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Perspective: Hot Chai and Sweet Tea

By Rhea Gupta Email By Rhea Gupta
June 2022
Perspective: Hot Chai and Sweet Tea

What’s it like to come from Mumbai to Atlanta for undergraduate studies? Reflecting on her time at Emory University as an international student, RHEA GUPTA notes, “While the Indian-American identity is valid and has struggles and strengths of its own, it is different from the Indian identity.”

When I landed in America in 2019, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Atlanta smelled different from Mumbai: something about it felt streamlined and sanitized, yet still full of opportunity. I didn’t know too many people here, but nevertheless, I was excited to explore Emory University with the few other international Indian students I knew and to make more friends in the process.

Older international students from back home had told me homesickness would strike and, thankfully, convinced me to pack two suitcases chock-full with Indian sweets and assorted foods. I pushed back, convinced that America could do no wrong, and that I would fit in seamlessly here. America was liberal, I thought. After spending my teenage years under the Bharatiya Janata Party and experiencing its grip on political discourse, I was ready for some genuine free speech, and eager to taste real democracy—not the thinly veiled Hindu-nationalist sham democracy offered back home.

However, Emory quickly became the wake-up call I needed to be yanked out of the idealistic world I had convinced myself college, and America, would be. Being Indian meant I was part of one of the largest cultural international student communities on campus. Despite that, I quickly felt underrepresented and alienated. I felt my accent weigh deeply on my tongue, sensing how most Americans I met conflated my accent for less intelligence. Friends mimicked my accent as a punchline, and I stopped rolling my r’s and enunciating my t’s. I convinced myself I would be heard better, and that my Indian accent could be reserved for my Indian friends.

Most Indian international students are able to cover their Indianness to fit in with the Indian diaspora community here in Atlanta and co-opt some of the practices that would make them more easily accepted. However, we quickly learned that South Asian diaspora kids understood South Asian culture very differently, creating a culture of their own that worked to reduce the dissonance they felt. Many Indian-American diaspora students, who haven’t spent much of their formative years in India, understand the culture through placeholders such as Indian food and dress, Bhangra teams and cultural clubs, mehendi (henna) and chai. It’s no wonder that events aiming to foster “Desi” community promoted just those things.

Most non-refugee diaspora kids understood South Asianness differently from me and my international student peers. They did not understand Desi warmth or Desi jargon. After having a conversation with an Indian-American friend about the impact of demonetization under the Modi government, I quickly realized that Indian-American students often reduce the politics to what they read on the internet and have never truly seen the impact of policy or culture on individuals. They did not understand Indian people, the whole Indian culture, or the struggle of being a foreigner in a country where everyone who looks like you is fully assimilated to the accent, tipping culture and the way of life. They don’t understand the guilt that accompanies receiving an American education while seeing people back home who are more capable than you pipelined into medical, engineering or law careers despite their passion for literature, music or design. By being so distanced from the country, it is nearly impossible for them to truly feel the latent effects of British colonialism or many of the darker parts of being Desi—dependence on community acceptance, deep-rooted burnout-culture and substandard educational systems dependent on rote learning being markers for your academic potential.

As these students populate cultural organizations to regenerate proximity to a home culture, Emory’s so-called cultural organizations alienate those who needed Indian experiences in America the most—people like me. They cannot include Indian international students who simultaneously miss their country but cannot live there permanently, stuck between two cultures and two personalities. As such, I felt as though I was slowly losing what it meant to be part of a local culture and starting to realize that my American friends would never fully understand or care to understand why I sometimes mimic an American accent or try to continuously drag them to immigrant-owned Indian restaurants. While the Indian-American identity is valid and has struggles and strengths of its own, it is different from the Indian identity. Being from India means far less transactional friendships, street food and loud, vivacious annual Holi celebrations with people you love. Coming to America meant I lost those things, and felt isolated by Indian-American students, because of the constant equalization of those experiences.

I did not experience the same deep-rooted racism that they did in schools. I did not have people criticize the smell of my lunchbox or have the people I was around smother parts of my cultural identity. I never had to consider how I had been separated from my home country without having been included in that choice. My bullying never focused itself on my Indianness, and I never had to adopt an intermediate identity at a young age in reaction to how my identity was perceived by those around me. Their struggles are not mine and neither are their joys. Our identities are disparate, and people here often fail to recognize that difference.

While it can be sobering to realize you’re more like your friends’ immigrant parents than like them, there are worse parts to being an international student. The most humbling experience as an international student hit me in the spring of last year, when I opened my inbox to hundreds of internship rejections, while seeing American citizens with worse GPAs and fewer extracurricular experiences rolling in offers on LinkedIn. As sophomore year hits, every international student asks herself two questions: does the firm accept Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) and does this firm sponsor an H1B work visa? For a vast majority of the options available on Emory’s career portal Handshake, the answer is a resounding no. American students have little clue about the restrictions of an F-1 visa. We can’t be part of the growing creator economy or build a startup independently to support ourselves financially, nor can we work more than one job at a time. The companies that sponsor work visas are also the largest and most selective in America, and often toss applications out the second you indicate you are not a citizen or green card holder.

The international student internship struggle is quite similar across the board. My friends complain about being interviewed by an all-male, all-white interview panel, while I wasn’t even allowed to apply to the position in question. Every rejection or acceptance reminds me of how I need to have double the qualifications of my American friends to even have a chance of receiving an offer. We navigate imposter syndrome, knowing that Emory’s preprofessional sway means that people will perceive you as incompetent if you don’t have a coveted job from the Boston Consulting Group, Citigroup or J.P. Morgan. We roam the websites of top firms—Deloitte, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan—only to realize that buried in the fine print is a tiny detail outlining your ineligibility for a position. For nearly a year, I slept for five hours a night, having submitted north of three hundred job applications, praying one firm would call me back while expecting no reply. As an international student, you’re doomed to emotional breakdowns and a state of constant stress, despite knowing you chose to be here, you are deeply privileged to have the opportunity to learn here and recognize that America owes you nothing. You will pick a practical degree to maximize your job prospects, and apply to everything that is even slightly adjacent to your ideal job.

All my love for America’s commitment to diversity in the workplace faded with the twenty eighth rejection I received. The email could be just one sentence: “Unfortunately, [this firm] will only consider candidates who are presently authorized to work for any employer in the United States and who will not require work visa sponsorship from [the firm] now or in the future in order to retain their authorization to work in the United States.” I slowly began to realize that while the U.S. valued diversity, it wasn’t the kind I could provide. As an international student, you are too diverse. Your opinions and achievements matter less than the paperwork required to keep you here.

If by some miracle, all your hard work does pay off and you bag a coveted spot at a firm that sponsors F-1 students for full time positions, you walk into that contract knowing you will likely be exploited and underpaid. Worse, the conditions of your visa will not allow you to switch jobs if you are mistreated, lest you are willing to sacrifice years in the H1B visa lottery line. You’re in a toxic relationship with both countries you’re from, weighing how unsafe it is for women in India and reflecting on the outcomes of those who outspokenly disagree with the Hindu-nationalist government agenda against how many times you might be passed up for a promotion that you rightfully deserve or asked about your English-speaking capabilities in the U.S. I miss home constantly, but I realize India has moved on without me and that many parts of India make it impossible for me to consider returning in full. My stay in the U.S. will likely have an expiration date. While most students are thinking about classes and clubs, I think about having to go back to India or having to start over in a completely new country. International students exist in a state of constant burn-out, while recognizing that mental health measures are only for those that have visas that allow them to take a break from that which is emotionally and mentally taxing.

Navigating identity in the U.S. is exhausting, especially if you weren’t born here. I have lived constantly split between two countries, unable to find the words to explain my love for India to American students who look down upon third world countries. There are no words to explain Desi warmth or the comfort of amalgamated Hindi and English. I find it impossible to contextualize how one can be simultaneously ecstatic but also inexplicably sad to be in either India or America, or to discuss how I love my American friends but constantly feel incredibly lonely surrounded by non-international students. I stumble over my words when I try to explain the smell of Bombay monsoons, or the vivacious color and flavor of Desi street food. There is so much history to growing up in Bombay—giggling in uniform at the back of class, the impeccably shined shoes and cutting chai stalls, coming home to your friends chatting with your mother even though you weren’t in the house, haggling with street vendors over well-loved second-hand books, prancing around the dance floor in ‘lehengas’ during loud festivals and calling every middle aged adult “aunty” or “uncle.” Identity is incredibly hard to pinpoint when I feel as though I’m losing and gaining it all at the same time.

As I sit here, writing a piece that asks me to reflect upon my identity, I realize that I have lost so much of my time and identity in the U.S. to incredible stress. I wish U.S. students reflected upon the struggles international and undocumented students go through, or that they cared about the struggles of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) who are non-citizens in the U.S. in the same way they care about inequities faced by BIPOC U.S. citizens. I find myself clinging on to the hope and starry-eyed idealism I entered the U.S. with every time I see someone confronting their privilege or speaking up about something they care deeply about. I’m finding new warmth with friends that go out of their way to experience my culture and to show me theirs, and those that tell their parents about why India is so different from the caricatured versions they see in the media. Sometimes, though, I wish it weren’t so hard to find where you belong. I wish I weren’t so jealous of friends that can chase careers in film, journalism, music and literature without the burden of the ever ticking clock that would mark the limited time they have in a country they love. I yearn to feel fully, genuinely and wholly delighted for my friends who can chart paths however they wish. Lastly, I wait for the day my friends ask me about what it took for me to get an internship here, and for them to understand—genuinely and truly—the immense privilege that a U.S. passport affords them.

Reprinted with permission from The Emory Wheel. Rhea Gupta is majoring in Economics and English at Emory. She is chief operating officer and vice president of the Emory Impact Investing Group and serves as a third-year College Council legislator. She was vice president of Partnerships of the Undergraduate Impact Investing Society and an editor at The Emory Wheel, and has served on the executive board of Emory’s South Asian Women’s Collective.

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