A Mixed Sense of Belonging in India
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
I wrote this back in January of 2020 and couldn't find the "right time" to post this, then Covid-19 hit and it felt odd to post a travel blog post. However, Covid-19 is here to stay for awhile and I would like to share this very meaningful experience with you all.
I finally went to India. At 32. 17 years after my Indian father died. 12 years after I started accepting my Indian side. You see, I suppressed this part of me for so long. My parents divorced when I was 3, and I was embarrassed about my half-Indian side. I associated everything terrible with my father with his Indian culture and nationality since he was verbally abusive and not a pleasant person to be around. I wanted to be white and was in close proximity to whiteness growing up in white suburbia. By the time he died, my 15-year old brain realized that this internalized racism was messed up. And it wasn’t until I was 32 and went to India that I gained a sense of pride in being Indian.
On Being Mixed
I was born in the U.S., but I am half-Indian and half-Hungarian, the daughter of 2 immigrants from very different parts of the world. While I grew up with my mother who is from Budapest, I was not really in touch with the Indian side of my family or Indian culture. So I am basically someone who looks kind of Indian with a similar cultural background to a first generation Central/Eastern European immigrant/white person in the U.S. But the world doesn’t treat me that way. White Americans tend to think I am Indian and are always shocked and gasping when they find out that I am half Hungarian too. They are disappointed when I am not a cultural expert on Indian food and culture. Sorry, I learned how to make Indian food through online recipes and 13 years of experimenting with different cuisines. And no, I’m tired of explaining my ethnicity to you. I don’t owe you one, so stop acting entitled to it. I don’t care how benevolent your intentions are.
When I tell people that I felt embarrassed, othered, and ugly for not being fully white for most of my life, they look at me like I am crazy and tell me how it’s “in” to be multiracial and not white. I don’t know how to react to this because my head is spinning. First of all, they don’t have my lived experiences growing up in white, midwestern suburbia with pretty much a white immediate family. Second of all, multi-ethnic representation has only started in the 2010’s. For all of my childhood, I was stuck seeing billboards of blonde haired/blue eyed women with pale skin who looked nothing like me. Occasionally there would be an East Asian woman on a magazine cover, but that was it. Padma Lakshmi was the first South Asian person to be famous and widely accepted as beautiful in my memory, and that’s when it started to change. But you can’t undo 18 years of negative socialization that turned into an inferiority complex. So please don’t lecture me about the virtues of multi-ethnic representation today. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
My Internal Experiences in India
I digress though. I finally went to India for a wedding with a very close friend of mine who is also Indian like me (he grew up in the U.S. but has two Indian parents and lived in India for a period of time). The experience was a whirlwind of festivities, warmth, sleep deprivation, and insanely, fresh and delicious vegetarian food (which I will blog about in a separate post). I felt something in India I haven’t felt all my life – a sense of belonging. So this is what it feels like. That warmth of blending in – I mean I know I don’t blend in 100% because of you know the whole American, half Hungarian thing but still. It was incredible. It made me elated but also sad that I grew up and lived in a space where the norm is to not feel like I belong. I felt beautiful and appreciated in ways I have never felt in my homeland. I would see billboards and ads everywhere of women who of course were more European looking than many Indians (India is such a diverse country) but I looked closer to them than anyone I’ve ever seen on a billboard/magazine in the U.S. It was a delightful feeling mixed with frustration over how colorism and Eurocentrism are very much alive and prevalent in India.
I wore a Sari and Salwar Kameez for the first time. There was something so sad about not knowing how to put on a sari. I was embarrassed, but I felt absolutely gorgeous in it when I am not used to feeling gorgeous. It felt so right to wear. I wish I could wear one just to hang out in Chicago. I had my makeup done for the wedding, and the artists knew perfectly what to do with my face, how to bring out my eyes, how to find foundation to match my skin tone. I felt beautiful in a “normal” way, not in the “exotic” way in the West. I am getting teary eyed just thinking about the contrast in my experiences because I felt so much coming back to the U.S. Since I have been back I have been severely jet-lagged and insanely busy with work. But now I am on a break from work, I can finally pour out my feelings and reflect on what this experience was like because I had been stifling my emotions for so long in order to be productive.
India is a land of contradiction (like the U.S), but the wealth inequality and poverty felt like they were on a different level. Outside of Soho Mumbai (a bourgie hotel/space for “creatives”), you’d see people begging on the street a few feet away, not just adults, little children who you can tell have expertise in this. We also went to Dharavi which is considered a “slum” with 1 million people living there out of the 25 million people in Mumbai. It’s a residential area that also has a manufacturing and production section.
Class mobility obviously sucks in the U.S., but it’s even harder in India, and I saw it with my own eyes in Dharavi – little kids playing in tiny alleyways with feces and animal blood on the ground while elderly grandparents watch TV in their "cavernous" rooms. Clearly, I am seeing this through an American lens because I am used to having so much space, but it was the smallest living space I have ever seen with my own eyes. It’s not like people there looked depressed, they were just going on with their day because this is their norm. But it was obviously a lot to experience as someone who has had a middle-class life through mere accidence of birth in an excessive, hyper-individualistic country like the U.S. And the wealth inequality enraged me.
Gateway of India
That same day, I saw the Gateway of India – how majestic and incredible it was to see this former entry from the West into such an amazing part of the world. It was all lit up for a government event with soldiers and a vast crowd. It felt symbolic to me because the entrance to my Indian side had been closed for so long, and it’s been slowly opening to the point where it now feels fully open. My internal gateway was matched with this external, physical gateway of space.
The Gateway of India is right across the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where my parents had visited before I came into the picture. Yes, it was a fancy hotel and felt perverse to be in such an excessive space after being in Dharavi. Like I said, my trip was full of juxtapositions. My dear friend and I had dinner there because I had to see it. It had personal history, otherwise, I wouldn’t go to such an opulent place for the short bit of time I am in India. We ate at a Lebanese restaurant with an incredible view of Mumbai – sparkling buildings surrounded us.
My emotions for most of the trip had been kept in check because we had been so busy seeing places and celebrating the wedding, but it finally hit me. I felt incredible sadness at experiencing India and realizing that I’ll never be able to talk to my father about it and that I don’t really have family there anymore. If he were still alive, maybe we wouldn’t get along and I still wouldn’t be able to talk to him about it, but at least there would be that possibility. And having that possibility matters so much more than you think after you lose someone. So I feel stuck in between this lack of control over my personal history. There are aspects of my family heritage that I will never know about, and it’s incredibly frustrating. I’ll never feel fully American, but I’ll never have a “special” community to fully submerge myself in because my experiences are atypical. The older I become, the more I’ve wanted to find out about certain events and people in my family history, but I will never find out about these things because people are dead and that’s impermanence.
You might be wondering if I felt this sense of belonging and warmth in Hungary. While I have lovely relatives who are still alive and have had a glorious time there, I didn’t feel that sense of belonging I felt in India because I don’t look “traditionally” Hungarian and it was not that great being a vegetarian there (at least when I visited back in 2011). India was a much more emotional experience for me since it’s complicated by the way I look and my father’s absence.
Coming Back “Home”
When I came back to the U.S., I felt a sense of dread and disappointment. I was incredibly grateful to have experienced India finally. But sad to go back to the land where blondes are worshipped and women of color are fetishized. Sad to go back to a country where people think you have to be “privileged” to be a vegetarian, which is the biggest misconception ever about vegetarianism. It’s the reverse in India. Sad to come back to the land of processed foods where India had so much fresh, robust, and flavorful vegetarian food. Sad to come back to the brutal Chicago winter when it was 90 degrees and sunny in Mumbai and Goa. There were so many things that felt right and natural about India for me that I am certainly missing with a heavy heart. Since I have been back, there is a hole in my heart to return to India and spend more time there. India is an incredibly challenging place to be, and I felt frustrated at times (I like my personal space lol), but to explore a part of your identity when you have been shut out from it for so long is worth the frustration.
My heritage is from an insanely beautiful country with a rich culture of spicy, flavorful food, joyful dancing, nearly non-existent winters, gorgeous, embroidered, hand-crafted clothing and such a diverse cultural history.