Category Archives: Shifting Identity

Finding My Voice as a Malayalee + American

A group of female entrepreneurs in Houston was asked to participate in a case study. The question posed: How did you find your voice and confidence

I was in the right place at the right time and got to be included. 

Here’s what I had to say about my own journey. 

In my teens, I had a voice and confidence, then the realities of the world tempered it. In my 20s, I had a voice and confidence, then the realities of the world tempered it. By realities of the world, I mean my realizations of how people different from me think, and my realizations of social expectations. 

In some worlds, I am invisible. 

In some worlds, I’m expected to submissive, and in others, aggressive. 
A lifelong Houstonian, I grew up raised by immigrant parents, absorbing their perceptions of the world and their language to describe the world. I also grew up learning the language of the dominant culture and how to survive in it. 

It’s been a journey of trying to be myself, trying to accommodate my immigrant culture and trying to accommodate the dominant culture. There are so many unspoken, taken for granted rules of engagement. What makes sense in one world often makes no sense in the other.

When I turned 30, I read the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass. They cut me deep. I thought about my daughter (I had only one kid then) and how she would perceive her place in the world. 

My whole life I’ve battled two personalities – one that is confident and driven, the other that has internalized inferiority and invisibility.

How could I talk about my immigrant culture life, when I would only be met with blank stares from people who had no context for it?

This topic is interesting for me because I’m in a season of transition and unrest, trying to find the language to express where I stand at age 32. 

I’ve learned how to be more self-aware, to pinpoint my moments of discomfort and why they’re there. To separate my worth from my perceptions of what people think or say. I’ve learned to have peace in certain moments that would have riled me in the past.

I’ve lived in a world where there was no category for me. Where I’ve been on the outside looking in. 

Now I’m reconciling the unreconciled parts of my story. Who am I? What do I value most when values are in conflict? How do I share the rich, fascinating, untold parts of my story?

I’m finding my voice and confidence as I intentionally take time to write and reflect. As I engage in deep one-on-one conversation with people. As I find opportunities to teach what I’ve learned. And even as I make an effort to eat right and exercise, so my mind can think more clearly and I can show up more enthusiastically.

I’ve learned that the fuel I need to thrive is fourfold: deep conversations, observation and reflection, regular self-expression, and a sense of belonging.

This guy isn’t Malayalee, but…

He probably speaks for a lot of us. Check out Shehan Jeyarajah’s editorial, “If You Knew Me, You’d Know I’m Not the Typical South Asian” in the Baylor Lariat.

http://baylorlariat.com/2014/10/21/viewpoint-if-you-knew-me-youd-know-im-not-the-typical-south-asian/

During Welcome Week at Baylor, I remember walking across campus back toward my dorm with one of my friends who was Indian. I had been on campus for a grand total of three days, and to this point, it was everything I had hoped it to be and more.

Some other Baylor students stopped us along the way to ask if they could pray with us. I figured this was just something people did here, and obliged.

They started praying and saying that they hope that my friend and I reject our false gods and instead turn to Jesus, the one true savior. Read more…

None of us perfectly fit into the “Indian” stereotype expected by non-Indians who see us as “others.”

We don’t fit perfectly into the Malayalee stereotype or even the [insert denomination here] Malayalee expectations. My parents never pressured me to be in medicine or other “typical” fields. They actually encouraged me to pursue whatever my heart desired.

We’re in a time when we each have permission and the luxury to be ourselves, to pave our own way. Other people paved the path for us, and we happen to be born in a time where opportunity of every kind abounds.

I know very few people my age worried about sending money back home or financially supporting siblings or other family like the generation before us.

I think I felt so different growing up, different from people at my American church, at my school, at my Indian church. But I didn’t have the language to describe what I felt or what I saw. I’m still trying to figure that out.

But I’m thankful to live in a time where it’s more OK to be yourself, whatever combination of environments that is. Where there’s a little more equality and access and freedom than there once was.

There remains this threat noted in the editorial linked to above:

The American experiment can never be considered a success until we get away from thinking that we understand people based off a cursory glance at their skin color or do a quick Google search to claim we understand their core beliefs.

We’ve got a long way to go; we’re each a walking combination of victim and perpetrator of the above. But I’m so thankful for where we are now.

Are You Indian or American?

At San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures

The older I get, the more it seems people identify me as an American.

We all grew up calling ourselves Indian. This does not mean we all grew up hating America. (Some people hate the thought of hyphenated identities like German-American or Chinese-American, and think we should all just be American.)

But we called ourselves Indian because we grew up in Indian households eating Indian foods and learning Indian values from our Indian parents. Years later, it’s easy to look back and see how this generation became it’s own category of people who are American in so many ways but love the Indianness instilled by their parents.

We get to be both. Continue reading

The Electric Pink Sari Vigilantes: Down With Abusive Husbands, Etc.

“Clad in electric pink saris, the all-female gang shames abusive husbands and corrupt politicians. Amana Fontanella-Khan talks to the woman behind the largest women’s vigilante group in the world.”

I love the concept of shaming abusive husbands (or abusive wives or in-laws for that matter). The quote above is from an article about India’s Pink Gang, the largest women’s vigilante group in the world.

When the police are paid by oppressors not to help victims and when the community looks the other way at injustice, these women ante up their own resources to find solutions. They collect food or money, organize protests and demand police action. Continue reading

“What Would People Say?” And Other Perceived Barriers

Can’t do this. Can’t do that.

What would people say?

Sometimes you’re at the mercy of a community that holds your reputation hostage. IF YOU LET IT.

My friends have two of the cutest dogs you ever saw. Every time I knock on their door, the dogs bark like crazy, excited to lick and paw at whoever comes their way. But they’re stuck behind a little indoor security gate that leans against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

If these pups simply tipped over the fence with a nudge of their nose or even jumped over it, they would be free.

But fear and obedience keep them behind that weak little gate. That’s their routine, their sense of security. Continue reading

How You Know U.S. Malayalees Are Going Mainstream

appachan and amachi on the marquee

Will Our Generation Think Entrepreneurially?

When I told people I was going to major in communication in college, they looked at me like I was a fool.

“I thought you were smart,” said one uncle. “Why don’t you study to be a doctor?”

“You won’t find a stable job,” said another uncle. “You need to go into the medical field, and you’ll always find work.”

He later changed his mind and apologized.

My friends and I say our parents’ generation was about survival and stability. Work hard and put food on the table. They did very well for themselves out of faith and perseverance.

We’re starting our lives with huge advantages — access to people and information, familiarity and integration with the culture, access to money and education. Opportunities are everywhere.

Cloniness is the poison.

I hope this is not what we are. Someone tell me it's OK to have a personality, be aggressive and take life by the horns?

 

Continue reading

The 90s: Gangstas and Douchebags

In our first year of college, my roommate and I were walking on campus and a row of four Malayalee guys walked past us. In a straight row and with an air of cockiness and self-diagnosed badass-ery so thick that even my white roommate — who hadn’t been previously informed about the douchebaggery some of these guys could emit — dryly commented: Here come the cool guys.

I don’t think a lot of us young people kept it real in the 90s or early 2000’s. We were steeped in trying to straddle at minimum two worlds. With our identities bouncing left and right. We didn’t know who to be.

Our parents did their best to create one life for us at home and church. But there was a totally different life waiting for us at school, work and everywhere else.

Our parents knew only their way. They didn’t have the context of youth life in America, and no one can blame them. So as much as they coddled us, we experienced our share of fending for ourselves and learning things the hard way.

I think trying to adapt and be cool outside of the home culture, that’s what bred the too-cool-for-school facades. Everyone did it at one time or another, just some did it way more than others. And it made the rest of us chant slogans like “Can I just get away from Indian people?”

It was hard to be unconditionally accepted in the home culture, and equally as hard everywhere else.

Race is a Human Construct

I honestly think some of my cousins in India think I am a complete numskull.

Pluralism/diversity causes misunderstandings. An inability to understand the world, thoughts, worldview of someone from somewhere else. It causes conflict in the states. But I enjoy this diversity. I enjoy growing up with so many people and knowing their heart and their mind. When you know someone, you don’t think about their skin color or worry too much about “where they’re from.” You just appreciate them as a person, as someone like you.

Race is a human construct. Latino is not a race or even a color. Neither is the state of being black. News anchor Soledad O’Brien is culturally black, even though she is not deeply pigmented as such.

“Don’t let them tell you you’re not black,” her mother tells her. “Don’t let them tell you you’re not Hispanic or not Cuban.”

I don’t like checking my “race” on surveys. It waters down, mocks and misrepresents who I am.

I want to tell you who I am. Part of who I am. My roots. Raices.

I admire culture and the sense of community and resourceful engendered by many cultures. This is potentially my ignorance speaking, but I see most countries as very similar. Most countries outside of the United States and Europe. I see a sense of understanding of community. This exists in small towns in the states, too. I enjoy talking to people who grew up on a farm. It whispers parallels with my forebears in India with their chickens and goats and crops all around.

My India is not your India. It’s like the parable of the elephant and the four blind folks. One feels the trunk, the other feels the feet; one feels the tail, the other feels the belly.

Everything is different in Kerala, isn’t it?

 

I stood on a hill in Kozhencherry with my cousin Tijo. As we overlooked the city, I told him, “Do you realize you live in the most beautiful place in the world?”

I never wanted to be anything but what I am. Of Indian descent. Though I did want to be black for sometime. I think you end up wanting to be the people you’re around. I loved dark skin. Keralites were known for their dark skin. Mine wasn’t dark, though I wished it to be. It wasn’t until later I realized that some people are taught to look down on dark skin, which to this day I do not understand. It wasn’t taught in my household.

I remember the first time I learned about skin color.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andreanna/2779781360/

My First Lesson On Skin Color (Or the Day I Learned I’m Black)

Kindergarten is fun. You play games and learn stuff. Our teacher taught us a song in sign language, then told us what it meant.

It was about all the cultures of the world, and how they thrived in their different regions. But these cultures started traveling to different places, leaving their homeland and starting anew elsewhere. The song was about how nice and peaceful the world would be if everyone just stayed in their homeland.

I went to kindergarten at a mostly black school with a white teacher.

One day some kids at recess wondered if it was OK for the black and white kids to play together, since they’d heard something about how those groups weren’t supposed to get along. Continue reading