My Indian culture is inherently woven into every part of my identity.
It’s not just in the thickness of my hair and the quickness with which it tangles, the sharpness of my nose and slight slant of my eyes. It’s in my fervent belief in light over darkness, the way I string my sentences together, the stories I know and love.
And I do love my culture. It has a beauty that runs deep and rests in the strength of our women, our unbreakable dedication to tolerance, our ability to create bonds with people.
In the United States, a nation built on the fierceness of individuality, focusing on oneself is not only praised but encouraged. Being able to maintain independence in everything from one’s love life to financial status is equated with success.
Much of this is probably due to cultural landmarks like the Declaration of Independence and the false yet omnipresent notion of the American Dream. Nonetheless, independence has been socialized to be one of America’s core values; constructing a fulfilling life is rooted in our ability to form a personal identity.
My culture is not individualist, but collectivist—meaning that for us, there’s more value in doing something for one’s family than for oneself. In most white American families, a person is defined by their own accomplishments, but in my Indian family, our identities are entirely dependent on each other and we’re all defined as a unit.
I remember that in my senior year of high school, when I casually brought up to my family that I’d applied for waitressing jobs, they got upset that I hadn’t run it by them. Not necessarily in an angry way—they just couldn’t understand why these applications hadn’t been discussed with the whole family. They couldn’t imagine me making a decision to even apply for a part-time job without their input. Wearing too much eyeliner or too bold of a print reflected badly on them, not getting straight As was embarrassing, not wanting to go to colleges where they wanted me to was unacceptable. The list continues.
While I do want to have an identity outside of my family, they’re still very much a part of me. I can’t and don’t want to completely conform to American culture because that’s not all I am. Which means navigating my Indian-Americanness has been challenging.
At first I didn’t know how to balance my Indian culture with my American upbringing. I wanted to make my family happy, but also be able to figure out what made me truly happy without the constant influence of their opinions. I wanted my family to be proud of what I’m doing and who I am, but I also wanted space to explore career choices and evolve without focusing too much on their expectations.
At some point, I realized the concept of selfishness was at the forefront of my mind. Prioritizing myself made me “selfish” to them, and the constant need to please them weighed on me. It was as if to succeed and be worthy in my family’s eyes, I had to replace my own voice with theirs. There’s a generational divide between me, my dad, and my grandparents in terms of our interpretation of Indian culture and values and our definition of success. But culture isn’t static. It’s constantly changing, molded by each generation’s interpretations. It’s as rich with my grandparents’ and dad’s contributions as it will be with mine.
During my freshman year of college, after about seven months of studying psychology, contemplating neuroscience, almost going into forensic science and biology, taking random chemistry classes, declaring an economics minor, and constantly telling myself it was okay to put my passions to the side for the sake of my family, I accepted that I wasn’t happy.
After each advisement meeting and random biweekly major or minor change, I thought I’d feel lighter and more optimistic about the direction I was choosing to take, but I didn’t. I’d continue to try and tell myself that this new field kind of, sort of, lined up more with my interests and that maybe after some more classes I would love it more, but I never did.
At a particularly low point, I decided to apply to my university’s journalism school on a whim. After some wait, I was accepted into the program and proceeded to drop everything else and take up film and art photography minors. I not only felt light and optimistic, but fulfilled and proud.
Of course, this isn’t what my family wanted for me. They still mention how it’s not too late to become a doctor and how being a lawyer “isn’t that much different” from being a journalist. But after making it obvious I wasn’t going to change my mind, they started to show support in their own way, whether it was by sending an interesting article my way or asking me for book recommendations.
At first, it was strange to be actively doing something that made my family unhappy. It was even hard to think of small accomplishments—like a professor saying they liked my writing or getting published for the first time—in positive terms as they just cast more attention on the fact that I was actively hurting my family. But after a while, my voice began feeling like it coexists with theirs.
I was able to piece together the conflict between us into something constructive. I just had to realize that I couldn’t properly come into who I was while clinging to my family’s expectations. Like any culture, my identity isn’t a concrete thing—it’s ever-changing and unconstrained by any one descriptor or passion. My identity just needed room to breathe, and letting it do so has made me into a girl that I’m really proud to be.
By Aarohi Sheth
Illustration by Stuart Bradford for The New York Times