Hi! My name is Rajeswari Ramanathan, and I’m your typical South Indian with a long hard-to-pronounce first AND last name. Being an Indian adolescent in today’s diverse growing society is not just difficult, but also a learning experience about one’s own culture. I still remember walking into my second-grade class at Durham Elementary and having students snicker and sniff around as if I carried the “South Indian” scent.
It was my first year in the United States and I was exposed to a mix of races for the first time in my life. Back in India, it was just my Tamil friends and me happily studying “maths” and enjoying ourselves by hitting the cinema theater on weekends. It was always about family, culture, and education. But when I entered my second-grade class that day, my life took on a new direction.
My teacher took me to the front of the class. “Class, this is Raj…Rajewaree? Am I saying that right?” She stared at me, waiting for an answer, and I stared back blankly, unable to comprehend her words. I nodded my head just to avoid the awkwardness. She continued, giggling, “Oh, very good. Well, class, she is a new student from India, and you all need to welcome her.” I made myself comfortable in my new seat, setting my insulated violet Barney lunchbox on the table. It could have been the smell of curry leaves and asafoetida coming from my lunch box, but something sure was turning heads. Kids glanced at my lunch box and whispered in their neighbors’ ears.
Indians have been stereotyped in America for as long as we have been here. Ironically, as a teenager growing up in the United States, I am expected to be very un-Indian, unlike my parents, and practice American ways of living. But I, for one, am the quintessential example of an Indian kid. I am the 16-year-old that eats dosas for lunch and sambar rice with potatoes for dinner. I am the Indian girl that oils her hair at least two days every week before I get to school. I am the one that listens to Tamil film songs on my iPod and prefers movies with Surya in it rather than Tom Cruise. I am the Indian that says “dikky” instead of “trunk” and “lorry” instead of “truck.”
My actions demonstrate clearly who I am and what type of heritage I come from. Many times, my fellow Indian American friends at school are surprised at how Indian and FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) I am. So what? I AM very un-American and I don’t see anything wrong in that. I admire the Far East Asian students in my school for this very reason. They speak in their mother tongue to one another and eat dim sum or duck eggs during lunch without worrying about what other kids think of them. On the other hand, kids of Indian origin try very hard to assimilate. I think it is a personal choice to follow your heritage or environment, and if they choose to be American, then that’s fine too. These other kids are part of the generation breaking Indian stereotypes. They don’t oil their hair but get them straightened or conditioned. They carry around a bag of Hot Cheetos or a sandwich rather than foil-wrapped rotis with sabzi.
I have to admit that I, too, crave for the occasional burrito at Chipotle and drool over a Frappuccino at Starbucks, but nothing comes even close to my mother’s spicy biryani or hot Bru coffee. My Indian American friends listen to American songs with lyrics that I cannot understand. Even after ten years in the United States, I marvel at how different my music is from theirs. My journalism class in school always listens to American music whenever editors have a workday. I find it a distraction and let the music flow into one ear and out the other. But to my fellow editors, the music seems to be essential.
Well, stereotypes will remain stereotypes as long as there are people like me to keep them true. Just because I move to another country does not mean I suddenly have to follow their ways. I find it strange how students modify their personalities and choose to blend into their surroundings. Why would you want to blend in? The point is to be different and be proud of who you are, and being Indian defines me. Even though it is a bit awkward to open a warm container of dosas around my diverse group of friends, regardless of the pungent aroma, the food demonstrates the background I come from.
I don’t see my holding on to my culture as an impediment to making friends in whichever community I am going to be in in the future. I find that I can communicate freely and easily make friends, and I do not think that my “Indian-ness” will isolate me from society. And though I might seem like an Indian fanatic, this does not mean that I want to return to India any day soon. My love for India comes from respect for my homeland and the discipline my parents have drilled in me. And I believe America welcomes people of various nationalities to express themselves, not to conform to American social systems.
I’d rather be sticking true to my roots than being somebody I’m not. I have made a conscious choice to be true to my Indian roots and be Indian, rather than an Indian American. And if that makes me the stereotype and the odd one out, so be it.
Rajeswari Ramanathan is a senior and the editor-in-chief and staff writer at Irvington High School’s newspaper, The Voice.