Over the years, people have used a variety of words in conjunction with my name — many charitable and flattering, and a few not so. But ”exotic” had never come up. Certainly, I would never think of myself as being anything distinct from anyone else, growing up in a place where everyone looked like me, talked like me and, for the most part, dressed like me. There, nobody described my accent as exotic.
Indeed, the similarities were such that it pushed me to look outside of ethnic constraints: to look at people, politicians, popular media artists and personalities with whom I shared certain traits, if not nationality or ethnicity. I admired Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and even Meryl Streep. Empathy was founded on similarity of thought, not of identity.
So coming to a place like Yale should have blurred whatever provincial, identity-based conscience I might have had, right? Having so firmly defined myself against the limitations of ethnicity, I found myself dumbfounded when I identified by the very same characteristic I had run away from. But as it turns out, one tends to assert one’s origins most strongly when furthest from them — in this case, on the greens of Old Campus.
During the international student orientation, we are reminded of where we come from and who we are through various events, notably the talent show, where highly stereotypical depictions of countries and their cultures show the best — and the worst — of the places we come from. But it is not when you are on stage, festooned in traditional garb, that you realize that there is an intrinsic definition of who you are. It’s in the day-to-day conversations with the other brilliant people who constitute the student body at Yale.
From being asked why labor is so poorly paid in India to being questioned about whether the world’s largest democracy is actually a theocracy to being compared to the shopkeepers in Queens, I’m constantly reminded that where I’m from piques the interest of others. Some people may say this goes against the idea of modern Yale — a global college where the place you come from is irrelevant and what matters is where you want to go after your time here.
However, assertions of national identity often take on vibrant hues at Yale, with associations as diverse as the South Asian Society and the Slifka Center catering to various needs of their core members, such as a feeling of homesickness, wanting to feel at home somewhere or even tasting one’s ethnic food.
Then there’s the opportunity to clarify the misconceptions other people may have, even if it entails engaging in slightly irritating conversations. This being Yale, I probably don’t have to convince people that I don’t live in a jungle, nor do I ride an elephant to school. However, I don’t know much about many fascinating parts of the world Yalies come from, and I would love to return the favor by clearing up the stereotypes and learning about those places.
As I embark upon an exciting period of discovery and reinvention, perhaps one of the first lessons Yale has taught me is that to start afresh, one need not wipe off whatever was on the canvas. While we all are Yalies first and foremost and should be identified by ideas, ideals and deeds before anything else, recognizing our identities — or multiple identities — can never hurt. As one of my friends and fellow Farnam residents told me, my accent could help me in improv comedy. Or maybe it could just remind me of how lucky I am to be here, at Yale.
Dhruv Aggarwal is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.