The following post is part of a campaign in partnership with the Washington Leadership Program (WLP), called#SouthAsianAnd. Together, we want to showcase the stories of South Asians in America beyond our race and the stereotypes attached to it. Share your stories by Tweeting the hashtag #SouthAsianAnd and tag @BrownGirlMag to tell us how you are South Asian and more.
I tend to talk about my closest girlfriends frequently. Several years post-grad, we are all so spread out that telling other people about them helps me miss them less. Sometimes I’m extolling their virtues (Neelankshi never fails to like my pictures across all forms of social media.) Sometimes I’m discussing their thoughts on the latest Star Wars (Mayura thought Kylo Ren was more comical than threatening.) And sometimes, I’m just reminiscing about past mishaps (Swati’s worst cold ever in Spain made us realize we have no clue how to say tissues in Spanish.)
Around new people, one question inevitably arises—”Do you have any white friends?”
It’s usually said in jest, maybe two beers deep, but it always feels like an accusation. It triggers a level of cultural defensiveness I don’t experience often anymore, not since I was a teenager ridden with angst about being the only brown girl in her high school class.
“Let me tell you about my blue-eyed best friend Isabelle!” I want to say. “I have a Jewish girlfriend from high school I still see sometimes!” It’s the ethnically reversed equivalent of “but some of my best friends are black!”
Only my best friends’ names let you know that they’re Indian, but for the most part, we are pretty American. I don’t discuss arranged marriages, shopping for saris, or their endeavors at cooking Indian food for their mothers-in-law (things that happen to the girls on my mom’s Indian soap opera, but never to any of my friends). I talk about situations any twenty-something American faces: career plans, break-ups, figuring out post-grad life. They’re all problems that a white observer could probably relate to.
When people respond to stories about my best friends by questioning the diversity of my inner circle, it feels like they are letting our superficial “other-ness” overshadow our individual narratives, as though our unfamiliar names automatically relegate our stories to their own category, even though the things I’m discussing aren’t ethnicity specific. It also feels like they suspect the validity of these friendships, bringing me to the question they’re probably all really thinking—”Are you only friends with them because they’re Indian?”
I’ve known some of my best Indian girlfriends practically since my family moved to the United States in 1995. As immigrants, my parents had to find their footing in a place where they knew the language but not the slang, the government’s structure, but not their neighbors’ mannerisms or where to get bay leaves and Bournvita. They were highly educated, but their parents and siblings still lived in India, and they were entering a demanding career field where they had to prove they’d earned their spot.
[Read Related: What it Means to be South Asian in the American Context]
It’s not so unreasonable to me, then, that they sought out people who were like them. It takes a lot of social capital to establish yourself in a new country. Hardly anyone does it alone, but people here aren’t as friendly to immigrants as we like to believe they are. And because much of my extended family lived far away at the time, the Indian families my parents grew close to became my aunts, uncles and cousins.
Obviously, I can only speak to my own experiences. Some Indian people I know don’t feel the need to have Indian friends, and that works for them. But for many of my second generation Indian peers, our culture and the conflict that comes with it constitute a large part of our identities. That shared experience cannot be the foundation of an entire friendship, but it enriches relationships in a way that is difficult to replicate. These relationships even help some of us come to terms with our cultural identity, as they did for me.
When I was in high school, I was the only Indian in my class, and one of only a handful at a school I attended from third through the twelfth grade. I had a small group of Indian girls I spent time with outside of school, but attending a predominantly white school and not having many Indian peers made me resist my culture. Sometimes I traded on my otherness.
Anything I wrote about India ended up in the literary magazine, I performed a sub-par dance to “Jai Ho” in a senior talent show. But most of the time, I compensated for being different by asserting my own whiteness. I kept my white friends and Indian friends separate from each other, and I let my white friends join in when I bemoaned my parents’ “backwards” cultural beliefs about dating. In hindsight, my parents weren’t that strict, I was just a brat.
When I started college and spent time with more Indians than I ever had before, I had a staggeringly obvious realization—Indians were people too. The Indians I met in college fit some stereotypes to an extent. We were all somewhat sheltered and pretty studious, but they were also so much more than that. Smart but in palatable, well-rounded ways; beautiful and impossibly hip; driven but down-to-earth. Most importantly, with each other, we were not ashamed. Not ashamed of our cravings for our mothers’ food and chai, of our excitement about wearing Indian clothes for a benefit dinner. We were not ashamed of our love of Bollywood. We were not ashamed of dropping our parents’ Indian mannerisms every once in a while, always as a joke, but really because we were away from home and missed our parents’ hard-rolled r’s or bichari’s. I always related to my culture through mandates and regulations set by my parents, but in these friendships I grew to create my own relationship with my heritage.
I was finally in an environment where my experience, which had always been abnormal or exotic, was the default. Here it wasn’t weird that I’d never seen my parents kiss, that we never set out utensils for a dinner of rice and daal, that I’d stayed up until 2 a.m. not at a house party but at a parent-supervised garba.
With that default comes power. Or more accurately, empowerment to stop thinking of our stories and culture as inferior. To let go of the notion that whiteness is an ideal to which we must aspire, to accept ourselves as we are.
Even in college I encountered suspicion from white friends who didn’t understand the appeal of my new “ethnic” friend group. Some wouldn’t go to parties with me for fear of being the only white person in the room. Some made snide remarks about my inability to branch out. Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid alienation from my school’s “mainstream” social scene, I joined in on their chiding, making self-deprecating remarks about how I couldn’t find white friends.
I can’t pinpoint the exact source of their uneasiness. But when a Jewish friend wondered why he never got called out for having only Jewish friends and noted that non-Jewish people were still comfortable attending Matzoh Ball, I realized that a large part of people’s discomfort around my “ethnic” friends comes from the fact that we are all visibly not “American”: we have brown skin, black hair, and funny names. And despite the fact that we rarely speak our mother tongues to each other, can sing along with Top 40 hits as well as Bollywood songs, and wear American clothes, our combined “foreign” appearance still intimidates others (I’ll never forget the time we got breakfast together before Holi and a passerby said that large groups of ethnic people made him uncomfortable).
I have never actively sought out Indian people to befriend, especially not at this stage in my life. I have an incredible group of Indian friends who understand that aspect of my identity, and plenty of people I turn to in moments of cultural conflict. But I don’t want to feel ashamed of the fact that there is a part of what makes me that not everyone can relate to equally. I don’t want to feel like my friendships with other minorities are inferior just because we’re minorities.
Having grown up in America, I spend almost all of my days as a minority among white people. I explain cultural norms that are different and therefore “weird.” I explain why I have to go home on a random weekend in November because no one knows when Hindu holidays are. I explain (gleefully) why I got $20 for tying a bracelet on my brother’s wrist. I compensate for my parents’ accents at stores or restaurants. I compensate for not looking American enough by never wearing Indian clothes to non-Indian events.
Living your life to reassure others you’re not so different is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of situations where I feel like I fit in without any extra effort. But wanting a community that understands you even when you’ve left things unsaid or unexplained, a community that welcomes you when you’ve felt marginalized or ignored for something you can’t control—that’s a universal desire, and one that no one should need to apologize for.