Where are you from?
They point to my darker complexion, confused.
Yes, my family is originally from India.
Ohhh, India. But you live in the States–how nice.
I have never had my national identity questioned as much as I have in Peru. Thus, I have begun to think: My parents are both from India and I was born and raised in the United States.
But where am I from?
In the United States, I am often labeled by my skin color. Though I dress and speak like everyone else, I am viewed differently and view myself differently. I am the Indian girl.
I have darker skin and thicker hair. I am interested in a medical career. I enjoy spicy food. I fulfill many facets of the stereotype quite well.
In India, I am likewise labeled by my appearance. Though my features are similar to everyone else’s, I still stand out. My wavy-curly hair and darker skin do not always fit in when I’m visiting my father’s family in North India. When visiting my mother’s side in South India, I am once again an anomaly. After squeezing my cheeks and offering me treats, my maternal grandmother’s friends always comment on my taller figure. Though my wavy hair matches theirs, they chuckle that my father’s lanky North Indian genes did something right.
Though my appearance does allow me to blend into a crowd, my personality and demeanor are foreign in India. When I speak English with my cousins, they tease me for the way I say certain words or certain phrases. “Is that how everyone says it in America?” they giggle as we converse. “American girl!”
So where am I from?
When I’m in the United States, I feel as though I’m from India. My ethnicity consumes my identity. When I’m in India, I feel as though I’m from the West. My nationality takes priority. As I travel between different regions of India, my identity morphs. It’s frustrating to be unable to fit into a well-defined box.
A good friend recently asked me, “What percent of yourself would you label as Indian and as American?” Though she recognized that it was a strange question, I loved it. As a Type A personality, I love being able to categorize and demarcate. However, though I’ve been able to organize the tangible aspects of my life, my identity has always frustrated me. I thought that I would need to find a place where everyone was exactly like me in order to be at peace with my identity. Perhaps I would meet half-North Indian, half-South Indian Americans in New Delhi and they would completely understand.
But I’ve unexpectedly felt most whole since traveling to Peru.
In Peru, I presented my identity however felt natural. When asked about my family, I spoke of immediate family in the United States as well as family scattered around India. I felt comfortable talking about Indian culture, explaining how different each region is and how varied the culture is within my own family. I felt comfortable talking about my life in the States, showing pictures from high school prom and freshman year of college. I felt comfortable talking about how I want to stay connected to my Indian culture despite living in the United States. I was able to share my personal story in whatever way I wanted.
I’ve felt the most whole in a place where I technically don’t fit in at all. In Peru, I just look different. People aren’t able to immediately identify where I’m from or what my ethnicity is or why I’m there. I don’t stand out as a tourist, because, put bluntly, I’m not white. However, I also don’t fit in with my sweatshirt and Birkenstocks. I can’t be placed into a box. Thus, I’ve been able to focus on how I see myself, rather than relying on others to see for me.
I suppose feeling completely out of place is sometimes exactly what’s needed to decide where you place yourself.