Indian, American and Proud: Embracing my Dual Identity at 16

Balancing two cultures is hard. I’m a proud Tamil girl, but I’ve lived in the US for my entire life — a little over 16 years. I speak with an American accent, I eat way too much pizza and fro-yo and I live for K-pop. On paper, I’m a regular American teenager.

On the other hand, I could eat chicken biriyani for days on end. Kuthu songs are my jam (they’re better than any Western dance song), and if I wanted to, I could totally rock a lehenga. While I’m a regular American teenager in some ways, in other ways, I’m a full-on Indian girl who has a crush on Nivin Pauly and can eat her way through an entire box of murukku.

While I’m proud of my dual identity, many of my friends act like I have to choose between the two. I have one friend who acts like an expert on Hinduism, Indian politics and cricket, while others completely reject their Indian side. I even have a Hindu classmate who said Hindus worship cow poop, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about his own culture and religion (this didn’t go over too well with the Hinduism expert, as you might imagine).

Cow poop and cricket aside though, I knew that their other sides were hidden somewhere. That first girl? I heard she and her best friend obsessing over K-pop a couple years ago. And that boy who bashed his own religion? He’s a hardcore Vijay and Rajnikanth fan! Who would’ve thought?

These friends and classmates of mine, unfortunately, haven’t figured out how to balance their Indian and American sides. However, those who have only grown up in a single culture might find this balancing act hard to understand. They don’t understand why I don’t talk a lot when I visit relatives in India — I’m so ridiculously self-conscious about my accent in a place where everyone speaks fluently without one. They don’t understand why I stopped wearing a bindi to school — they don’t understand that it drove me crazy when people asked, “What is it?”

I’ve only recently felt comfortable with showing my Indian side at school. I realized I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about my culture when I was eight years old and talking to another Indian-American friend. In front of her was a plate of completely untouched sambar and rice. When I asked her why she hadn’t eaten it yet, she replied:

“All my classmates point and ask me what I’m eating, or they’ll just say ‘Ew!’ It’s really embarrassing. I wish my mom wouldn’t pack me Indian food for lunch sometimes.”

Even at my young age, I related to her embarrassment. Granted, third graders can be brats, but it’s still traumatizing when someone declares to the entire table that the chapatis and curry your mom so lovingly prepared for you were gross.

Afterwards, I realized it was my responsibility to be proud of my dual identity. No one can really know me without knowing what the ohm symbol that hangs around my neck stands for, without knowing why I don’t know that much about pop music and without knowing that I would take dosas and chutney over pesto pasta any day (I might take alfredo and pasta though).

I might feel embarrassed about these things, but I can’t let that stop me from embracing it, because this is who I am. I am about dressing up for Diwali and then stuffing myself on Thanksgiving a couple weeks later. I am about curling up on the couch to watch “Harry Potter” or “Andaz Apna Apna.” I am about embracing my Hindu roots and history, but also about diving into Greek and Roman mythology. These things define me, and I can’t sacrifice either of my cultures if I want to be true to myself. I am Indian, I am American and I am proud.

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By Janani Thoguluva

Janani Thoguluva is an Indian American teenage writer who loves writing stories and short essays. She plays badminton and hikes … Read more ›