Naisha Roy and Saahithya Gutta
Being the child of immigrants is amazing, until it’s not. We have twice the culture, twice the languages and twice the cuisines. But we also have twice the expectations and twice the gatekeepers. A gatekeeper is someone who takes it upon his or herself to decide which people deserve rights or access to certain communities and identities. Gatekeeping happens to cultures, orientations, industries, and friend groups, and it’s happening in the Indian American community.
Gatekeepers put Indian immigrants into boxes with pretty little titles. They amount to the same message- you’re not Indian enough, or you’re too Indian. We’re constantly sandwiched between wanting to please our families, looking cool for our friends, fitting in with the crowd, and expressing who we are. These gatekeepers taunt us from every aspect of our lives, always reminding us that we’re not enough.
“Are you wearing shorts?!” we hear as we walk out of the airport visiting our relatives for the first time after 2 years. “What are you eating?!” we hear as we open our lunchboxes in the school cafeteria. “What’s with the accent?” we hear no matter the language we speak. “How do you not know this song?!” “How come you haven’t seen this movie?” “What do you mean you don’t know this book?” “You’re going to go to school looking like that?”
These constant comments that bombard us are products of gatekeeping in the Indian community. When we’re trying to fit into both of our cultures but not identifying as either one, where do we belong? It seems as though we should answer that question ourselves, but the multitude of gatekeepers we deal with force the answer on us instead.
Essentially, there are four types of gatekeepers in our lives. The judgemental Indian aunty, the name-caller, the well-meaning native, and the confused parents. They all think they’re helping us figure out who we are by imposing specific criteria on us. But what they don’t realize is that these restrictions only stifle our identity and they force us to be exactly like them.
The Judgemental Indian Aunty
“This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt” – Arundhati Roy
The judgemental Indian Aunty represents every one of our relatives who tell us we’re “bad Indians.” To them, there is almost nothing we can do to match up to their expectations of what a good Indian child should be. Adopting any aspect of American culture, whether it be the clothes, shoes, or cuisine, is almost like a crime to them.
The worst part is, we often invite ourselves to criticism from these relatives. Every summer, when our friends tell us stories of the varied vacations they’ve been on, we get on a flight to India to visit these relatives. We don’t stay in fancy hotels or order room service; we eat grandma’s dal and rice and sleep in mismatched bed sheets ornately decorated with faded patterns. We try not to complain, because after all, we’re with our family, the people that we love. It’s our duty to visit them, but it becomes extremely hard when it seems like we’ll never match up to what they want us to be.
The research paper “The ABCD Conundrum” explains these expectations perfectly. It summarizes: “A ‘good’ Indian American is a person who watches and enjoys Hindi films, demonstrates some fluency in an Indian language, socializes exclusively with other Indian Americans, and embraces a Hindu identity.”
These relatives think they’re being helpful, but really they’re just hurting us by not providing context for their expectations. They don’t ever tell us why a cultural expectation is the way it is, just to follow it. For example, I didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to lock our doors because it implied we were doing something wrong. Therefore, I felt confused and lost when I got yelled at for locking my bedroom door without any explanation why.
India, compared to America, has been proven to have a vertical collectivist culture, which means they work more as a familial unit than individual people. This means we should value our family’s needs over our own, but how much can we do that? When our relatives are constantly criticizing us, it becomes extremely hard to give them this priority. I remember getting into an argument with my cousin because I said I preferred the quality of life in America more than that of India. She retorted by saying I couldn’t “truly be indian” if I liked another country. It felt as if I couldn’t be Indian and still appreciate what another country was doing right.
I remember feeling violated when she went through my stuff, read my notes, and blatantly asked for my phone password. However, I learned that it wasn’t her fault; even though privacy is a fundamental right in Indian law, it isn’t a fundamental priority in Indian culture. The implication that I was hiding something because I valued privacy was extremely jarring, and it really made me question my identity. I felt Indian by label and color, but not by thought.
“What is the freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Salman Rushdie
The name-caller refers to every immigrant who has already figured out their identity and now spends the rest of their time tearing down others. They use common insults and pretty labels to stereotype different kinds of Indian immigrants and divide them into groups.
Some of these titles include insults like “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), “FOB” (fresh-off-the-boat) , or “ABCD” (American-Born Confused Desi). It’s far too common to hear children of immigrants call each other these terms, which hurts even more because they’re our peers. Perhaps these terms didn’t come from malicious intentions and maybe they’re not always used rudely, but over time they’ve developed into insults. These terms take the choice in identity away from children of immigrants and put them into boxes. They essentially are saying “this is who you are. This is all you can be.”
A FOB describes someone who doesn’t know much about American culture and societal norms. Typically, people with this label have a bit of an accent and have migrated to the US recently. The purpose of the term FOB is to alienate immigrants from American culture. This term isolates them as ‘the other’.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Coconut. Coconut describes someone who fully embraces American culture and fits in with societal norms. People with this label are often also labeled as basic or try-hard. This term isolates children of immigrants from their roots and Indian culture. Kids often insult Coconuts for being fake and a “sellout,” because they decided to take on a “borrowed” culture rather than their culture of origin.
A senior who preferred to remain anonymous commented on the usage of this terminology in high school. “I think more times than not, the term FOB has been indirectly coined as someone “lame”. Whereas, given the geological location and how since we’re in America, the term Coconut is perceived as someone more cool and fitting to the American standard. Personally, I’ve been labeled as a FOB several times and it didn’t affect me as much because of the perspective I had. To me, a FOB didn’t mean lame, it meant cultured and grounded to your roots,” they stated.
The senior then continued to elaborate on their beliefs on the topic. “I also believe that regardless of what someone is labeled as, a coconut or a fob, the best thing and the only thing they can do is simply embrace it and be respectful to the other person,” they said. “ At the end of the day, there needs to be a mutual respect and understanding between people, that everyone was brought up in a different environment.”
More often than not, FOB and Coconut are used in derogatory ways. People bash on Coconuts for straying too far from their culture and roots and attempting to fit in. People bash on FOBs for being too proud of their culture and wanting to be associated with their roots. Other children of immigrants expect Coconuts to reject all things related to Indian culture. The movies, the music, the dances, the food. They expect FOBs to reject all things American. The movies, the music, the dances, the food.
There’s no happy medium, either. Those that try to find balance between their Indian roots and American upbringing find themselves with the label ABCD. ABCD stands for American-Born Confused Desi and it’s meant for people who don’t quite know where they belong. This is the term for people who try and balance their two identities. It is also used in a derogatory manner. Both the media and the people surrounding ABCDs ostracize them for being confused in their identity, constantly telling them that they must choose a side.
The well-meaning native
“God save us from people who mean well” – Vikram Seth
The well-meaning native refers to a citizen who was born and raised in the United States, a true “American.” They try to make us feel welcome and just want us to learn about their culture, but it can often feel condescending and block us out from truly identifying as an American.
The dictionary defines nationality as “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” The dictionary defines belonging as “an affinity for a place or situation.” These definitions imply that simply loving America would be enough for one to identify as American. But every conversation with the well-meaning native reminds us that it isn’t enough. We love this country, but it often feels like we don’t belong in it because we don’t know specific songs or movies.
The Economic Times did a deep-dive on the discrimination Indian-Americans face on a daily basis, and a big factor behind this was the American perception of what “Indian” is. Several popular American childhood shows portray Indians as just stereotypical “smart kids”, with heavy accents and nerdy demeanors. So it’s not surprising that our American peers treat us like aliens every time we don’t know a “classic.” What plays out in their minds is a corroboration of the very stereotypes they grew up watching.
The other day, I saw an online quiz titled, “How Indian are you?” The description read, “We say these things are just stereotypes… but truly, these are the things that make you Indian!” The quiz then continued to have a series of Indian stereotypes such as “do you eat meat” or “do your parents always demand an A+” to gauge how Indian you were. While it was just for fun and games, it actually reflected the stereotypes many people truly believe when it comes to immigrants. It becomes incredibly difficult to connect with our peers when all we are to them is a trope.
The natives act like gatekeepers for what it means to be “American.” They gasp whenever we tell them about an aspect of our childhood that they didn’t share. They’re aghast when we tell them we don’t know who the Beatles are or that Dora wasn’t a regular household name. We understand; it’s like getting to ninth grade and realizing your best friend doesn’t know how to tie their shoes- they don’t know something you’ve always taken for granted. However, because of this, we feel a disconnect when interacting with them. It’s like everyone around us has this secret language threaded together by popular cultural memories that we never got. To this day, I put my Spotify playlist on “private” because I’m ashamed of the gasps of horror I get whenever I reveal my music taste.
Comedian Hasan Minhaj has a beautiful stand-up special called “Homecoming King,” and it does a phenomenal job of detailing his experiences as an Indian-American kid, and the disconnect he felt in “classic” American experiences. He talks about the pressure he felt having to constantly change who he was around his American friends in order to seem like he belonged.
But why should we be forced to assimilate like this? Studies have shown that the process of acculturation and assimilation can actually traumatize immigrants, but our peers still expect us to fit in perfectly. We don’t know enough to feel comfortable saying “I don’t know.” But the truth is, we should be able to depend on those very peers in order to help introduce us to the classics. Instead, we cower in fear of being judged, forcing ourselves to accept aspects of a culture we never truly understood.
The Confused Parents
“We know nothing about our parents. And they know nothing about us.” – Hasan Minhaj
The confused parent refers to every first-generation immigrant who is trying to connect their increasingly “American” children with their staunchly Indian grandparents. They find themselves unable to reconcile their children’s adaptation to American society with the image of the ‘perfect Indian child’ they’ve always envisioned.
The problem with the confused parents lies in the barriers between them and their children. Not all of these barriers are their fault; sometimes, we don’t understand them, and other times, they don’t understand us. Regardless, they still gatekeep us from our own thoughts and emotions. Oftentimes, children of immigrants don’t know how to properly express themselves in their parents’ native tongue and the confused parents don’t know how to properly express themselves in English. This creates a communication barrier that contributes to an emotional barrier.
The confused parents have a reluctance to let their children in or tell their children about things that are happening in their lives or in the family. This reluctance likely stems from the confused parents’ own parents and Indian culture as a whole. Oftentimes, we are forced to figure things out on our own because our parents don’t know how to have the difficult conversations. A large part of this, again, comes from Indian culture and generations upon generations of parents unable to communicate with their children. While the confused parents aren’t entirely at fault, their resistance to sharing can gatekeep us from our roots and our family as we feel as though we don’t know enough about our family to be a part of it.
In India, there is a lot of stigma around mental health issues and the confused parents carry some of it. The confused parents tend to be under the impression that the lives of their children are too easy for their children to have any mental health issues. Because of the stigma and the lack of education surrounding mental health issues, the confused parents aren’t aware that just because our struggles are different than their own, it doesn’t make our problems any less valid. People of all different backgrounds, walks of life, and social classes are susceptible to mental health issues and although the children of immigrants didn’t have to work their backs off to get to America like their parents, they do face a unique set of challenges that can lead to mental health issues.
The confused parents have trouble understanding what we go through because it is so different from what they went through. They were under the impression that if they could get to America, our lives would be ten times easier than theirs were. However, we face a unique set of struggles involving identity, balancing two cultures, and balancing the expectations of everyone in our lives. The confused parents never had to worry about this. They grew up in a society where putting filial duty above self was the norm. They did what their parents told them to do and became who their parents wanted them to be without question. We, on the other hand, grew up in a society where following one’s dreams and duty to oneself being greater than any other responsibility were the norm.
When we want to forge our own paths in the world, the confused parents don’t understand why and they become terrified. They don’t want their children to struggle as they did so they force us into safe and stable lives that we don’t always want. This prevents us from creating the life and identity that we want. Like any parent, the confused parents just want their children to succeed in life. However, we don’t always have the same definitions of success as they do. The confused parents don’t understand our definition of success and why we have a different definition of success in the first place. Our inability to explain ourselves to them and their inability to understand where we’re coming from contributes to the communication barrier and causes every conversation to feel more like a battlefield.
All of these gatekeepers may not want to hurt us. Many of them even want to help. But it often feels like they’re talking at us instead of with us. They place these criteria on each identity we try to claim as our own, and soon we have a laundry list of things we have to complete if we want to be Indian. If we want to be American. If we want to be both.
The modern world is a hard one to navigate, especially when we’re young and don’t know who we are. Especially if we’re balancing the expectations of two cultures. There comes a moment in the lives of every Indian living in another country where they must decide how to define their identity. And maybe when the moment comes, the answer should be as clear as a freshwater stream. But it’s not. The thought of choosing is paralyzing and heart-wrenching. Because how can someone expect us to choose between an entirely new culture and every custom we’ve ever been taught?
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to their respective author(s). They do not represent the opinions of South Forsyth High School or Forsyth County Schools.