As I recount my experience, I want to say this is my experience and I don’t think it represents Indian American as a whole. It’s just what I saw.
What’s it like growing up Asian American in the US?
1. Obviously, naturally, your identity in so many ways is the mix of your eastern culture and the western culture you’re living in.
For example, I spoke Bengali at home. But at school, I spoke English.
I would watch some Bollywood movies growing up but I would also watch Hollywood movies as well.
I can relate to most Americans and I can relate to Indians too.
This mixed identity of being involved in both sides of my identity has been relevant all throughout my life.
Food — I didn’t eat red meat growing up because cows are viewed as sacred in India, but ate white meat like chicken.
2. Many of us don’t have blood relatives here
This isn’t a blatant statement, but for a good amount of Asian Americans, our parents are the only members of their family from Asia.
Most of our parents’ relatives are still in India.
This can create a level of loneliness. I can’t relate to friends of mine who would be like I’m going to visit my cousins, but I’d say family friends do a good job substituting in this role.
Family friends become like your cousin type figures (i.e. they’re the people you see at Thanksgiving and New Years).
3. I didn’t have a lot of role models growing up
Today, there’s several Asian American comedians and such but for people growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, there was no reference point.
I remember when Harold and Kumar came out, I was just excited because finally I could a brown person on the movie cover for a Hollywood movie.
For that reason, a lot of people in my generation gravitated towards black people.
Those were the only minorities that we could relate to in terms of people who would talk about the color of their skin. Obviously, Indian Americans and the experience of black Americans are totally different, but at the time, that was our closest reference point. They tended to be our role models depending on what our passions were in with politics, sports, acting, etc.
Teacher roll call every year was always very stressful. Most times, teachers didn’t say your name right.
And then in general, a lot of us gave ourselves nicknames.
I can remember one of my friends whose parents were American literally saying I really can’t say your name, is there an easier name to call you?
That’s kinda where the nickname Arnie came. Today, that’s why I go by Arnie or Arnav.
I remember one year I was in class with one of my good friends named Henry. During roll call, the teacher goes, Hong Yi, and I was like what the heck, who is that? And my friend Henry raised his hand. I didn’t even know his actual name was Hong Yi until that moment.
5. Pressure on grades
Many of our parents came to this country for school (Masters, Ph.D., or job transfer) so naturally, they wanted the same for their kids. Education provided them with their opportunities so they wanted us to use it to our biggest advantage.
Thus, the pressure to do well in school was always there. I think that’s where the reputation of “tiger” parents came.
6. People group you in, but you’re so different
Even now, people group things as the Asian American experience, but each one is so different.
With Asia, there’s so many countries Japan, Philippines, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam.
And even within India, which a lot of non-Indians don’t realize 28 states, 22 official languages — all very different. India, in many ways, is 28 states united rather than united 28 states if that makes sense.
I’d, definitely put the Christian, Sikh, and Muslim Indian American experience in this. Most Indians are Hindu’s, but there are a minority of Christian Indians and Muslims Indians, and I feel like my friends who are those often get the wrong end of the stick because people assume their Hindu.
A lot of people also assume your Indian if you’re brown when you actually might be from the Middle East, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.
Also, side note, the language in India is Hindi and the religion is Hindu.
7. Pressure of marrying someone in your culture/religion
Many people have this pressure from parent.
Immigrant parents can’t help it but they wish for their kids to marry someone in their own culture cause that’s what they know.
You have to handle it the way you want to. For me, I look at everyone the same but obviously, I know people that want to honor their parents and will only look at people from their own country to date.
8. You’ll never understand the struggle of your parents
Obviously, I’ll visit India every 4 years. But like I’ll never understand the struggle my parents had growing up in poorer circumstances.
For example, my dad had 2 shirts growing up so he’d wear one and wash/dry the other. My mom was one of two women in her Ph.D. cohort because it wasn’t as common for women to be that highly educated in the 1980s in India.
9. Other Random Experiences as grow up
As a kid you tried to fit in more to American culture, but as an adult and you get more comfortable in your skin, you appreciate it and don’t hide it as much.
9/11 changed things — I’ve never worn a full beard mostly because I’m afraid of being called a terrorist.
I faced subtle bullying — like being called chocolate and stereotype of being smart or smart in mat.
I remember someone making fun of my friend’s mom’s accent.
When you’re visiting India, you’re never Indian enough for your relatives.
You lose the ability to speak the language over time if you don’t practice.