Being an Agender, 1st-Gen Indian-American
I’m a first-generation immigrant, with both my parents being Indian immigrants. My mom immigrated to Canada before she came to America (when she was in her late twenties), and is a Canadian citizen. She was born and raised in Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat. My dad moved to India when he was in his early twenties. He moved from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in his fifth standard, and moved from a Gujarati-medium school to an English-medium one.
My dad is more fluent in English than my mom, though they both are fluent and speak mostly without an accent. I speak Gujarati more-or-less fluently, since that’s what we spoke at home, but I can barely even write my name. I’m Hindu, as is my family, and a strict vegetarian. I’m agender, but I use she/her and they/them pronouns.
One of the biggest issues in the Indian-American community is the issue of body hair. I’m AFAB, so I was expected to have smooth, hairless legs and arms. The reality was rather different. Since the age of ten, I had more body hair than the boys in my class. I was mocked and called by the name of a TV animal character, whose name was a mispronunciation of my own. No one ever did anything about it. I was eight. My mother, though she meant well, pushed me into waxing and threading and other forms of hair removal since the day I turned eleven. Even now, as a fully-grown adult with my own apartment and my own life, I can’t bring myself to wear shorts or capris without having spent hours making sure my legs are smooth. Body hair is a huge issue that needs to be addressed more, and not just as a few wisps of blonde hair in the armpit region.
It’s complicated. Growing up, we had thaalis (with roti, rice, sweet dal, and shaak [which is a mix of vegetables and spices]) for dinner almost every night. When we didn’t, it was supplemented with foods like pasta, veggie burgers, and khichdi. We made different types of khichdi each time, based off of different familial recipes that were all named after the family member who introduced them. My mom had to make milder food for my sister, and while my sister loves spicy foods now, I’m still not a big fan. A side effect of growing up in a non-white, vegetarian family is that no one in my family has any idea of what white non-vegetarians eat. Like, at all. It’s kind of funny, to be honest.
My mom is a Vaishnav, and my dad is a Brahmin, so the way they both worship is very different. My dad’s family places a huge emphasis on chanting and prayer, as well as meditation. They mostly pray to capital-G G-d, as the metaphysical embodiment of Grace. My mom’s family, however, places emphasis on– I don’t want to say “idol worship" because of the negative connotations that has– but they worship to murtis, statues that represent our gods. My mom’s favored god to pray to is Krishna, and we have murtis in our home that she performs sevato every day.
We celebrate Janmashtmi, Holi, Diwali, Ganesha Puja, Lakshmi Puja– too many to count, really. We don’t always go all-out, especially on most of the smaller celebrations, but we do try and attend the temple lectures on those days, or host our own. We also celebrate Christmas and Easter secularly. I didn’t even know Christmas was a Christian holiday until I was in elementary school, and Easter until I was in high school.
Whooo, boy. Where do I start?
When my sister was in first grade, she had a friend. I’ll call her Mary. Mary, upon learning that my sister was not, in fact, Christian, brought an entire Bible to school and forced my sister to read it during recess, saying that otherwise, she wouldn’t be her friend anymore. Mary kept telling my sister that she would go to hell if she didn’t repent, and that our entire family was a group of “ugly sinners.” When my sister came to me for advice, I told her that Mary wasn’t her friend, that Mary wasn’t being nice, and that my sister wasn’t going to go to hell, and that we don’t even believe in hell. When my sister finally stood up to Mary and told her that she wasn’t going to listen to her anymore, Mary got angry and dumped a mini-carton of chocolate milk on her and told her that “now she looks like what she is– a dirty [the Roma slur term].” Not only was that inaccurate, it was extremely racist, and Mary was only reprimanded for the milk-spilling, not the racist remark that came with it.
On top of that, since I have long hair, I’m always getting asked if so-and-so can touch it, or what I do to get it so long, or why I allow myself to be “shaped by such backwards ideals of women.” My name is never pronounced correctly, and I’ve been asked to give people my “American name” to be called by instead of my actual name. I’ve been called a terrorist, asked why I wasn’t wearing a hijab (by white people btw), and mocked for my food. I’ve been told that I wasn’t “really Indian” because I didn’t have a dot on my forehead. I’ve been told I wasn’t “really Hindu” because I had milk on my plate, by a white boy whose mom was a leader of a local choir.
I grew up in a town where only 4-5% of the population was South Asian, and there were a total of five South Asians in my grade level. The school administration consistently and intentionally placed us in different classes, and I never made a friend that was South Asian until 7th grade. When I came to the school, I was placed in ESOL without even being tested, while also being in the Advanced Readers class. The school didn’t even care to look at my school records before placing me into ESOL based on the color of my skin.
Things I’d Like to See Less/More Of
I’d like to see less of the “nerd” stereotype, of the “weak, nonathletic” stereotype. I’d like to see less of the “prude” stereotype, of the “I hate my culture/feel I don’t belong” stereotype. I’d like to see less of the “rebellion” stereotype, of the “my parents are so strict and I hate them” stereotype. I never want to see the “unwanted arranged marriage” trope. Ever.
I want to see bulky, tall Indian characters. I’d like to see Indian characters confident in their sexuality, whether that’s not having sex (for LEGITIMATE reasons like risk of STDs, general awkwardness before and after The Deed, and wanting to wait, not “oh my parents said so and also I’m sheltered and innocent”), or having a new sexual partner every night.
I want Indian characters (especially children/teens!!!) proud of their culture and their heritage and their religion, whether that’s Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, or anything else. I want to see supportive Indian parents, I want to see more than chiding Indian grandmothers and strict Indian fathers. I want to see healthy arranged marriages, or healthy mixed-marriages. I want to see mixed Indian-POC couples, I want to see queer Indian couples.
I want to see body hair on female-presenting characters, I want to see more of India that isn’t “bustling market with the scent of spices in the air” and “poor slums rampant with disease” and “Taj Mahal”. I want to see casual mentions of prayer and Hinduism and Indian culture (a short “My mom’s at the temple, she can’t come pick us up” or a “what is it? i’m in the middle of a holi fight! eep! ugh, gulaab in my mouth” over a phone call, or a “she won’t answer until 12– she’s in her Bharatnatyam class/Gurukul class/doing seva/at the temple” would suffice). I want to see more Indian languages represented than just Hindi. There’s Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Nepali, and Kashmiri, just off the top of my head. The language your character speaks depends on the place they come from in India, and they might not even speak Hindi! (I don’t!)
I hate that Indian culture is reduced to “oppressive, strict, and prudish” when it's so much more than that. I hate that Indians are stereotyped to the point where it is a norm, and the companies reinforcing these stereotypes don’t take responsibility for their actions and don’t change. I hate the appropriation of Indian culture (like yoga, pronounced “yogh”, not “yo-gaaa” fyi, the Om symbol, meditation, and Shri Ganapathidada) and how normalized it is in Western society.
This ended up a lot longer than I had expected, but I hope it helps! Good luck with your writing :)
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