Youth Radio: Navigating Two Cultures As An Indian-American teenager

Aug 22, 2016

This story is part of WUNC's 2016 Youth Reporting Institute, an annual summer program that teaches young people how to tell stories about their community in their own voice.

Meet: Gayathri Raghavendra
Age: 17

What does it mean to be an Indian American?

In the first of our WUNC's 2016 Youth Reporting Institute stories, youth reporter Gayathri Raghavendra explores that question in her story.

"Two weeks ago, I got a summer haircut. Yeah, I know it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's been five years since I've gotten a real haircut. You see, to me and my dad, Raghavendra Narasimhan, these 18 inches mean a lot more than just cosmetic change.

"So, if I want my kids to look beautiful, to look traditional, divine, Indian, whatever, long hair just kind of goes with it," my dad said.

Cutting my hair means shedding a part of my Indian identity and replacing it with something more distinctly American. I'm a second generation Indian-American teenager. My parents immigrated to North Carolina before I was born and I grew up here.

Two cultures

Living between two cultures is kind of like a rollercoaster. When I was a kid, I'll be honest, I wished that I were white.

I couldn't stand the thought of being Indian because I just wanted to fit in. But my parents made a deliberate attempt to keep my sister and me connected to our Indian heritage. We learned Carnatic music, a traditional form of music from South India.

2016 Summer Reporter Institute intern Gayathri Raghavendra plays the veena, a traditional Indian instrument.
Credit Courtesy of Gayathri Raghavendra

I play the Veena, an ancient Indian instrument. I still go to class every week and learn Veena from my guru of nearly 10 years.

It's ironic, because when it comes to ancient Indian culture, I seem to know more than my parents.

"Even though I didn't learn traditional music, you guys learned traditional music and I think that it enriched your lives… and it certainly enriched mine," my dad said.

I'm into Veena; I play, I practice but at school I play it down when I’m around my friends. I'm self-conscious about being too Indian. One of my biggest fears is for people to think I'm a FOB.

FOB v. Coconut?

So, what's a FOB? I asked my friends Youngmin Shin, Tia Valakuzhy and my sister Brinda:

"A FOB is someone who is fresh off the boat from some Asian country," Tia said.

"They don’t assimilate into the community," my sister Brinda said.

"They’ve stayed hinged to their previous values," Youngmin said.

"You can just tell someone is a FOB by looking at them," Brinda said.

Now on the other hand, I can go too far in trying to assimilate, and that's bad, too. Then, I'd be a coconut. Here's my cousin Keshav Sridhar and my sister. They say a coconut is:

"Someone who's brown on the outside and then white on the inside," Brinda said.

"Brown people who try to act like white people because they don’t want to be Indians," Keshav said.

"So they, like, refuse to accept that they're Indian," Brinda said. "Basically they over assimilate."

If I talk about Carnatic music, I am too Indian for my peers. If I only wear jeans and a t-shirt, I am too American for my parents and grandparents. My friends and I constantly walk this line between being a fob and a coconut. This makes my life complicated sometimes.

Conflicts of identity all around us

My family goes to the Hindu temple every week, but my sister and I never wear casual Indian clothes in public. Right now, we’re on our way back home from the temple and we’re still wearing our Kurthas and Chudidars. We need to stop by the grocery store. But, my sister, Brinda, refuses to go inside.

"Daddy, everyone is gonna look at me weird, I don’t want to," Brinda said.

These kinds of conflicts are all around us. For example, I love to play Veena at talent shows, but I never bring Indian food to school. My friend Tia Valakuzhy doesn’t either.

"If my mom packed something I would just like throw it away so she thought I ate it but I didn't eat it and so like I would just not eat lunch because I was so worried that other people would be like, what's that?" Tia said.

Tia and I feel like we're in limbo between two worlds that will never fully understand each other.

That worries my dad:

"As you try to assimilate, whatever was your Indian culture, you lose say 25 to 50 percent and in your next generation they going to lose more of that," he said.

I’m glad to claim two cultures as mine, but I’m never going to fit neatly into either one, and I'm starting to accept that.