I often step outside during house parties to gather myself, to breathe in clean air and recalibrate my decimated eardrums, like a bloodied boxer allowing his trainer to baptize his face with cold water between rounds. I use this separation ritual more out of self-preservation than annoyance. Even during small gatherings at my own house, I like to detach myself from the collective unit, either to soak up the intimate personal energy of my bedroom or the aggregate energy of the outdoors.
At one such party last semester, I found myself not alone during one of these personal adventures. Because there’s no official term for a person between the statuses of “acquaintance” and “friend” and because it’s inconvenient to repeatedly refer to this individual as “someone I feel comfortable joking about professors with but also someone with whom I laugh nervously and nod when I don’t understand what he just said,” let’s just say that a Loose Friend of mine, whom I shall leave anonymous and refer to instead as “Texas,” stepped out to join me.
We ambled down the usual conversational roads—“hey man” and “how’s your night going”—until he abruptly asked me if I’m a member of the IASA (Indian American Student Association). For background, IASA is a cultural group that runs food drives, volunteer events, parties, and the second largest student-run dance performance in America. Nearly all of the University of Michigan’s Indian community has connections to IASA either directly or through friends. I respond no. I joined IASA my freshman year simply for the dance and was done with the craziness after that.
But his question soured me. Why? Because Texas asked me if I was in IASA not to bridge our way out of small talk but to make easier sense of me, to pigeonhole me into a big group to judge me. As ridiculous as it may sound, it happens in the same way that tall people are asked if they play basketball, although with none of that jovial twang. For reference, imagine how strange it would’ve been if I had asked Texas if he were in the Aryan Student Association (disclaimer: not an actual group at Michigan (at least not officially)).
“Mmm okay,” he slurred. “I didn’t think you were.”
“How come?” I asked.
“I feel like those people always hang out with each other, and like no one else,” he says, as far as I can remember. His voice has increased in magnitude. “Honestly, it’s disgusting.”
Disgusting, he said. The first image that popped into my head upon hearing Texas’s judgment was that of a colony of ants. A colony of ants terrifies me much more than the sum of each member ant’s inflicted terror; a colony swarms and writhes and paints sidewalks and floors and ceilings black with crawling sludge. The aggregation of this threat defies conventional arithmetic. It disrupts lives. I had one in my room this past summer, and despite the several complex traps I’d set up to eradicate their entire ecosystem, I’d still wake up in the morning with a few dead ants in my bed, under my back and pillow, having crawled across three walls to reach me. This was, to me, how Texas viewed Indians in IASA. Creeping, crawling, pathetic little ants.
“Disgusting.” The worst past was that he all but said, “It’s disgusting, right?”
The racially charged complaint bothered me, but it was this implied “right?” that really threw me, this positioning of me as a confidant to validate his gross opinion despite my brown friends and browner skin. I stood in shock for a few seconds, allowing Texas, who was now shivering from the wind, to hold my gaze.
“I wouldn’t say it’s disgusting,” I said, speaking carefully. Then, I continued to cite the community that IASA builds, people’s natural inclination to befriend those they relate to, and the multiple cultures that one must juggle when born in America to immigrants. But as I spoke, I realized how futile my efforts were. I couldn’t change his mind, and my words fell on deaf ears. Texas naturally backtracked, his speech like a misfiring machine gun—“Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah no, I know, I didn’t mean it like that, I’m just saying…”—but he eventually gave up the discussion with a shrug and a “whatever.” I expected him to slide back into the pit of the party, leaving me alone again outside—I would’ve preferred it—but instead, four other damp partygoers stumbled out and joined us. Texas and I stayed too, welcoming the distraction and socializing until they all went back inside, leaving me to ponder in the cold.
Texas’s words were nothing new to me. Indian college students attract each other magnetically. Last year, when my roommates and I searched for places to live, we selected our house not for its tiny square footage, closet-less bedrooms, lack of dining area, grimy showers, or shredded furniture but because it was right next door to the house where seven other of my Indian friends lived. The thirteen of us, having been friends for years, have built our own community to the extent where it’s rare for any of us to stray from our herd. Some have dubbed us a clique, others a cult.
At the very least, we’re not blind: when we make plans to go out, some of my friends jokingly suggest that we make new friends there. But their awareness tiptoes towards mere irony with no real insight, discouraged from analysis because the truth might be too uncomfortable. While my group of friends could never disgust me, it often feels like I’m the only one troubled by our strict homogeneity—and it’s possible that each of my friends feels the same way.
And why shouldn’t I be troubled? As a member of this group itself, I feel that I should be allowed to inspect the dynamics of my friend group—not Texas, who grew up in melanin-deficient rural Michigan. While we may share the same sentiments about Indian people, let alone people in IASA, he has no real right to pass judgment. He’s a frustrated fan, observing us from afar like we’re entertainment, and I’m the coach, listening to his drunken complaint as though expected to rework my Indian team’s strategy. But like anyone who’s a bit jaded, it’s hard to avoid commiserating at the drop of a hat. When Texas told me his sentiment that I secretly shared, the part of me that burned at the insult to my friends and culture stood toe to toe with part of me that leapt at the opportunity to commiserate.
Describing the commonality between my Indian friends and myself as “culture” doesn’t do our relationships justice. Culture is complicated. I could cook a masala dosa with steaming, spicy sambar, and that would be an element of Indian culture; I could raise my future children to not date until college, and that too would be an element of Indian culture. Culture is a system of life, like a routine with a consistent, inspiring rhythm. Living in Indian culture at home and American culture outside of home can feel anxious and pointless, like playing a game of musical chairs alone.
My name became a tug-of-war for each of these cultures. I heard the way everybody mispronounced my name to the point where I began to feel like a nuisance when introducing myself. And it isn’t as though my parents didn’t foresee this: the correct, Indian spelling of my name is “Chakri,” and it’s pronounced the same way. They only changed the spelling to “Chuckry” because their coworkers pronounced it “SHAY- kruh” when presented the real spelling on a notecard. My last name was no easier; the correct pronunciation is “VEN-guh-dum,” but even the average of my schoolteachers’ pronunciations—“ven-GAH-dum,” “VEN-duh-gum,” “ven-guh-DAM,” etc.—misses the mark. In middle school, one of my baseball teammates tried congratulating me after I stole home plate one game, which ended up losing its sincerity when he stuttered, “Good steal, Chuckry Venga…um…ah whatever, your name’s too long for me anyway!” Just three weeks ago, a balding barber with a bushy moustache announced, after stumbling over my name on the reading list and then encountering the name “Joel,” to “give [him] a good and easy name like [Joel] any day.” I used to laugh off such quips; I now just sigh and ignore them. When your name, the very hinge of your identity, inconveniences the world, it’s difficult to avoid compromise. So I did. I became “Chuckry, ‘That’s Chuck with an arr-why,’ ven-guh-DUM.”
This method of compromise persists in my life: I struck a mismatched balance between the two cultures I belonged to, unable to reconcile the two with each other, but playing my role perfectly well in each. My mother, a devout Hindu, and my father, a devout traditionalist, arranged a Hindu coming-of-age ceremony when I entered the sixth grade in hopes of sharing their values with me. It was called the Upanayana, or the Sacred Thread Ceremony, in which an adolescent boy of one of the upper three of the
four castes was deemed either mature or troublesome enough to receive three symbolic threads to wear around his body. The threads are tied together, representing restraint of mind, body, and spirit. Even the manner in which the threads were worn characterized restraint; they diagonally spanned my torso, sitting on my left shoulder and looping down to my right hip, an elliptical orbit of chastity. At the time, I believed that this was the way things had to be, that at the end of the day, I was Indian, and I had a duty to fulfill having been born into this ancient ethnicity.
Over time, however, that feeling of duty began to morph into obligation. After receiving the sacred threads, I was expected not only to wear them at all times, but I was also taught a specific ritual called Sandhyavandana that I was meant to conduct every morning before school, in which I was to sit cross-legged before my mother’s Hindu shrine in our dusty, unfinished basement and silently meditate for ten minutes. I remember how difficult it was to maintain my posture during those sessions, how aimlessly my mind wandered, and how itchy my threads became. Yet I continued, because my parents were thrilled that they’d passed down such a valuable tenet of their experience. “You’re growing up,” my dad would say, ruffling my hair affectionately. My mother often joined me when I performed my morning Sandhyavandana, which made it so I couldn’t cheat my way out of the boring ritual but also instilled in me a sense of pride. She joined me because she wanted to share the experience she’d given me. Despite my discomfort, I couldn’t let my parents down.
Unfortunately, the world saw the truth of this discomfort and tugged and tugged at it like a loose thread until it eventually unfurled. People at school would see the threads when they slipped from my shoulder towards my exposed neck or when my shirt that day wasn’t long enough and failed to conceal the bottom of the thread. “What is that?” they’d ask, and when I’d answer, I’d receive a paparazzi-esque barrage of questions that reddened my face and dried my mouth. “Why a thread?” “Doesn’t it get itchy?” “Why don’t you just take it off before school and put it back on after?” “It looks so annoying to wear!” “Why don’t you just throw it away? What’re your parents gonna do?” I defended against all of these questions by asserting that I did in fact want the threads, as it represented the prestige of maturation. I knew that I was lying. The questions had done their job by merely being presented, watering the already-existent seeds of doubt in my mind. I began to wonder what would happen when I end up in an intimate situation and have to present my thread in all of its simplicity to a girl very likely unprepared for it. By the time eighth grade rolled around, I’d learned how to take off my thread and shirt at the same time in the locker rooms to minimize its public exposure.
This balance I found invoked the yin-yang symbol, portions of black and white with a bit of each other in them. However, in my life, the black has never equaled the white, nor vice-versa. My development followed this pattern of cultural attrition. Parts of my Indian heritage would fall to the wayside as the world chipped away at me with its morbid curiosity as though looking for something bizarre to judge, like Texas watching us squirm like swarming ants from a safe distance. I can’t help but think that I’d prefer that circle to be a unanimous gray instead. I would welcome the smoothness of a singular identity.
This of course isn’t meant to diminish the struggles of other ethnicities of immigrants. Every ethnic group brings its own complex background to American culture. Often times, however, I find that people avoid learning these backstories out of fear that they will be unable to relate. An old middle-to-high-school trope was that classmates would ask me where I was from, to which I’d respond with an equation of an answer: “My parents are from India, but they moved to Boston, then to Michigan, and I was born in Rochester Hills before moving to Troy.” Politeness compelled me to reciprocate the question, regardless of their skin tone. I didn’t want to assume. The white classmates’ answers ranged from uncertainty—“I think my great-grandparents came from Russia, but I’m not sure”—to humble acquiescence of their limited region of growth—“I grew up in Dexter my whole life”—to, more often than expected, a far more complex equation than my own—“I’m half German, a quarter Italian, an eighth Spanish, and I think I’m an eighth Cherokee as well.”
I’d nod in confusion and amazement, not expecting the last kind of response whatsoever. However, it took me years to understand that, as polite as those exchanges were, those classmates usually just wanted to find common ground with me and leave it at that. They asked no further questions, showed no deeper curiosity. They forced camaraderie rather than promote curiosity; they wanted desperately to find something in me that they could relate to, stopping their questions just short of learning something unexpected, rather than something that might dare to paint me as different. It wasn’t malicious as much as it was their fear of the unknown. I assert that had they truly been interested in and unafraid of our differences, they would have asked me why my parents came to America.
Our parents’ harrowing diaspora might explain most of the clique-ish unity of young Indian college students, but it’s also the fact that we and we alone are privy to our parents’ individual backstories that puts pressure on us to succeed. It is also this pressure that drives us together, as no one else quite understands our double lives like we do. Being an Indian American carries much weight; being the first Indian American in your family carries a far greater burden. Simply adding this extra condition adds an entirely new set of expectations. Not only is it difficult to find appropriate role models when you yourself work two different roles—and in doing so, you truly work neither—but also knowing that you came from your parents’ international diaspora adds unwanted urgency to your future. You hold the family legacy in your hands; they came all the way to America for you for the vast opportunities you’d have in your life.
But there’s a sick irony in this. Your parents’ expectation of greatness for your life limits the quantity of opportunities they intended for you. They came to optimize your quality of life, but as they martyred themselves with the painful loneliness of assimilation, their hopes and dreams for you only narrowed. What began as a gateway to opportunity eventually hardened into a rat race for success. I recall the oft-cited stereotype that Indian parents train their kids to be doctors or engineers. And why wouldn’t they? Both are lucrative, secure careers that tangibly improve humankind. At least these jobs offer parents a clear, material satisfaction of knowing they’ve succeeded. Few college graduates would fly to another country across the world with just two shirts, a bowl, and a spoon so that their child could become a poet.
It’s this burden that sits inside me. I can’t speak for every first-generation Indian like myself, but evidence of our parents’ paranoia shows itself systemically. In suburban Michigan where I grew up, several of my Indian friends attended extracurricular classes held by Kumon and later, the Indus Center for Academic Excellence (ICAE). Many even grew up to tutor for those same establishments. I myself never attended; my parents, likely trying to avoid the explicit authoritarianism common to Indian immigrants’ parenting styles, encouraged me to pursue my own interests, like playing oboe and baseball, never quite pressing upon me the need to do well in school. They parented uniquely—imperfectly, of course—but they seemed to do it more to reinforce their noble intent rather than promote a good effect, as though to convince themselves that they were different, better than the stereotypically strict, stubborn Indian parents that they themselves had. In the end, this motive ends up as ironically self-serving as the doctor- and-engineer raising parents.
Indian parents often have a self-serving mentality about raising kids, a conditional love, of sorts. They will require that their kids be successful to justify their immigration and all the difficulties associated with it. This need for validation may show itself in outward “thank you’s” and gifts, but my parents in particular wanted me to show them what I could do that they could not. For example, I played the oboe—the musical instrument perhaps most drenched in European culture—from seventh grade to the end of high school and haven’t played since. But my parents continue to badger me about it, reminding me every other day when I come home for breaks. “Play the oboe please, raja,” they still say. “You used to be so good.” At this point, it almost sounds like begging. “Please, play.” The two times I’ve pulled out my oboe in the past four years, they were just so my parents could hear the music flow out of my room while they cook pav bhaji in the kitchen downstairs, proof that they successfully raised an American kid.
I don’t want to play the oboe anymore. I don’t want to correct people’s pronunciation of my name anymore. And I certainly don’t want to wrap threads around my body anymore.
I remember meeting Texas during the rush process for our professional fraternity. He was a humble kid, quiet and well-meaning, and he read A Song of Ice and Fire as have I. We worked together on a group project and didn’t hate each other afterwards. He even pronounced my full name properly. Even with these starting connections, I never felt a real inclination to be a better friend to Texas, knowing at the back of my head that my Indian friends would understand me better anyways. I didn’t need to tell them about it for them to know exactly how I was raised, what I was allowed to and forbidden from doing, what I struggled to accept, and what might have made me cry. What would Texas know about hiding threads? Would he have struggled to be the same person at school as at home? Did he, too, wish his parents showed any sign of romance like the couples on TV?
Maybe this resignation is in itself disgusting. After all, many Indian kids with similar backgrounds have no problems befriending non-Indians. But what simultaneously haunted and inspired me was that Texas had chosen me to relay his opinion about IASA kids. To him, I was worth risking offense. As I stepped back into the house, the air heavy with intoxication, I wondered what my parents would think if they knew I was martyring myself as they had, made to bridge two groups of people just as they did between two parts of the world. Around me, everyone danced and drank like their pasts and futures were a joke. Partygoers crowded every pathway, and flashes of laser lights exposed unflattering perspiration. I sighed, took another step, then another, and then another, and I melted back into the people.