Generation Z, or people born between 1997 and 2012, are known to be very outspoken through social media platforms in defining themselves and their values. The digital age has massively impacted discussions on diversity and representation, cultural and social influences, and identity—all while Gen Z has grown up and taken it all in.
Gen Z continues to push boundaries and modernize aspects of culture in profoundly new ways, even challenging aspects their elders have taught them. This begs the question: How is South Asian Gen Z sharing their culture—our languages, arts, culinary skills, and values—in this evolving environment? And whose responsibility is it to pass on culture to future generations in the first place?
We reached out to student organizations across the U.S. and asked to connect with South Asian Gen Z. We asked them to share their insights on how connected they feel to their culture, and what it might look like to pass on aspects of their culture to the future generations.
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Supreet Thiara grew up in the bustling Bay Area, Calif. and spent long, quieter summers with her grandparents in Reno, Nevada. Supreet shared how her grandparents brought her back to the family’s Sikh roots and values, such as community service and honesty.
Spending time in Reno opened Supreet’s eyes to cities with smaller South Asian populations, in stark contrast to the Bay Area’s massive South Asian population.
“I think growing up in the Bay Area played a huge role in staying connected with my Sikh roots,” Supreet said. “In Reno there is only one Gurudwara, and then you go to the Bay Area there’s at least four. That alone just says a lot about a community and the accessibility of it for people who are like me.”
Supreet believes social media brought Gen Z unprecedented access to cultural content and discussion, and it played a major role in how younger people are connecting with their roots.
“As I grew up I started seeing more things on the internet, which sparked my own curiosity about my Punjabi Sikh background and that led me to ask more questions,” Supreet said.
The internet’s impact was particularly influential to younger kids and teenagers growing up. For Supreet, it pushed her to educate herself more.
“There’s a lot of discussion about Sikh faith that goes on around Twitter that I saw growing up,” she said. “I’d question it because I’d see differing opinions about what’s right and what’s not. And so taking that and doing my own research about it, or even just going to my parents and asking those sorts of questions, really helped me learn.”
Supreet noted parents could worry their kids are taking away the wrong lessons online, but for her, it opened her eyes to the different ways others see faith and culture and sparked her curiosity to ask more questions.
“I have few people in my life and family who I trust in terms of being able to properly explain things to me, like what a song is about or a more Sikh history-related question. Having those open discussions is a huge part of my own understanding,” Supreet said. “And now I can share it with others—I never want to give misinformed answers to people if they ask me a question.”
Supreet is a firm believer in learning and teaching others as an everyday practice. While attending Purdue University, Supreet joined their competitive bhangra dance team Boiler Bhangra and continued to use her knowledge to uplift the communities she is a part of.
“One thing our organization tries to do is teach words in every general meeting so that people can learn and get that exposure to their own culture that they may not have had growing up. So little things like that are educating your own community,” Supreet said.
Supreet wants to pass on traditions before they are lost.
“I love music. And there are things like folk songs that are sung by older women at events like weddings, that are only passed on from word of mouth,” she said. “And so I feel I should probably be learning these things now, because once they’re gone how are we going to continue these traditions down the line?”
The digital world has changed what it means to pass on culture to future generations, especially when it is now possible to “save” everything online.
“I think the best way to stay rooted is to educate. Keep ourselves educated first and ask questions, because only then we can pass that along to future generations,” Supreet said.
Culture and traditions will never look the same for everyone, especially not as future generations both adopt and adapt them, but they do always continue to be a part of one’s identity. Supreet said that your roots can largely impact the way you grow up and the values you continue to uphold throughout your life, no matter where you come from.
Supreet’s approach to cultural connection is rooted in education and staying curious, which she believes is not talked about enough. She encourages others to ask questions and seek out information to learn more about both your identity and its fit in the world. This is not only a great way to stay connected, but it opens the doors for further conversations and the education of others.
So who does the responsibility to pass on culture lie with?
Supreet’s response: “I think responsibility lies in all of us, the diaspora, to educate ourselves first and then share within our own communities.”
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Keya Trivedi was used to growing up in predominantly white communities, such as Manchester in the UK and Mexico, but she always felt an effort was being made to educate her and keep her exposed to the culture she loved.
“Growing up in Mexico or the UK I had only two or three Indian friends, but us and our parents used to meet and they would teach us about what the culture is or what the upcoming festival was about,” Keya shared with Brown Girl.
When Keya began attending Northeastern in Boston she quickly became a part of their South Asian community and ultimately became Vice President of their Indian Students Association, Sanskriti. She’s had to leave the country she felt most connected to—India—twice as a young child and as a young adult. Her leadership at Sanskriti means she is in the company of others who cherish India too. Together, they build a community for students.
“We want them to build a connection, build a bridge, and our aim is to make them feel a second home,” Keya said.
Although circumstances can be completely different when it comes to celebrating one’s culture in a foreign place, Keya’s organization does its best to keep events as accessible as possible.
“If we can’t do Garba or anything that’s fine, so what can we do? What we did as an Indian community was we’d come together and make sweets and everything,” Keya said. “So for me, it’s one’s surroundings, like the spaces Keya creates with Sanskriti, is vital to feeling connected to one’s culture.
“It’s the communities and people around you, the environment you have been growing up in, the positive vibes, everything,” Keya said.
“My advice would be doing what you feel like doing, not because others are doing it or you feel forced,” she said. “If you feel like it’s going to give you a positive perspective or positive vibes and you’re going to learn more about something then go for it. If you feel like no, I’m not still ready for something yet, take your time. There is no rush to anything like this.”
So who does the responsibility to pass on culture lie with?
Keya’s response: “I wouldn’t say it’s a responsibility, but for future generations, we need to try to explain why we do what we do, and hopefully they will get enthusiastic about it and want to know more about it. We are just passing down the information that has been given by our ancestors.”
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Similar to many others, high school was not Hrishika Muthukrishnan’s favorite time… Especially when it came to showing off her culture. Hrishika long felt she neglected everything about her culture because of the pressure to fit in.
“I tried to make myself as American as possible and basically would ignore my own culture because I was so afraid of standing out. I just wanted to feel accepted,” she said.
However, Hrishika says her mentality greatly shifted after finding a welcoming South Asian community in college and later co-founding WE ARE SAATH, a mental health awareness organization for South Asian students, with student Pareen Bhagat.
“In college, I had this reverse mindset that unless I had Indian friends, I would lose touch with my culture and my identity,” she says. “I was so scared that I would lose my connection with it if I didn’t actively spend time with people who shared that.”
Throughout her first few years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hrishika felt her surroundings were a necessary part of keeping a connection to her culture and allowed her to stay actively involved.
But Hrishika had another realization halfway through college that shifted her mentality once again.
“I had struggled a lot with that concept, the whole ‘I can’t connect with my culture unless I’m with people with the same mindset…’ And I realized you don’t have to be friends with Indian people for that, it doesn’t change your identity or the cultural significance in your life. You can just equally love your culture and be a part of it. You can embrace it without having people to express it to,” Hrishika said. “At the end of the day, it comes from you.”
Hrishika’s realization redefined the way she thought about and connected with her own identity, but this was also something she explored when it came to religion. Growing up, her father practiced Hinduism while her mother practiced Christianity.
“My bedtime stories were about Hindu gods that my father would tell me, but then my grandmother would tell me stories about Jesus during the day. It was just this constant struggle of back and forth, and I didn’t particularly feel strongly towards either of them, because the stories I was told about each religion were so strongly associated with the people I love.”
Hrishika said that this largely influenced the way she thought about her life and future, especially when it came to one day having kids and if possible having mixed parents would negatively affect them.
“Learning about the experiences from my mixed friends definitely opened my mind a lot in understanding that you can marry someone who’s a different race and it doesn’t need to affect your ability to pass on your culture to your kids,” Hrishika said.
Although passing on culture will continue to look different as generations continue to evolve, Hrishika explains how she hopes to do it moving forward: “I want to pass on culture in a very open and fluid way. I know, especially growing up, I could see my friends around me being sort of forced into their culture sometimes and it didn’t help. I want to be able to give my children the choice of what they want to practice.”
Hrishika is excited about what younger people will bring to the table.
“I think it’s going to be great honestly, the future generations, because we’re redefining this identity and what it means to be South Asian in America, and I think that’s incredible to see.”
So who does the responsibility to pass on culture lie with? Hrishika’s response: “I think the responsibility lies on whoever’s interested enough to pass on their culture… It just lies on whoever strongly believes in it and wants to associate with their South Asian identity.”
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Growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, Pareen Bhagat felt very connected to her Gujarati roots.
Zimbabwe is known to have a larger Indian population with an influx of Indian immigrants dating back to 1890. Harare has a strong Gujarati and Hindu community. Pareen felt that the cultural and linguistic education she experienced there was an opportunity that community elders specifically created for Indian culture to flourish in Harare.
“Around when my great-grandfather immigrated to Zimbabwe, it was being colonized,” Pareen said. “And so obviously with white supremacy, schools were only open to white people. The Hindu society really wanted to create a space for Indian students to be able to learn and for them to be able to get the right education. And so then when I grew up I was able to study in a Gujarati school from grade one to four.”
Her perspective on, and immersion in, cultural education shifted when she went to high school because of the pressure to fit in.
“Even though I was always very in tune with my culture, at the same time during high school, it was something that I didn’t want to talk about,” she said.
Pareen said she felt shy about her culture and played down the fact that she was Indian—an experience she believes many South Asian kids outside of the subcontinent can relate to. This shame was also perpetuated by some of her peers. Pareen shared that one childhood friend of hers told her to not wear Indian clothes while visiting her home.
“I think that was something that had really played a part in how I viewed my culture then, especially because I loved fashion,” she said.
Like other Gen Z South Asians who shared their insights with Brown Girl Magazine, Pareen experienced cultural reconnection when she moved to a diverse college campus.
She reconnected with her cultural pride when she moved to the U.S. to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She joined UNC’s competitive dance team Tar Heel Raas and co-founded WE ARE SAATH, a mental health awareness organization for South Asian students, with Hrishika Muthukrishnan.
“When I came to UNC I joined the dance team, and I had never met a group of South Asians who were so proud of being South Asian and were so okay with it,” she said.“I was used to my Indian friends and I in high school being the only ‘Indian’ amongst ourselves and then whenever we had to associate in public we’d just switch off that part of ourselves. Then I came to UNC and met all of these people and dancers and they were so proud of who they were, and I didn’t know why I was holding back. I should also be able to be proud.”
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From dance to mental health, to fashion, Pareen has found numerous ways to celebrate parts of her cultural identity in her daily life and work.
“Maintaining my culture for me now is mainly through fashion because that’s what I want to do. So I’m always adding cultural influences into my everyday wear… And it is not something that I should ever be ashamed of,” she said.
Pareen is enthusiastic about how the Internet created new avenues of cultural connection for South Asian diasporic Gen Z, especially if they are attending a school or a workplace that does not have many South Asian people.
“I think Tiktok has been amazing with South Asian culture,” Pareen said. “Our fashion is being appreciated, and there was even a Bhangra trend. I would have never imagined when I was in high school that Bhangra or Indian dance would be something that goes viral. So many people are doing it, and they’re not doing it comically or making fun of us. They’re genuinely trying to dance.”
Media representation, too, moves the dial. Pareen said a whole generation of kids are growing up and seeing themselves in media, which hopefully means that future generations will embrace rather than hide from their culture.
So who does the responsibility to pass on culture lie with?
Pareen’s response: “I think that we all sort of have that responsibility. Because, in a weird way, it was taken away from us. Everything is so Eurocentric, we are told this is the beauty standard, this is what food should look like, this is how you should celebrate. So I think that culture is something that we have to keep alive in every single one of us.”