Tell us a bit about yourself!
I grew up in North Alabama and now live in Atlanta. I’m 26-years-old and work as a marketing manager. I enjoy social media and plan to launch my photography business early next year. In my free time, I love going to rock concerts, traveling, and spending quality time with my fiance and our two dogs.
Where is your family from? When (and why) did they immigrate to America?
My family is from India and immigrated to America in the 1970s. My (maternal) grandfather came to the United States on a student visa. His grandmother sold what jewelry she had to help fund his trip. Eventually he was able to gain employment and bring his family over including my mother and her four siblings. My parents arrived in Queens, NY as newlyweds. My father finished his medical education/training while my mom worked as an accountant.
What was it like for them to adjust to life in America?
They definitely experienced some culture shock. My mother had visited the United States only once before moving here. In school they were taught British English, while this helped serve as a foundation, they still had to learn to speak conversational American English. As Hindus, my parents are vegetarian and prefer to eat Indian (specifically Gujarati) food. At the time it was difficult to find Indian groceries. Of course, New York’s Indian food and grocery options have changed quite a bit since!
Growing up, how did your family feel about cultural identity?
Our culture identities and lifestyles have evolved over time. It’s important to my parents that we maintain our Indian identities, but for me it’s also about integrating this with my American identity. My parents regularly speak Gujarati at home and I respond back in English. Growing up we had a local Indian organization that would hold celebrations for many of the Indian holidays like Holi or Garba. Events like these allowed my parents to meet other local Indian families.
We didn’t participate in most American holidays, like Easter or Thanksgiving. When we were children, my parents would decorate and give us Christmas presents, but we didn’t celebrate the religious aspect or hold a big dinner. They were open to us experiencing things like Thanksgiving with our American friends and their families, though.
How did you navigate being both Indian and American? Was it ever difficult?
It was much more difficult for me growing up then it is now as an adult. I attribute most of this to us living in the South. The town I grew up in was mostly populated by white, southern Baptists. I was a bit too young to understand racism but my family and I definitely felt the effects, some of which I only realized later as a teen. I remember being told as a young child that I was going to hell for not being Christian by both children and adults alike. To paint a fair picture, the majority of people were friendly enough and my childhood was generally a happy one.
When you were a teenager and beginning to date and become more independent, were there ever cultural struggles?
Oh jeez, I think this was probably one of the most difficult aspects of being a first-generation American. In India, the norm is for parents to find a suitable mate for their daughter to marry. My parents may have met a few times before their wedding, but there was no typical dating. I was not allowed to date, so my high school boyfriend was just a friend that was a boy. I gained a lot of independence through extra-curriculars. Now that I’m older I realize a lot of the household rules were strict because my parents and I grew up in different cultures.
Has your cultural identity affected other areas of your life?
I don’t feel that my cultural identity had impacted my academic or professional life too much. I’m still early in my career, but I think most people have a positive stereotype of Indians as smart, educated, and hardworking. I’m proud to say I fit that description. On the romance side, early on it was expected for my sisters and I to find Indian husbands but overtime my parents’ feelings have shifted. My mom has since told me that she thinks an American boy would be better suited for me because we’d have a similar culture. She was right… I’m marrying a white Georgia-native.
If you have children of your own, how much emphasis will you put on cultural identity?
I don’t have or plan on having children, but if I did I would want to share things from their Indian heritage. We could read Indian fairy tales, watch Bollywood movies, and attend Holi festivals. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Gujarati or Hindi but I would be willing to learn if the kids were interested as well.
What are the best parts of being a first generation American? The biggest challenges?
I have to say that I prefer the American lifestyle. I feel very fortunate to have all the advantages, securities, and opportunities of living in a first-world country.
The biggest challenge is feeling like a bit of an outsider no matter where I go. Because my cultural identity is obvious in my physical appearance, people often make incorrect assumptions about me. They don’t take the time to know the rock concert going, tattoo having, adventure-seeking person behind the brown skin. On the flip side, when I visited India they all viewed me as American. My accent, clothes, and general demeanor gave it away. I’ve found both Americans and Indians view me as a foreigner.
What advice would you give to any first generation Americans who are struggling with their identity?
It gets better over time. Remember that you are individual and your identity is unique to you. Embrace the things you enjoy about the different cultural influences in your life. If you’re feeling disconnected, read a book, watch a movie, or cook a dish from your heritage. Attend a local cultural festival or find a meetup of similar people. We live in a great time where you don’t have to fly to India to get a taste of Indian life.Thanks so much for sharing, Sonal! Are any of you guys first-generation Americans? Do you have any questions for Sonal?