My Fragmented Relationship With US As An Indian Woman Living Here

My relationship with the United States is messy and fragmented. Yet, it still defines a part of who I am today. The history I have is one few people share. I was neither fully an Indian-American nor was I ever looked at as a fully Indian person either.

Rheea Mukherjee
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My relationship with the United States is messy and fragmented. Yet, it still defines a part of who I am today. The history  I have is one few people share. I spent the first ten years of my life in America. When I was 10, my parents moved us to Bangalore to get in touch with our motherland. I went to school in India from ages 10 to 18. Then my family moved us to Colorado, and I spent the next decade in the United States. I was neither fully an Indian-American nor was I ever looked at as a fully Indian person either. I fit nowhere.


There’s one thing I can tell you with confidence. Feeling defensive about your identity is a dangerous, destabilising and explosive feeling. It can force you to hide and adapt to the world outside like a chameleon or make you feel raw, unvalidated, and bristly. It seemed like I could be both things simultaneously. 

Does Homesickness Plague Indians Living Abroad?

My parent's generation, or the waves of immigrants that came to the US in the 70s and 80s had less emotional baggage, at least on the surface. It was simple: They went from a country that had taught them the opposite of abundance. They were a generation forced to hold on to scarcity, competition, and stringent ideas of success. It was easy for thousands of Indians to be happy about getting out. In the 90s, as a schoolgirl, the primary boast in any family gathering was about a cousin or relative who had made it to the US. 

While homesickness constantly plagued most adults who missed their homes and the distinct culture and environment they grew up in, the narrative started to change in the coming decades. Until now, it was part of the American Dream, but now, we could talk about India as a part of a global entity, not just a far-off exotic land that white people had strange questions about. 

After the 2014 elections and the rise of the Modi identity, people started to flock under the banner of this new India. There was the abstract notion of identity to claim now, unmasking the political and social insecurity fostered underneath the surface. It was no longer enough to assimilate quietly - it was the time to seize an identity based on fundamental nationalism, divorced from the international understanding of what represented India.

When we think about Indian immigrants, they picture the middle class. There is no room for the working class or poorer populations who made it to the US, drove taxis, and waited tables to make a living. Indian immigration had created a brand, brown and foreign enough, meekly workly behind the scenes to obtain first-world validation and indubitably insecure of the white man’s criticism. All the while, we have been clashing endlessly against our internal demons over lines drawn across religion, caste, and class, which mirror the Indian reality.


Savarnas, as they are referred to, make up most of the middle and upper-middle-class Indian American diaspora. Savarnas are those who historically come from ‘upper caste’ families. Many Savarnas might be progressive and say they don’t even know about their caste, which may even be true on paper. Still, it fails to acknowledge the privilege - social and financial access, not to mention the exclusivity they have through their lottery of birth. As a collective, we are outraged when asked to recognise their built-in privileges and see how caste, whether they like it or not, has affected them and plays a significant role in how our society works.

What further complicates matters is that India generally doesn’t provide an exceptional quality of life for anyone in terms of infrastructure for self-actualisation. The middle class in India struggle plenty to get their kids into stable jobs. With the average income in India being less than 2500$ annually, the opportunities and access can seem like comparing a rotten apple and a mushy banana. The point is, at least one is still edible. 

Shalini Rao, a Gestalt Therapist and social justice writer, observes a distinct connection between social location and hegemonic ideas of being Indian. 

“Savarna Indians in the US usually migrate in the STEM context, and it's not unusual for them to carry along their casteist belief systems with them and gravitate towards other savarna folks who mirror their social locations. Besides, it is a fragmenting experience of moving from a relatively comfortable middle-class life in India to a hyper-individualistic and racist cultural landscape in the US. The fragmentation can make savarna indians lean into beliefs that seemingly give them a sense of safety- keep close to your fellow savarnas, and emulate the white person's life for your own American Dream goals. This can look like making capitalist life choices an utmost priority - steady corporate jobs, arranged marriage, green card, buying a home, raising children and so on, all the while holding on to  Hindu traditions like doing regular pujas, going to the temple, and maintaining a tight-knit circle of similarly "successful" savarnas. It's a sophisticated design to ensure we don't question the politics of our existence as we make ourselves the perfect model minority serving the American empire. When we frame savarna Indian existence from this lens, it clarifies how we're drawn to the imperial project when we don't have a strong foundation of being anti-colonial or anti-caste in our education and family systems.”

Unsurprisingly, a monolithic idea of what and who ‘India is’ is highly snackable. It feels good for thousands of Indians who finally thought they had their story to tell while still enjoying the fruits of the First World. 

We are currently witnessing a global shift of ideology with the ongoing genocide in Palestine. The truth of the global south has unified voices against imperialistic designs of subjugation, oppression, and solutions through violence. The Indian diaspora in America has a chance to renegotiate their values and moral clarity.  We must look inward and join hands in solidarity with global voices against oppression and make it our fundamental paradigm moving forward. The era of one identity narrative has been shattered. What will define us now is how we pick up the pieces. 

Views expressed are the author's own.

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