I speak some broken-ass Hindi. Try as I might, I was never taught the language so I don’t know how to read, write, or speak much better than my six year old. It’s no wonder the day I landed in India to launch a new business, I made a total fool of myself.
I got to my guest house — which was an absolute mansion — and one of the servants brings my luggage to the room. Airport customs zip-tied the suitcase zippers together so I needed a pair of scissors to cut them open.
Waiting for instructions or a tip, I couldn’t tell which, the servant stands there at my service. I speak confidently, “Hamare liye do kachche le kar aao” which means “Please bring me two knives”. (I didn’t know the word for scissors so I said two knives instead.)
Dude holds a straight face but I can tell I messed up. He looks at me and says, “Sir?”
And I am like, “do kachche (two knives) please.” He leaves the room and returns with a pair of scissors and cuts the zip-tie. I’m a genius! But then, he lays my suitcase down flat, opens the zipper, and starts to remove my clothes. This is some next-level service, dude’s taking out my clothes for me.
Then it happens…
He hands me two pairs of underwear.
Turns out, kachche means underwear, which I had confused for the similar sounding kaynchi.
“Go Back To Where You Came From”
I know I’m not the only first-gen immigrant to mess something up in their parents’ mother tongue. It’s no wonder why so many of us were spoken to in our parents’ mother tongue but we responded in English. Many Americans pressure immigrants to assimilate, especially in a time when our president tells people of color to “go back to where you come from.”
If you learn only one thing from me, it is this: When ignorant people tell you to go back to where you come from, you’re going to want to go against them to prove you’re just as American as they. Don’t make the mistake of disconnecting with your roots to prove the point that you don’t need to go back. You don’t need to move anywhere but you can stay connected to your roots.
I’ve struggled with cultural identity too, but I’ve also figured it out. That’s why I’ve written this, to help you reconnect and own your culture.
How to Rediscover Your Culture
Eat Your Culture’s Food
Eat at restaurants from your culture in two different ways: Take your homies once, then go solo.
When you roll with your friends, you’ll experience the food through an American lens. You can share your knowledge and in conversation see you already know more about your culture than you think. When we teach, we learn.
If you can’t answer your friends’ questions or feel embarrassed, then go solo. Find a joint where the servers are of the same culture and ask them questions about the food like:
- What part of the country does their menu pull inspiration from?
- What’s a meal that you love to eat but isn’t served in this restaurant?
- If you could add something to the menu, what would it be?
You can safely ask the staff questions about your culture and fill in the gaps without feeling embarrassed.
Read Authors Who Relate To You
You’ll find a growing list of authors who have brilliantly told stories that straddle your culture’s world and life in America. The first time I picked up Salman Rushdie’s book of short stories called “East West”, I was hooked. I’ve read every book he’s published since then and find that my life is richer as a result. Discovering that an Indian could write so eloquently about life in India and the U.S. opened me up to search for other authors who could do the same. For me, that’s been books like Arundathi Roy’s “God of Small Things” and Jumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake”. Just Google “[ethnicity] American authors” and see what you find. There are also brilliant business books like Navi Radjou’s “Juggad Innovation”.
Google Your Culture
Do some research on where your culture shows up in America. You’ll feel proud when you realize how many words, foods, and concepts come from your country that are so integrated you didn’t know it originally came from your culture. It’s important to see what your culture created brings value to Americans (even if there is a Westernized spin):
- What did [ethnicity] invent?
- What English words are of [ethnicity] origin?
- List of famous Americans of [ethnicity] origin
Travel to Your Parents’ Home Country
Plan a trip where you can blend tourism and meet your family (bonus if your trip includes a family wedding!). If you do just a tourist version of your country, you won’t reconnect with people who will shower you with love.
Through pictures and stories, your family will show you how beautiful and culturally rich you are beyond your American experience.
For us immigrants and children of immigrants, we aren’t able to easily live and celebrate our culture in the States. But when we visit our home country, we can see, hear, taste, and most importantly feel it.
Bring Back a Cultural Ritual
During one trip to India, I saw my uncle go into his jewelry store, touch the ground, then put his hand to his head and heart. The symbolic ritual of blessing his store is a moment of humility and gratitude. It struck me: “Why haven’t I blessed my own workspace?” Now, every morning I perform the same ritual as my uncle and ask for blessings as I begin the day’s work.
Try on a New Sense of Identity
Try on a piece of traditional clothing on your trip. It doesn’t need to be expensive or fancy. You can usually find a cheap shirt from a streetside vendor and even if it doesn’t make it back home, the point is that by trying on a piece of clothing, you are, in a sense, trying on a new identity.
I remember the first time I wore a blazer and how it completely transformed my confidence. I felt like a total poser at first but when my colleagues complimented me and even treated me with a bit more authority, I realized I it was all in my head. It’s up to you to carry yourself with confidence.
It’s the same for you when you wear traditional clothing. It’s an experiment where you can safely try on your culture without people judging your appearance. You may not vibe with the outfit, but that’s OK. What’s important is to disrupt and come to terms with our own cultural stigmas.
Learn How Your Culture Practices Self-Study
When you travel, you’ll have the opportunity to visit beautiful places of worship. Most people see the edifice, the art, the grandeur, but miss the subtle points. How are the people in those buildings working on themselves? How are they working on themselves when they’re not in a religious structure? What has your culture done for thousands of years to improve not their material status, but their inner lives?
For me, it was meditation, a practice that never stuck despite years of trying, until I went to India and properly learned the foundations to make it stick. When you start to search for self-development answers rooted in your culture, you may find rituals and tools that resonate and jumpstart your own inner growth.
How to Own Your Cultural Identity
Practice Cultural Rituals for Yourself
Everything you do needs to be for the benefit of yourself and nobody else. Thus, all your rituals should be for your own inner journey, and when you’re grounded and comfortable, there’s no sense of embarrassment or judgment.
If you do feel embarrassed or judged, then the only cure is to work on your inner-self so you stop getting hot and bothered by what other people think.
Listen to Your Natural Selection
Though we’ve only discussed your parents’ culture, there are multiple cultures and subcultures you’ll feel called to. Adopt whatever feels natural. There are no rules to who you can be and what you identify with.
As a kid, I felt naturally called to the hip-hop community because it didn’t judge my background. In adulthood, I naturally selected the business and philanthropic communities. Listening to your nature, your soul, will help select things that you vibe with the most.
Know That Cultural Labels Are Fake
Labels have everything to do with the person using the label, and nothing to do with the person being labeled. Unless you’re an Indian fuckboy… oh wait ??♂️
Problems occur when our egos start to identify with the labels. When you realize you are not your ego, then all the labels are stripped off and you’re left with your true self.
Own Your Roots to Raise Your Vibe
Reconnecting with your roots is ultimately for your own personal growth and to raise your vibe. There’s a richness and vibrancy that comes from that connection and being able to own it while living in the U.S. By embracing our culture we can open our hearts to positive energy that will strengthen our cultural identity nobody can shake us from.
I’d love to hear your stories of living in two worlds. Tell me in the comments the challenges you’ve had, any ridiculous mistakes you’ve made like ordering underwear, or what you’ve done to own your culture. I read every comment and will do my best to reply to each of you.