Every day at Monta Vista High School, it is the norm to hear blasting bhangra music, to see guest speakers from the Hindu Awareness Club, to eat hot samosas and chaat, to perform dances and sing solos for “Spotlite,” the highly anticipated show put on by the Indian Club each year. I walk into class knowing that there will be a minimum of eleven other brown students to provide a security blanket for me. My experience growing up as an Indian American is unique. It is not the typical story of being looked down upon as a lone foreigner in a sea of Caucasians. Actually, it is quite the opposite.
In Cupertino, Calif., not a single “American Desi” is confused about who he or she is. It has been through my close interactions with other Indians, and in seeing successful role models from the Indian community, that I have gained pride in my culture. My friends and I watch and enjoy both Hindi and English movies, listen to Bollywood songs alongside American music, attend garbas as well as school dances, and get as excited for Indian holidays such as Divali, Holi, and Navaratri as we do for Christmas and Halloween.
I spent my childhood in Fremont, Calif.—a hub for South Asian immigrants. Fremont is the type of Bay Area city in which it is not uncommon to see a greater number of women clad in saris than jeans. Fremont boasts two Indian stores or restaurants per street, a temple, Indian beauty parlors, and NAZ Cinema, an Indian movie megaplex. Needless to say, I was not denied a healthy dose of my culture while growing up.
By third grade, I was placed by my eager parents in both bharatanatyam and Karnatik music classes (only one of which I ended up pursuing further). We celebrated Indian festivals and holidays annually without fail, and I was introduced and encouraged into the Bollywood craze by 5th grade. I spent my elementary school days in Fremont as one of the 26 Indian students in a class of 30, had primarily Indian friends, and found it excruciatingly difficult to interact with people of any other race. It was from childhood that the complex I want to describe was created, and it has continued to haunt me.
My family moved to Cupertino from Fremont when I was about to begin my freshman year of high school. When I began school in a new area, I realized that roughly 67 percent of my school consisted of other students of Asian origin. This helped my transition and made it much easier for me to cope in the new environment. Cupertino resembled Fremont in many ways.
Though the demographics of my high school made it possible for me to gain a greater understanding and value for my culture, as well as maintain a connection to my Indian peers, I soon began to realize that interacting only with one’s own ethnic group has its downfalls as well. I suffer from a unique form of peer pressure—one that does not include alcohol or drugs, but instead includes intelligence and performance. As a result of being Indian and Asian-American, I am forced to live up to the stereotypes and expectations placed on me. Consequently, I am unable to display who I truly am to my teachers, my friends, my classmates, and even to myself.
Surrounded by brilliant peers who excel in the subject areas of math and science, I feel ashamed when my friends laugh about how Calculus AP is a joke while I struggle in Math Analysis. I feel embarrassed to admit that I do not ace Bio AP exams, that I am not taking a science in senior year, or that I need a tutor for Chemistry Honors. Stereotypes placed on Indian students as “brilliant” cause me to feel ashamed even of the fact that I have to study and work hard in order to succeed, as opposed to being inherently intelligent. The fear of not meeting the expectations that society has placed on me, such as attending an Ivy League college or UC Berkeley and receiving a perfect SAT score, has caused me to disregard my own true aspirations.
The Indian and Asian influence on society indirectly shapes my life and identity, leaving me incapable of maintaining individualistic goals, desires, and opinions. These feelings of embarrassment, fear, and shame leave a part of me feeling incomplete and empty. It is at times such as these that I dislike being Indian, because of the restrictions and judgments that I am forced to deal with every day. I have a strong urge to break free from my school, society, and peers. I dream of experiencing life in a different environment, and of meeting other people who have interests similar to mine.
After suffering silently from inferiority for a long time, I have slowly begun to reach out and develop friendships with people of other ethnicities. It is now that I realize how much I have in common with these people, how our interests match, and how I feel as though I can be myself and, at the same time, not be ashamed of who I am. I have lessened the attachment I had to Indians and opened my mind to accepting friendships with everyone, despite cultural and physical differences.
These new experiences have shaped my personal growth in numerous ways. Although I am proud of my Indian culture and heritage, my standard answer to the commonly asked question of “What are you?” has changed from “Indian” to “A person, just like you.”
Samyukta Suresh is a junior at Monta Vista High school in Cupertino.
A version of this piece was originally published in Water, No Ice, www.waternoice.com