By Hanisha Reddy
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I moved to India from California to continue my education that I realized the glaring difference between who I am and who I was expected to be. One of the most frequent comments I had always received was:
“Wait, are you even from America?? How do you know this song?” or “Why do you know so and so thing”.
People were always surprised that I knew a particularly old movie or song. In a way, I felt like they were questioning why I was so Indian or “brown”. It felt like they were essentially asking me how I had access to all this information and culture while growing up in America. It always bothered me because I felt like I had to justify myself and my identity. A constant battle of feeling too Indian for America, not Indian enough while I was in India and wherever I was, just feeling out of place. For the longest time, this annoyed me and my response to these questions was just a mere “I don’t know” with a shrug of the shoulders.
“I don’t know how I know this song.” “I just remember it from somewhere”.
When I think about it now, I know why. When I was growing up in America, while everyone was listening to Backstreet boys, I was listening to Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar or Gulam Ali. My dad was such a huge fan of these artists and I remember so many car rides filled with their songs. I was barely listening to any English music especially because my dad hated it and if I ever played it in the car, he would switch over to these songs instead. That’s the music I grew up on and the reason why so many of these old songs are familiar to me.
One of my fondest memories is going on road trips and my dad would always start off the ride with the M.S. Subbalakshmi Suprabhatam. I’ve heard it so many times that I now know the song word for word. I think, for a lot of people in India, they think of someone who grew up in America and have this idea in their heads of how we’re supposed to be. For them it’s bizarre that I even know what the Suprabhatam is.
Growing up in California, especially in the Bay Area, added another layer of Desi-ness to my life. With the area’s predominant South Asian population, my weekends consisted of family get togethers and celebrating Indian festivals with each other. At every “brown” party, regardless of what was happening, there would always be an Indian movie playing on the TV in the background. And more often than not, all of us kids would somehow end up in front of the TV watching these movies. I think that’s another reason I’ve always been really familiar with movies from the early 2000s and people are surprised at my knowledge of such old movies!
My playlists were questioned so often-to the point where I stopped showing people in India my playlists because they were filled with Hindi and Telugu songs and it was embarrassing that I not only knew all these songs but also the exact lyrics. Sometime during medical school, I became quite religious and would fast once a week. Even that became a point of scrutiny and debate. It wasn’t infrequent to hear “even some people here don’t fast, why are you so religious.” I felt ashamed, and that somehow, I had to prove that I was still American because my identity was being questioned all the time.
But what is being American? Over time, I’ve realized that the most American thing about any of us living here is the way we think. The way we accept things and talk about things that are still stigmatized in India. It’s about growing up learning how to question everything we don’t understand or agree with and speak up and choose our paths. To me, being American is more in the way I think and do things rather than in watching American football or knowing the latest pop culture. It’s still hard. But every time I feel too brown now, I embrace it. I love that I am so connected to where I’m from while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of having grown up in America and knowing myself so well. It’s the best of both worlds, really.