These thoughts have always been tumbling through my brain perilously. I have vague memories of those first moments, when some alien crevice erupted with thoughts and feelings I couldn’t understand. I had cracked open something that let loose a glimpse into my core. I thought I had drowned these thoughts, but they bubbled up, and when they did, it was like bridging two worlds of light that had been separated by a cold dark ocean. I kept trying to push everything back to my subconscious, but I couldn’t undo what I had done.
Acknowledging that I was agnostic felt like I was rejecting my heritage. In many ways, I had been taught that my culture was inextricably tied to faith. My family is from small villages in India where traditions run deep and education is poor — a place where faith, particularly Hinduism, feels integral to the Indian identity. Consequently, frequent feelings of imposter syndrome, and the looming fear of family rejection have kept me from being upfront about my beliefs. It was just another part of me that I knew my parents would be disappointed with, so I allowed myself to be cloaked in other people’s assumptions. After all, in America, where we feel the need to evince that we are a nation “Under God” (a thinly veiled allusion to the fact that our educational systems, policies, and culture privilege Christianity specifically), there is an arguable level of safety that comes with growing up in a Hindu household. People can think, “at least they believe in a God”.
I felt even more unlucky when I realized I was queer. Growing up in a community culture meant appearances were everything. Good Desi girls go to temple, and become wives and mothers for their husbands. I was a reflection of my parents, and it seemed that if I acknowledged this, I would be a shameful one. Maybe in some way, they were trying to protect me. In grade school, I had witnessed friends and siblings get accused of being gay. This was an excuse to violently bully and ridicule them, as all of these people, to my knowledge, are heterosexual. If just being called gay could make you a social outcast and a target for aggression, what could happen to you if you were actually gay or bi? Perhaps the shame saved me from a broken nose, but it created a lot of self-hatred and caused me to build wall upon wall to cage myself in.
My youngest cousin is 6 years old. Apart from me, she is the only girl on my dad’s side of the family and since she’s learned to talk, she has been looking up to me. We draw and paint together, and she tells me about how she wants to be a teacher when she’s older. I’m not certain what she will face as she grows. I wonder if she will grapple with bouts of internal turmoil like I did, if she’ll feel “not Indian enough” in some spheres, and not fully American in others. I hope that the heteronormativity and strict gender roles which pervade our community won’t constrict her to the point of suffocation. I hope she’ll be able to achieve an existence free from those expectations. I want so badly for her to grow up knowing that there isn’t one way to be Indian. I want her to know that whoever she is, is Indian, and American too — that there shouldn’t be qualifiers, for her or anyone else. If she’s going to look up to me, I want to be the superwoman she sees. I want to show her that it is possible to joyfully transgress social and cultural norms, that there is power to be drawn from embracing our differences. I believe proximity will matter, because it did for me. Other people were allowed to be different, but this was no excuse for me to diverge from expectations, because those other people? Well, they weren’t part of my family, they weren’t in my community. Hopefully, if she has a sister to support her, she won’t have to make those excuses.
I wrote the above paragraphs a few months ago, and revisiting it now, I feel more strongly than I ever have. Recently, a younger cousin on my mother’s side opened up to me, and her experiences were strikingly similar to my own. I felt sorrow that she had been isolated. I felt angry that another young girl had been shamed and silenced, angry that she had been taught that who she loved, what she felt, her whole being, was wrong. Silence for many South Asians is a burdensome act of self-preservation, but if we can bring ourselves to open up to the right people, we often realize we are not alone, and that holds a great deal of power. I’m glad she talked to me, but in truth, the most disappointing thing is that nearly all the girls in my generation on my mother’s side have felt her pain, yet she was alone for so long.
We don’t need to shout everything from the rooftops, but we need to talk about it. We should take it upon ourselves to start these conversations, because there is diversity in our community, and this heterogeneity shouldn’t be a source of pain. We are a colorful spectrum of individuals with different identities, values, personalities, ambitions, and experiences. It might be dangerous for one of us to deviate from the norm — when we are seen as foreigners no matter how long we have been in this country, it appears as though it serves us to fall in line. That has created a culture where we damage our own, sometimes more than outsiders do. Endurance is championed, so we keep up appearances, and we push through our pain, because we’ve convinced ourselves that if we seem fine, we are fine, and we teach our children this. I want a community where I don’t always have to be fine, and where my cousins and I don’t have to hide who we are. So I have decided to start with a reconciliation — I’m queer and I’m agnostic, and Indian.
Featured Artwork: Ashley Lukashevsky