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From Confused to Confident

By Srividhya Viswanathan

North-South-East-West: My Four Regional Identities

Author Elias Canetti once said "People's fates are simplified by their names." In my case, however, I always felt the opposite ran true. I grew up in New Delhi, which is a major cultural melting pot and probably one of the most diverse places in the world. I was always social and developed friendships with all the kids in the neighborhood. When I was out playing, I spoke in Hindi with all my friends and then went back home to talk in Tamil with my family. That’s right! I am one of those people—a South Indian raised in North India.

I really did not know that there were terms like North Indian and South Indian while growing up. All I knew was that my name always seemed to embarrass me because it wasn’t 'Pooja' or 'Meera.' It was painfully long and difficult to pronounce for many. Yes, even in India—Indians complain about long pronunciations!

Srividhya Viswanathan

My teachers and even some of my friends would stare at my name for a few minutes before making an attempt at saying it. I winced every time somebody called out my name and got anxious every time I had to stand up in class and repeat it at least 400 times so that everybody knew how to say it. Now, I think, it was perhaps preparing me to come to the United States, where even a few hours wouldn’t be enough for people to say my name—and forget pronouncing it correctly!

My breakfasts at home were soft idlis (South Indian rice cakes) and crispy dosas (South Indian crepes) interspersed with scrumptious paranthas (stuffed and fried flatbread). Though we ate rice as well as roti (grilled flatbread), it was always an ordeal trying to explain to my Punjabi friends why we ate rice with our hand and not a spoon. Even more difficult was trying to explain the cultural significance of the bindi to my North Indian friends. Traditionally, bindis are only worn by married women in the north whereas all South Indian women are a part of the bindi brigade. Don’t ask me why because I still don’t know! I just remember trying to avoid awkward questions like, “Par beta, aapne kyon bindi lagaayi hai? Aapki shaadi toe nahin hui hai.” (“But why are you wearing a bindi? You are not married.”) from all the random aunties around me!

The added dimension to my already split personality came as a result of moving to the United States. I had culture shock, but it came from somewhere I least expected it: my new South Indian friends. Never in my life had I felt more like a misfit. I couldn’t follow South Indian movies, enjoy the typical food or speak the college slang! I did not know the words to any of the super-hit Tollywood songs (South Indian equivalent of Bollywood), and I did not understand the meaning of the lyrics, even though I speak more than one South Indian language. To my South Indian friends, I was always the Hindi-speaking South Indian girl raised in the north and to my North Indian friends I remained the sambar-eating (vegetable and lentil stew, a staple in South India) South Indian girl!

While at the crossroads of North India-South India, I became friends with people who grew up in the United States—some Indians and some not.

Living in the United States brought out the fiercely independent person in me. I live in Oklahoma, and there’s not a lot of desi stuff going on and whatever little there is involves aunties and uncles. I started adapting to the lifestyle of the people around me. I began to love spaghetti just as much samosas (deep-fried puff pastry filled with peas and potatoes)! Soon enough, I noticed relatives hounding my parents for letting me come to the United States without getting married first. As I started to assert myself and speak my mind, I found myself more at odds with my family. My friends here said, “You’ve been Americanized!” and for a second I thought perhaps I had been. Then, I asked myself, “Since when did having an opinion equate to being Americanized?” I found myself feeling guilty and constantly questioning myself. Who was I and what had I become?

In my struggle to find a place for myself, I realized I had to re-learn everything about who I truly was and what I wanted from life. I had to go back to the drawing board. I had to start with being okay with my name. I had to teach myself to feel fortunate to have grown up around different cultures and remind myself that I could fit in anywhere I wanted to. I had to constantly tell myself that my South Asian upbringing combined with my American outlook in life would only help me be a better person; all I needed was to keep an open mind and not judge myself by anybody else’s standards.

I am learning to accept who I am and working everyday on trying to be more and more comfortable in my own skin. I love wearing saris and yet am very comfortable in my jeans and tees! I enjoy my Raisin Bran cereal, and I still eat dosas and paranthas when I can. I long to dance Garba (traditional dance form from western India), but recently, have taken up salsa!

I have embarked on this new journey, where I find myself being content with all the different “me’s” co-existing within me.

Srividhya Viswanathan is an Environmental Engineer who lives in Lawton, Oklahoma.

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