In journalism class, we’ve been writing profiles about one another. This has been a difficult assignment for me. It’s challenging to write about another person’s life, to portray them honestly. But it’s even more difficult to speak about yourself, to tell another person who you are.
Who we are is not static — we shed our skin and grow new skin. We fall in and out of love with our passions, with people, we find new ways to define ourselves. Here, it often seems that we need to find a niche, need to find something that we’re good at that can define us, whether that’s theater or writing or math. For many students, this manifests as a fixation on finding that one thing that makes them who they are, whether it’s academic, extracurricular or an expression of cultural identity.
I’m someone who has always defined myself by my love for writing. While acknowledging my literary self has always been easy, I realize that there are parts of my South Asian identity that I’ve struggled to claim.
I was often proud to explain the difference between roti and naan when my friends and I ate at an Indian restaurant, but I feel like a hypocrite after reading a draft of the profile written about me. Through the profile, I learned that my mother thinks I hated the Indian food she made growing up. In elementary school, I remember hiding the lunch of chapati and dal my parents had packed me under the cover of a brown paper bag. I remember feeling ashamed at the smell. I was just trying to fit in, to eschew overt manifestations of my culture.
But now, I feel ashamed when I can’t speak to my grandparents over the phone in Kannada, when I hear the brokenness of my language. I forget to go to celebrations of Diwali. Once, at Yale, my South Asian friends told me that I was pronouncing my own name slightly wrong, that there was actually a soft throaty sound between the “g” and “h.” I remember feeling embarrassed that I could not even pronounce my own name correctly, just as I haven’t been particularly involved in the Asian American Cultural Center or the South Asian Society, although I would like to be. At first, my apprehensiveness in becoming involved with the AACC stemmed from not feeling as though I was Indian enough. In retrospect, I recognize the rashness of that judgment. But I think that other students may feel something similar — the need to define their cultural identity, that if they do not fit a certain mold of what it means to be a specific cultural identity, they are somehow deficient, not enough of something.
As an English major, I also sometimes feel that I don’t often read literature relating to Asian American experiences. On the other hand, in many South Asian communities, being an English major is very rare. But as a student, I have the opportunity to think critically about the set of definitions and assumptions that underlie conversations about who I should be. Over dinner, a friend told me about her similar experience of not fitting the traditional mold of being South Asian — she majors in political theory, isn’t particularly involved in the SAS and doesn’t speak a South Asian language. This doesn’t mean, however, that she is any less Indian.
Over the course of my time here, I’ve begun to seek out more opportunities to think about and engage with part of who I am through music, through participating in a South Asian dance group last year –– even though I was the worst dancer in the group –– through thinking and writing about the relative lack of Asian American or Asian diasporic literature within many English course curricula. I’ve begun to study at the AACC much more often, in the library upstairs, which contains many copies of the Amerasia Journal, a journal established in 1971 by members of the Asian American Students Association. I know also, though, that there are students who might not engage with their culture in visible ways, who are still engaging with it. There are many different ways that our identities emerge, and we should allow ourselves the freedom to evolve in our relationship to our backgrounds.
Our relationship to our backgrounds, our culture, is forever in flux. I was always hesitant to identify with the part of myself — being South Asian — that I didn’t think I reflected in the “right” ways. I do not mean to say that we should claim an entire cultural identity for ourselves but that there is always time to unravel parts of our cultural backgrounds and to do so in ways that might not be traditional.
I often tire of the language that surrounds us here, of needing to know what we’re going to do after graduation. Recently, some of my suitemates were having a conversation about how anxious they were about graduate school and timing their practice MCATs or the LSATs. Of course, planning is often necessary and important, but our plans can also change. We should adopt this mindset when we’re here, too, when we think about whether we can audition for a play for the first time as a junior, or if we can become involved in a cultural house if we want to be, even if we never have been before. It’s not too late to realize that our relationships to religion, to culture, to our own passions, are not yet fully formed. Whether we are first years or seniors, we are still molding and shedding and recognizing parts of ourselves. And in some ways, we always will be.
Meghana Mysore is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs every other Friday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .