America. I was unsure about how I felt connecting myself to India—a place I had never been.
When my mother picked me up from school wearing the traditional Indian clothing, I felt embarrassed, and then immediately guilty for being embarrassed. When my dad spoke, I remembered having heard my friends make fun of Indian accents before, mimicking that character from Simpsons.
But it was not always me reacting to how my American peers might see or think about my family; there was also tension between me and my parents—how they saw me, how they thought about me, how they wanted me to be versus how I wanted to be. My mother especially did not like the clothes I chose for myself—skinny jeans and t-shirts, hoodies and converse. She didn’t understand why I insisted on wearing “American clothes” when I went to the grocery store, or to run any other errand with her.
“Why are you ashamed of who you are?” she asked me when I would refuse to change from my jeans into my shalwar shirt. This would always sting, because I felt she had pinned onto a feeling I only sort of understood.
It’s been years since then. I have thought long and hard about where I come from and who I am—what I have in common with my family and what I have in common with my friends here in America. Now, when my mom asks me why I don’t want to wear Indian clothes and says the same line about the shame, I can respond, “But this is who I am.”
It feels funny to tie my relationship to my identity to something simple like a pair of jeans, but I explain to her that this is the identity that feels most natural to me.
But I have also begun to see value in the culture I was raised in. Maybe I just needed to live alone to be able to figure it out—what I wanted to keep from my parents, and what I wanted to keep from my own life. I am learning how to make traditional Indian dishes every time I go home, because I do not want that knowledge, rich and savory, to be lost with me. I am proud of being able to speak Urdu fluently and try to speak it with my family as often as I can, to make sure I do not lose it either. When I overhear someone in public speaking it, I am always filled with love and comfort, not shame.
How does your familial identity shape your individual one?