The Authentic Journey of Lisa: From India to U.S. - Fighting Stereotypes and Embracing Identity
My So-called Jeevitham
by Lisa C. James
Part 3 of 3: Fighting Stereotypes and Embracing Identity
(Links to part 1 and 2 at the end.)
A Whole New World
I think in general, like my new love for music, I became more passionate about life. As the months passed, I became closer to some people rather than others. I also learned of my strengths and weaknesses. My group of peers was amazingly well-rounded. They were ambitious, talented, and exemplary in so many ways. They accepted me and for that alone I was grateful. They taught me a lot and encouraged me to hone my talents and skills. There was nothing they wouldn’t try and they excelled at most of what they did try. I envied and yet was proud of them at the same time. Looking back, I think it was they who helped me through, not only the cultural adjustment, but the fine-tuning of my identity. I know I made cultural faux-pas galore but they were always rooting for me in the corner. I don’t know if this all-or-nothing friendship is strictly Indian but I have to admit that I have never experienced that sense of unconditional regard before. I could have trusted them with my life. Perhaps I’m glorifying them because they were the closest thing to family I had there. All I know is that they “had my back.”
Back at the hostel, it was trying times for me. Curfew was at 6 pm and people looked at you all cross-eyed if you were ever late. Also, God forbid if you were ever seen talking to a boy or riding on the back of a motorcycle (the usual mode of transport) with a boy who was not a close relative. The very fact I was an American was bad enough. Everyone knew I probably had five boyfriends back home, cigs under my mattress, and a bottle of whiskey closeted away. One professor told my roommate that I was a bad influence and that if she wanted to stay in good graces she probably shouldn’t hang out with me. I was so angry I could have gone to his classroom and socked his mustachioed face in. However, that would have probably made my reputation worse!
It’s hard fighting stereotypes. It’s like you are guilty and have to prove yourself innocent. After an older roommate had a talk with me about seeing me on a motorcycle with a boy, I tried to keep a low profile. Never mind that they boy was two years younger than me, about a half a foot shorter than me, and was my friend’s cousin who was kind enough to give me a ride because I had felt too light-headed to walk home that day. I wore salwar kameezes everyday and hoped that the administrators would see I was a decent girl and not one of those jean-clad, motorcycle-riding, wild American girls. I was the outsider here. I was the foreigner. I needed to do as the Indians did.
As I approached my third year in Bangalore, my identity became more established. I realized that I was not only more American than I was Indian but I also realized I was more spiritual than religious. My parents are Catholic but they were very open about me learning about different religions as I was growing up. I was, therefore, very open and accepting of different religions and I did not like being forced to think a certain way.
Before I begin, I must say these are my own beliefs and opinions and I hope I do not offend anyone who is about to read the next few paragraphs. Everyone has the right to believe and worship as they wish and you are welcome to disagree with any part of what I say. For some people, some paths of spirituality work better than others and I do not wish to judge anyone or any group. I am just relating what did not work for me and how I felt at the time.
In the hostel-run-by-nuns, I felt I was forced to be Catholic. I was required to go to church every Sunday and prayer service once a week. I started disliking being Catholic and I felt my fundamental right --as afforded by the American constitution: freedom to worship-- was being jeopardized! I still believed in God but forcing someone to go to church was not what religion was supposed to do, in my opinion. In fact, mass in India was so much more an elaborate affair of ritual and tradition compared to that in the U.S. and it simply didn’t do much for me spiritually.
However, in India, your religion defines you. I’m not sure why but I think it is because in India being a Catholic, or any religion for that matter, defines who you are and where you come from. For someone to tell you their religion is to tell you their family history and their roots. It’s as definitive of someone’s past as their family name is. I didn’t understand that because, to me, my religious beliefs and my past are not the same nor did they completely define me. They are an aspect of my belief system and my spirituality but I don’t see it as “tradition.” My parents would probably disagree with me on this point.
I stopped going to the Catholic Church because it was not doing anything for me spiritually. The warden of our hostel caught wind that I, and another Catholic girl, were not going to church on Sundays but to a evangelistic prayer service with my roommate. Pardon the pun, but all hell broke loose. While I felt more spiritually connected to God than ever before, I was going against thousands years of religious tradition and the very foundation of my family’s heritage. It was not pretty. The warden threatened to call my parents and kick me out. She told my Sr. Auntie. My Sr. Auntie thought I was possessed and that I should talk to a priest. It made me angrier that she wanted me to talk to a priest. Why couldn’t she defend her own faith? In my mind, it just solidified the idea that no one knew why they were doing what they were doing just that they have been doing it for so long that changing anything now would be crazy or the work of the devil. I told mom and dad about it before the warden did and all they could tell me was that I shouldn’t rock the boat so close to graduation.
Needless to say, I chose to take my parents advice. A few months later I finished my 3-year degree. At the end of those three years, even with all the ups and downs and trying moments, I felt that I had grown so much. I realized my talents and my skills and I loved learning again. The lack of resources makes you really appreciate what you do have. The library at the college, for example, did not let us check out any academic texts, so we had to “research” and hand-write our notes directly from the books. Using memorized quotes and page numbers was the only way to impress the test examiners and, by my third year, I had that down. I started off with a “second class” and graduated with a “first class” much to my amazement.
I was very sad to leave Bangalore. I had mixed feelings about going back home. I missed America but India was where I found myself. It was in India that I finally realized who I was. Home was where I had to be what other people wanted me to be. I didn’t want to disappoint other people. However, I didn’t want to disappoint myself either. I suddenly felt I had so much potential and that would be not allowed to flourish if I went back home. I would have to conform and sacrifice my opinions and ideas and I would not grow.
I think, even now, not being able to grow is the biggest fear for me. I feel guilty about that because that is considered selfish by my family. There are things that my parents want for me because it is “the right thing to do” but I do not agree with them. However, I do not want to disagree with them because that would hurt them and they are my parents. However, the more they pressure me into “the right thing”, the more unhappy I become. Sometimes I wish I was all Indian or all American and not both. It would make things so much easier. My parents’ and my ideals would probably coincide better. Every once in a while, I wish mom and dad had never come to America. It would have made raising us easier for them.
When I came back to the U.S I had reverse culture shock. What was cool in India was not cool here and I even sounded different. My brother even called me a “FOB-girl”. I didn’t want anything but dosas and rice. American food suddenly seemed so bland. Also, a couple of weeks after I came back, I had a nasty surprise waiting for me. I looked forward to applying to various graduate programs but it turned out that my 3-year Indian degree was relatively worthless according to U.S universities. I couldn’t get into a Master’s program as I had planned. Essentially, in order to get into grad school, I had to do another bachelor’s but a worth-so-much-more U.S bachelor’s. Of course I’m being sarcastic. I was very upset when I found out the 3-year Indian degree was not equivalent. I even wrote the dean at a Texas university pleading my case describing the courses I had taken and how much I had gained more than just an academic education. All he could say was that it was academic policy not to accept 3-year degrees.
What do you do when you come to a wall? You try going over, or under, or around it, right? Having tried all of that, I decided I just needed to go through it. I kept my nose to the grindstone. I think anger kind of fueled my flames. The shame of not being worthy of a Master’s was almost too much to bear after all I felt I had learned not only academically but about myself and life! I could spew memorized quotes to theoretical premises that grad students wrote papers on and could probably do it with more flair and passion. It just seemed so ridiculous and wasted. As I fumed at the injustice of it all, I worked retail for a few months and soon got a full-time job as a library assistant. Later, I got another better paying job as an Archives technician. I saved my money, took online classes, and finally obtained a bachelor. It was ironic that I had earned this sought-after 4-year bachelor’s in three years time.
My bachelor’s was in anthropology. The experience in India made me fascinated by cultural differences. What I learned from India is that essentially, people are the same. There may be different circumstances, history, beliefs, and cultural norms but there are a lot that we have in common. My parents, as well as Aunties and Uncles in the Indian community, were not sure what I was going to do with that degree. I don’t think I was very sure but I had learned to go with the flow. When the time was right, things would happen the way they needed to.
I noticed that my personality and social interactions had changed as a result of my experience in India and the subsequent degree in Anthropology. I was more confident and motivated. My friends were of all different backgrounds and cultures. I promoted cultural awareness in all that I did and I wanted to be involved in everything that was related.
I completed my master’s in cross-cultural studies in a year and half. I needed to complete an internship in order to earn my degree. My financial circumstances required that the internship be as close to where I lived as possible. As luck would have it, my professor put me in touch with an advisor in the international admissions office and, as they say, the rest is history! The internship was a perfect fit for me. I could relate to the students I met with and it was a job that required analytical and investigative skills as well as cultural sensitivity. I could empathize the most with the three-year degree students I met with but I hope I could show them that all hope was not lost which is what I had felt when I had been in their shoes. I was soon hired as an International Student Advisor.
A couple of years after I worked in the international office, I started to feel like I was stagnating. Perhaps it was because I was still in my hometown or perhaps it was because I felt like I wasn’t getting the experience I needed to grow. I didn’t feel I was very well-rounded, especially when it came to my career. So, three years ago (what’s with the three year theme here?) I moved to California. I still work with international students and I have yet to grow tired of what I do. Moving to California, certainly not as trying as moving to India, certainly helped me grow even more because I think I like culture shock! Prevents me from growing despondent! Texas to California is essentially going from conservative to liberal in one fell swoop. Things are different even though this is all America. Everyone speaks English but cultural norms/beliefs are noticeably different. I can’t say I will move again but for now, California is working out well for me. I am currently completing another Master’s but in counseling this time. After that, then it will be onto the next thing. As you can tell, moving has always opened up new worlds for me.
I don’t think my beliefs have changed too much from when I was in India to now. I am essentially the same but I have become more defined. I am less naïve, less arrogant, and less judgmental. Since I know myself better now, I am confident in my abilities but realistic when it comes to my limitations. Also, I realize there are truths that exist beyond culture and that is something I try to remember whenever I meet someone from another culture or background. I hope one day everyone can do the same. Fear holds us back too much and keeps us from growing so that is something we must fight every day.
I keep coming back to the question of whether I am more American or more Indian and I don’t think I will ever know the answer. I will probably drive myself crazy trying to figure that out. For right now, I try to navigate the world as “Lisa” and hope that is a happy medium between both. I don’t completely feel understood by anyone not even myself. I’m not sure why I do the things I do. I don’t know if it related to culture or gender or some personality trait. All I know is that I am in this world and I have to make the best of it.
It’s hard to know what the future holds but what I have learned is to “let go and let God.” As you can see, I kept my promise to God from that December night so many years ago and that idea, that He is there, has worked in my life. I look back and I do not have any regrets. The bad parts just helped me grow and appreciate the good parts. I think the thing to remember is that sometimes you have to listen to your intuition and try not to control the situation so much. If you keep with the same broken routine, you will be unhappy. Change is hard especially if you don’t know what that change will bring. However, if you know you are unhappy, only a change can change that.
==End Part 3, article concluded==
Part 1 of 3: From U.S. to India - The Struggles of Identifying with India While Growing up in America
Part 2 of 3: India it is!
Part 3 of 3: Fighting Stereotypes and Embracing Identity
About the Author: Lisa C. James
Lisa C. James was born and raised in the United States. After completing high school, she attended a university in India. Her life was changed forever by that experience and it has been a cultural adventure ever since. She currently resides in California where she works at a university assisting new international students. She enjoys her present and keenly looks forward to the future.
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