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To Thine Own Roots Be True

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June 2005
To Thine Own Roots Be True

A college student on what it means to embrace her Indian roots.

By DEVIKA RAO

I was all of seven years when my family moved to the United States in April of 1993. My life took a dramatic turn. Everything intimidated me. Take the school system, for instance. Before I could enroll I had to take an "ability" test. The results of the test showed that I learned at a 5th grade level. But being only seven, I was placed in the 2nd grade. Since I had left India as a fourth grader, this was quite a setback.

In middle school, I learned not only about amphibians and factoring, but also about peer pressure and fitting in. For the first time, image became important. Who dated who, and how popular a person was, mattered. It was a constant balancing act. I wanted to fit in with my American friends, but I also wanted to be true to my roots. This often resulted in immense confusion.

But here I am now ? twenty and a junior at Penn State. I came to the university a more integrated person. I am proud of both my backgrounds ? one as a "Southern belle" and the other as an Indian-American. I am comfortable with the fact that I can eat curry while saying "y'all."

Though, I would be lying if I said it was always so. Growing up in America from a tender age can test the first generation child's native pride. One's Indian-ness can certainly tend to fade in the process of day-to-day life here ? and only creep out when a hot new Shah Rukh Khan movie comes out or when one craves a tall glass of mango lassi.

Being at Penn State opened my eyes to what I thought was lost inside of me (Ok, not really lost, just misplaced). Having joined the Indian Student Association, I was able to reconnect with some of the cherished annual traditions. I went to garba program with a group of fifteen and had the most amazing time. At other times, while hanging out with fellow Indian students, it was fun to reminisce about the good times from back home when the chaatwalla would come with his cart and scream at the top of his lungs, advertising his presence. I could say without a doubt that the seven years I spent in India was the most favorite part of my childhood. No wonder my non-Indian friends have nicknamed me "Brown" because I embrace my "brownness" with open arms.

And yet?I don't wear my Indian-ness on my sleeve! A casual observer might easily mistake me as one who is "whitewashed"! More so, because I am not one who hangs out only with fellow Indians all day long. In fact it was not until I entered my sophomore year that I started contemplating on what it really means to embrace your roots. To me, it's not about displaying an Indian flag in your dorm room or having an endless collection of desi DVDs. Being Indian is not about knowing all the lyrics of Devdas, or about donning Indian clothes or chomping down on naan for the rest of your life.

Being Indian is about being real to you. It's about knowing your culture. Knowing why certain things in American culture cannot be taken as easily in the Indian culture; like watching Sex and The City with parents or elders. It's about respecting your elders. It's knowing your personal traditions and wishing others well on religious holidays. Being Indian is understanding why your parents are so protective of you?and it means not putting them away in a home when they are senile!

In short, being Indian is about substance rather than about putting on ethnic appearances. It is not about who you hang out with. It is not about the stereotypes. I am not a pre-med major; I am a journalism major. I may not be at speaking terms with math, but I can whip up a poem on the spot. I am not shy; I am outgoing. I am not quiet; I am loud. I am not passive; I am assertive. Even if all of this is an antithesis of the stereotypical desi, I am first and foremost Indian?and damn proud of it.


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