Growing up as a South Asian in the early-2000’s suburbs of Dallas was an incredibly affirming experience. My parents moved to the Dallas area in the mid-‘90s and have seen the South Asian community flourish since then. My earliest memories are of shopping at the first Indian grocery store in the area that opened up a few miles from our house, and in the years since, what started off as a small strip mall store subsequently exploded into eight locations across the North Texas area. I remember being thrilled when an Indian movie theater opened up nearby — if we’re being honest, part of me was always a little scared it would be closed down every time we went. The Carnatic music teacher I used to go to lived in my neighborhood, and I had access to religious education fifteen minutes from my house. All of this to say, on paper my cultural experience as a South Asian in America was relatively picturesque.
In reality, though, I felt quite lost in my identity. Unlike most Desi parents, my parents had a love marriage, and their families are from completely different parts of India. My mother grew up in Mumbai — fluent in Marathi and Hindi, with a vast knowledge of Gujarati and Sanskrit. On the other hand, my father, who is from the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, spent a significant amount of his childhood in the US before his family moved back to Kerala, and admits that his Malayalam leaves much to be desired. English was really the only common language between my parents, and as a result, my sister and I never had the chance to become fluent in Marathi, Hindi, or Malayalam. My mom would speak to us in Marathi every now and then, and we would hear her speak with her family back home, so we picked up quite a bit of vocabulary eventually. Once my mom introduced us to Hindi movies, my sister and I would watch them back to back with subtitles at the bottom, almost as if we were making up for lost time. Over time, our Hindi vocabulary improved as well. My Malayalam, on the other hand, is almost nonexistent: I know the numbers 1-10, a few conversational words, and the names of my favorite dishes, but I so badly wish I knew more.
Within the walls of our home, it never felt like anything was missing, but as soon as I would interact with other first generation South Asians, I would start to feel alienated. Kids younger than me could rattle off entire conversations in their mother-tongue and bond over their unique cultural identities. Most people I know don’t have to figure out how to split their limited vacation time amongst families living in two different Indian states. And it certainly didn’t help that I didn’t grow up around any blood relatives other than my parents and my sister. Living as a South Asian in the US meant oscillating between my American and Desi identities, but being a culturally mixed South Asian mingling with other South Asians meant that I had to learn how to code switch even amongst my own people. Eventually, imposter syndrome would kick in and it just became easier to call myself an American more than anything else, even though I adored and wanted to push my South Asian identity to the forefront.
The first time I really analyzed what my identity meant to me was in college: I was hanging out with one of my best friends from middle school, who also happens to be Malayali, when one of his friends came by to say hi. My friend introduced me and said, “Sharada is also Mallu. Or, half-Mallu” in a mindful attempt to respect my identities. Before I even realized what I was saying I blurted out, “Oh my god, I forgot I was only half.” Even though he was right, I realized I never viewed myself as half-Maharashtrian and half-Malayali — it feels like all of me belongs to both categories. It took me decades to be able to not only feel comfortable in asserting all of my identities but to love everything that comes along with it. For example, not only do I get to translate Hindi memes for my Malayali friends, but I also get to correct people if they try to tell me that North Indian food is better. It’s a unique experience that not many of my peers can relate to, but it’s shaped me into the multidimensional person I am today.