Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tales of a Cultural Outsider

Like many children of immigrants, I grew up trying to reconcile elements of my parents’ culture with my own American experiences. It has been a challenge, because I never felt like I belonged in the American Desi community or in the predominantly white suburban town where I grew up. I have accepted that my brown skin and Indian features will always label me as "different" and "foreign" in my New Jersey hometown. What surprises me the most are the chilly encounters I have experienced with many Indian strangers, acquaintances, and even certain members of my extended family. Ever since I can remember, I have always been a cultural outsider.

I recently experienced this "cultural bias from within" on my bus ride home. An Indian man sitting behind me fell asleep and dropped his cell phone in the process. After returning the device to him, he ignored me completely and expressed gratitude to another passenger (who was white) for waking him up. My instincts told me it was more than just rudeness; I have noticed this type of unspoken coldness, which I think stems from a combination of cultural insecurity and arrogance. It is like an updated, watered-down version of the caste system, which is practiced beyond India’s borders.

My parents are cultural outsiders themselves: they never quite belonged to the South Indian Catholic community they came from. Certain relatives have criticized my parents for the way they raised my siblings and me. My mother and father encouraged us to make friends from all races and religions and to question authority with intelligence, ideas that are seen by some of my family members as too “American” for their tastes.

There are many exceptions to this, obviously. My best friend happens to be Indian, but she is a self-proclaimed outsider herself. I have also met many Indians who feel the same way I do, in varying degrees. Some of them, like me, make no apologies for being a cultural outsider, and will remain open to people of all nationalities, cultures, and beliefs.

Do you feel like a cultural outsider? Why or why not?


Anonymous said...

True so true .. but u know its one tihng living in America as an Indian .. how about comming to India and living among Indians..Dog eat dog world.. One thing I would like to mention is that Indians abroad are different from Indians in India in the sense that they have adopted a lot of western ways without realizing it. But then again, Indians is very a complex species so its really hard to say generalize anything about them..

Anonymous said...

Yep, I'm in agreement with these ladies - but I never saw that being a cultural outsider as something negative. Oh no, quite the opposite! There is such value to being able to question tradition and cultural values and standards. If you don't, when you are asked, Why do Indians do this and that - since you've questioned and received answers already, you are equipped with a response instead of a glow of ignorant acceptance. Now as an adult, I am drawn to my roots and culture more than I had been as a 15 year old indian girl with bleached hair! As my father would say, take the good - not the bad - from both Indian and American cultures and make it who you are. And hopefully, I'm on that path!

Liggybee said...

Sometimes I do feel like a cultural outsider because I not only do not speak the native language, but also because I am married to someone of a different race. I don't get treated badly, but if I'm in a party full of people of my native country, I'm normally not included in most of their "native tongue" conversations. It doesn't really bother me though.

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