This WIP Wednesday is going to look a little different. It will definitely be more personal. I thought about keeping these feelings to myself, partly because I don’t think I can properly express the emotions that sometimes overtake my mind, and partly because I’m afraid of being judged. But isn’t that part of being a writer? Having your work, your thoughts, your soul critiqued? Bear with me in this post. A lot of it is me processing my own feelings and coming to terms with them.
Sometimes I feel like a fraud writing about my experience as an Indian and even writing characters who are Indian in my books. Because I ignored that part of myself for so long and how dare I even attempt to create a character with an identity I sometimes don’t understand myself.
Over the last few years I’ve come across more and more articles written by Indian authors that have stirred up memories and feelings I sometimes like to pretend don’t exist. These articles, stories, even books, feel like walking into a home that you once lived in and is now abandoned. It’s familiar, everything is as you remember it, but it’s covered in dust and the roof is leaking and there’s debris all over the floor. It’s the same but not the same at all.
So how do you put into words a feeling you’re just beginning to understand and reconcile? You can’t. You simply learn to open yourself up to it and maybe allow it help you grow. For me that feeling is the acknowledgement of my distance from my culture. An identity lost in the folds of assimilation and shame. I love being Indian, I love the colorful festivities, the people and ancient history, the dancing, the music, the movies, and I especially love the food. But it took me a long time to get here. To this place where I can finally say “I don’t understand what it means to be Indian and me”.
The journey to the present has taken decades. It started in 1992 when my family immigrated from India to the United States. I knew nothing about America except what I had seen on television from old episodes of I Love Lucy, Superman, and The Bold and the Beautiful. I remember being amazed every time I saw a white tourist walking around in New Delhi. I had no expectations and many fears.
I cried almost every day at school for the first few weeks in my new American school. I understood some of the language, could speak a little of it, but I didn’t know what it was to be an American. I didn’t know how to fit into this strange new world. I was lost and afraid and desperate to carve out a space for myself because despite everything I wanted to belong. Just like everyone else.
My parents wanted us to have a smooth transition so speaking to us in English became the new normal, and Hindi took a back seat. And there began the first step into becoming the American version of Prerna. I allowed my name to be mispronounced as Perna because I didn’t want others to feel uncomfortable when I corrected them. Saying Prayer-na after all is so much more difficult than Perna. Another step into my American evolution. (It took me until freshman year in high school to finally gain the courage to tell my friends that they were saying my name incorrectly. You know what they did? They listened and started calling me Prerna.) This continued on and until I had almost completely shunned my heritage. I scoffed at my relatives, I cringed at my dad’s accent and how he sometimes confused words and phrases, I complained about how the only thing we were ate was Indian food (which, I can’t even believe because now I love it so much and the idea of taking it for granted really angers me). I hid behind a mask of indifference and rolled my eyes at the Indian-ness of it all. I became the epitome of American teenager.
I am ashamed by that version of myself. The self involved, self-centered teen Prerna that couldn’t wait to get away from everyone and everything that reminded her of who she used to be and how uncomfortable it made her that she no longer felt like she belonged in her own family and how her culture no longer felt like hers either but someone else’s, like she had handed it to the the TSA officers when she stepped off of that plane at the age of 6 and accepted the American Dream in exchange.
And now I’m here. At a place where I wish I could go back and change it. (Not all of it because let’s be honest, some of the steps I took to transform into my new identity were necessary for survival as an immigrant in a country that places a lot of value in nationalism.) I’m at a phase in my life where I feel stuck in the middle of where I was, where I am, and where I want to be. It’s a precarious position and I’m not sure how I got here.
Maybe it was after I married a man who encourages me to get in touch with my heritage. Maybe it was after I had children and they started asking me questions about India and my childhood and I realized I had no idea how to teach them my native language because I remember so little of it. Maybe it started during the 2016 election.
I’m finding that piece of myself that got lost in the shuffle of shedding my former skin. I barely resemble the 6 year old version of myself. Sure I still have insecurities and fears and I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in this country and even in this world, but the me that used to be is gone. Now I’m someone different. Someone new. Someone who is still learning and listening and slowly finding her way to a place where she feels like she isn’t an anomaly.
Every immigrant has a different experience with assimilation. I’m sure mine looks vaguely familiar, maybe parts of it resonate with a few, but the way each of us deals with the process of molding ourselves into an acceptable version of ourselves for America is different. I wanted to take the time to write down mine for those who may feel like they’re on the outside of their culture and heritage like I often do and to let them know they’re not alone. There are a lot of us. We’re all trying to figure these things out in our own uncharted ways. I hope we can all find the place where we need to be in order to be comfortable with who we are. Where we can love and accept ourselves and not have to make excuses for how we fit into our identities. I hope we can feel like we belong somewhere. Even if it isn’t where we used to be.