What It's Really Like to Juggle Two Cultural Identities

If you were to enter the home I’ve grown up in, the first thing you would notice is the slightly confusing jumble of speech being thrown around: words in three different languages overlapping in messily strung sentences, fluidly replacing each other as we switched among them with dizzying rapidity. Although my family shared a mother tongue, the city we lived in—Hyderabad, India—forced us to speak three languages: English, Hindi, and Telugu. In class, I was taught to speak English; at home, we spoke our mother tongue, Telugu, and in school, I had chosen Hindi as my second language. Whenever I spoke, I felt like I was dangling a fishing rod into the depths of my mind, choosing to pull out whichever word latched onto the hook—no matter which language it was in. And this was how I spoke for the majority of my life: interchanging words in Telugu and Hindi for words in English, mentally performing a sort of chaotic waltz with all three languages as I twirled them around and around in my head to suit my needs.

a bunch of books Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash This was a direct byproduct of the environment I was raised in—I was born in California and lived there for around five years before I moved to India, where I’ve lived for about 15 years now. I went to an international school in India, as a result of which I never really left the multicultural and racially diverse environment that America had provided me with. In a sense, I was never truly completely immersed in either America or India: instead, I sort of floated in the middle of these countries’ cultures, trying to find the delicate line that separated the two. I wanted to fit in with everybody I saw around me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to completely “conform,” per se, to a lifestyle that didn’t reflect the first five years of my life.

Growing up, it became both easier and harder to grapple with these two drastically different cultures. India wasn’t immune to the global rise of Western media—by the time I entered middle school, everyone around me was consuming more Western media than Indian. I felt the impact at home as well, where I flipped through channels subconsciously looking for American shows rather than Indian ones. My parents, on the other hand, were relentlessly trying to make me imbibe Indian culture, slightly baffled that I wasn’t picking it up naturally despite living in the country. I felt flustered by the sudden shift of cultural focus in the only two places I’d ever known: school and home. The divide that separated these two cultures became blurrier and blurrier until I could no longer tell the difference between them.

I never truly realized how little time I’d spent on carving out my cultural identity until I came to BU in 2018. As soon as I landed in America, I felt a constant, uncomfortable tug in the pit of my stomach, like I was out of place. Despite all those years of watching American shows and speaking in English with my friends back in India, I found it hard to blend into American life from the get-go. It was only after spending a semester in Boston that I truly began to feel at home. That was when I took a step back to introspect. What shapes a person’s cultural identity? Was it the country they live in? The people they interact with? The language they speak?

Turns out, there’s no fixed answer. The world has become so globalized, so interconnected, that it is virtually impossible to adopt any one pure strain of culture—at least, in my experience. Wherever you go, you always see telltale signs of multiculturalism: subtitles in movies, restaurants specializing in different kinds of cuisines, stores selling ethnic clothes. The best part of living in this kind of a world, though—where borders are liquidated by acceptance and divide propelled by ignorance are bridged by inquisitiveness—you are finally in control of what you choose to absorb. Of course, being in touch with one’s cultural roots is a beautiful and enriching journey that never really ends, but diving deep into another culture, or choosing to assimilate various elements from different cultures to create an entirely new one are both options that help carve out the skeleton of your identity and add immense value to your life.

I finally understood that I can never really say I’m completely Indian or completely American. Both those identities have coalesced to form something that I can’t really put a name to, and just like how I switch between languages, I keep switching between these two parts that make a whole. And while this can be messy and confusing at best, and downright exhausting at worst, it's something I’ve grown accustomed to.

I think cultural identity is something that keeps evolving as one experiences new things, and it's important to sit down and figure out who you are and what you believe in before you lose yourself in the chaos of life!

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