Why does being bicultural feel like you're in no man's land?
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
My flight to Newark Liberty International Airport was just a few days away, but my bags were nowhere near packed. More than my overweight luggage, I was worried about how I was going to lug my heavy heart back home after spending a full Summer in India. This was no ordinary vacation to the motherland - it was a homecoming back to the place I called home for the first eight years of my life. In some ways, it felt like no time had passed since I first left for America, but at the same time, a part of me couldn’t help but feel like a guest in my own home country. As I began to pack for our journey back, I couldn’t help but wonder: where exactly was home? The place printed on my airline ticket, or the place imprinted in my heart?
Two Identities: One heart
I was 16 at the time of that trip; our family immigrated to New Jersey when I was eight years old. For the first two years, I constantly felt homesick and longed to feel the same sense of belonging I had in India. With every celebration or important family milestone we missed - in my case, the birth of four baby cousins and later, the passing of my aunt - the pain of being separated from loved ones felt all the more intense. Visiting India was not an option until our immigration status was secured, which meant our first trip back wasn’t until the summer of 2000.
I don’t know what I expected when we landed in India. Aside from the usual remarks, “Wow, Avani, you were this little when you left and only spoke Gujarati. Now look at you, all high-five speaking in English Vinglish,” I naively thought I could make up for lost time and pick-up where I had left off. Maybe in some ways I did: I still loved eating street food made from regular water and not Bislari, and spoke both Hindi and Gujarati fluently when out shopping.
But the reality that I was no longer “entirely Indian” became apparent. Whether it was the quiet whispers signaling NRI’s were entering a store, or the fact I was craving a McDonald’s McVeggie instead of channa-batura, I realized who I was had shifted. Watching scores of families ride with children in rickshaw felt dangerous to me, until I remembered that I, too, was tucked in-between my parents on the scooter as an infant. Having to use a bathroom that lacked a proper door or barrier between the sink, shower and toilet felt strange to me, until I was reminded that toilets (or toilet paper, for that matter) weren’t even common when I was growing up in India. I couldn’t tell whether it was me or India that had changed, but the reality was, we both had.
Avani during her trip in India.
Toggling between two worlds
The truth is that no matter how much I changed over the years, being Indian would always be a central part of my identity: it’s not about where you live but what lives inside of you. My identity was like the transatlantic flight I had taken: up in the air, between two countries and two wildly different cultures.
The seeds of this “bicultural identity” -- that feeling of not being “enough” and in my case, not Indian or American enough -- were planted a long time ago. I remember admiring my Dad, who had moved to the US two years prior to the rest of our family. That two-year head start allowed him to assimilate - he got a job, owned a car and lived in his own apartment, before we joined him. He immersed himself in American culture and had tried different cuisines, experienced American traditions and even picked-up what I thought was the coolest part of all, an Americanized accent. For someone who only learned the English alphabet at the age of eight, I was fascinated hearing native English-speakers in action. One day, my Dad responded to one of my questions with a casual, "Ya." I vividly remember asking him, "How come you say 'Ya' but I say 'Yes'?" It just came so naturally to him, something my ESL-self envied.
While I can’t speak for the South Asian diaspora as a whole, my experience is that defining bicultural identity is easier explained by what you’re not. We’re Indian-Americans, but not the kind that subscribe to strict vegetarian diets or views on how best to find a partner for marriage. For example, although I’m a vegetarian, I eat eggs and mushrooms, something not all vegetarians in India feel comfortable doing. I’ve had to accept that my vegetarian meals may be cooked in the same pot chefs use to cook meat dishes at restaurants. Even in my own family, the concept of dating was largely left unspoken. My parents had a traditional arranged marriage, so it was only when I broached the topic did the subject come up. I explained to them that dating was the way I, their late-20-something daughter, wanted to find a partner.
These examples don’t mean one way is better than the other. They just mean our threshold for what’s considered acceptable or the norm, change based on our personal experiences living overseas. They change based on the ways we navigate new cultures and learn to fuse them with our heritage.
Isn’t it ironic how by Indian standards, these dietary and dating differences are deemed respectful or traditional? On the other side, Americans look at these same differences and think of them as being restrictive or rigid. It feels as though we’re being judged by two different ends of a litmus test. Neither side is right nor wrong, yet both suggest we’re neither “Indian enough” nor “American enough.”
My brother and I recently experienced our own “litmus test,” when the story of our entrepreneurial journey in starting Modi Toys, a brand of toys and books inspired by our Hindu faith, was shared on Humans of Bombay. A passionate conversation took place with people from both sides of the pond. Those in India questioned our merit. Were we Indian enough? How could we talk about connecting to our roots while living overseas? Was there really a need to create faith-based toys? At the same time, those living outside of India empathized with the challenges of staying connected to our heritage and roots. For them, diversity that’s reflected across all facets of life - from books to media, toys to politics - can help build their child’s confidence and embrace of their hyphenated identity.
Avani and her two brothers.
The ever-changing “Indian”
As an “NRI,” you don’t hear, let alone speak, your native language everyday. You don’t have places of worship around every corner, and you’re not bearing witness to changes happening there first-hand. As a diasporic community, what we equate then to our culture and roots may be very different from what people in our homeland would consider it to be today. Is it fair then to judge ourselves against their definition?
Instead of focusing on where we fit on a continuum, what if we looked at our journey as if we’re creating another identity altogether? What if we shift toward focusing on the values and traditions that define us, instead of focusing on that hyphen that connects our two identities on paper?
This also means actively thinking about how we view - and judge - others within the broader South Asian community. We use words like “ABCD,” “white-washed,” or “coconut” to describe those who, we judge, to lean toward American culture more than Indian. But the truth is, we can’t ask for space to explore how our cultures fuse together, without respecting the fact that it can look different for everyone.
The future is changing
I was supposed to take a trip to India this year, which in my mind, would be no ordinary vacation as it would also be my daughters’ first time being there. I imagine experiencing India through their eyes would raise its own set of interesting questions.
“How come there’s no door on this car’? Why is the tub missing in this bathroom? Why does the water taste different, mommy?” Of course, neither of my girls will grow up knowing India the same way I did, but does that mean they'll love it any less? Who am I to judge? As far as I’m concerned, everyone has two homes: the one where you live, and the one that lives inside of you.
Avani Modi Sarkar is the co-founder of Modi Toys, a popular children’s brand of plush toys and books inspired by the Hindu faith. She founded the brand in 2018, alongside her brother Viral Modi, out of a desire to spark children’s curiosity and connection to their heritage. Today, Avani still lives in New Jersey and has mastered the art of saying “ya” instead of “yes.”
· Instagram: @moditoys
· Facebook: @ModiToysForTots