Belonging and Thriving as a First-Generation South Asian Woman
By Aneri Shah
“I am realizing for the first time that it’s important for me to have my own voice.”
A friend messaged me that a few days ago after she read my piece about being a first-generation South Asian woman and how my culture impacts how I show up at work.
It was a really profound moment, because it was someone I didn’t expect to be reading what I write. It’s so easy to fall into this trap of thinking we have “nothing to say”, that our “ideas are unoriginal” or that it’s pointless to write until we can write “perfectly”.
Writing necessitates the willingness to be imperfect. To write and train your brain to keep going until something comes out on the page that truly reflects what is going on in your brain is tough, almost insurmountable in the beginning as you’re staring at the blank page.
“I want to start journaling and using my voice more. You inspired me to think about so many things that seemed normal to me before.”
I got that text this morning from my female cousin.
“I never really thought my experiences meant anything. Ok, so our moms were cooking at midnight for a hundred people, what else is new?” She laughed.
“But you’re right, it carries over into the other parts of my life, and I never thought about it that way.”
It’s funny how we take parts of ourself and compartmentalize. In doing so, we assume that one identity and one set of experiences has nothing to do with the other, when in reality everything is cosmically and tactically bound.
I am realizing for the first time these past few weeks what it means to be first-generation. Even as I am writing this I just double checked to make sure I am first-generation, because one time someone told me I am actually second generation and I believed him.
That’s how sure I am of my own identity and experiences.
First-generation is defined as child of immigrant parents. My parents are from Gujarat, India, and moved here in their early 20s, then got an arranged marriage in Michigan at 23.
I was born 4 years later. I didn’t speak English until 6 months into preschool at age 4. I remember this girl Brittany — who I thought was so cool — trying to explain to me how to tie my shoe and it just sounded like whatever the adult word is for jibberish. Nonsense, maybe.
We would go to India for three months every year as a family and miss school well into my elementary years. Before the age of 6, I would completely forget English upon our return. I know this sounds crazy but only speaking Gujarati for 3 months when your brain is so malleable means your entire being changes into being Indian for those 3 months.
So I would have to relearn how to talk to my friends when we got back. Sometime just before I got to1st grade, English started to stick and compete with my native tongue.
I still speak fluent Gujarati, but now that I have been living away from home for almost 2 decades, it doesn’t come as easily for the first few days I am around my parents or family members.
The other strange thing is, my parents are becoming more Indian, being sequestered in our home state of Troy, Michigan with hundreds of family members, while I am becoming more American based on the way I interact with the world outside of our brown bubble. Maybe America is the bubble — it’s tough to say.
Last time I was home, my brother, mom, and I stayed up all night binge-watching “The Undoing”, the thriller series on HBO. We sometimes struggle to find shows we can all relate to, but if anything was going to bring us together, it was going to be Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and senseless murder.
Just before 6AM, when we finally shut off the TV before the harrowing finale, my mom said, her acting is so “jordhar”. This means “powerful”. In this context, I also took it as “fabulous”.
It felt so good to be able to appreciate something as American as Nicole Kidman, together.
So many variables have to fall into place for my mom and I to like the same show. The English has to be crystal clear. The language can’t be too offensive, the scenes can’t be too graphic, and it can’t be too tied to a decade when she lived in India. Even when these things align, sometimes cultural nuance is still lost.
Even though complementary taste in TV shows might seem small, media is how we make sense of the world and our identity.
It’s also a fun thing to do together when you’ve run out of nastho (snacks) and gusspuss (gossip).
Due to lack of authentic, first-generation representation in media, my mom and I don’t have as much of a starter pack on how to have conversations about the intersection of our cultures — Indian-Indian and Indian-American.
Hollywood movies with Indian protagonists are few and far between. Mindy Kaling has done a great job with shows like “Never Have I Ever”, a teen comedy with a young Indian female protagonist. It’s about how she navigates romance and friendships in the wake of losing her dad. It’s funny and also poignant. So many people asked me if “this is how life actually was for me.” I did laugh at the scene where her mom kept talking about not letting her daughter’s textbook touch the ground.. .because paap lage. So relatable.
I remember being at a restaurant in San Diego pre-COVID with some of my girlfriends from the University of Wisconsin. They started playing 60s music (I think) by the dance floor. (Oh, how I miss sweaty dance floors. But I digress). I didn’t know any of the songs and it was not really my type of dance music. I wondered, why couldn’t places like this play some hip hop or bhangra? (I just added bhangra to my Medium dictionary. Boom).
It was so loud that after about 30 min I went back to the table, pulled my seat out to grab my bag and announced,
“Why? We’re having so much fun!”
“I don’t know. I don’t know any of these songs and it’s loud and I’m tired.”
“How could you not know this music? It’s so popular!”
“Not for me. I listened to exclusively Bollywood music growing up, so I kind of missed this genre.”
Everyone got silent and just looked at me. Months later a friend called me to tell me how bad she felt in that moment, because during the 12 years we had known each other, she had not taken the time to listen to even one Bollywood song or contemplate our lack of shared childhood experiences.
But…had I ever asked? I couldn’t remember.
There isn’t enough room in American culture to be first-generation. We talk in grandiose terms about the “immigrant struggle”. But my dad is a doctor. Sure, we didn’t have millions growing up or access to generational wealth, but we were never want for food or necessities.
Our struggle is not always about survival. In reality, disadvantage stemming from feeling excluded or like the “other” is far more insidious — far more complex and embedded into our familial and societal structures and daily habits — than we like to believe.
Not being able to feel seen or bring your full experiences to the table fragment your soul, leading to a disintegration of mind, body, and spirit that affects how you show up in every interaction. Feeling like you belong, that people truly see you and accept your whole self is as important as financial security when it comes to not just surviving, but thriving.
Aneri Shah is a serial startup founder. She speaks five languages and writes personal stories from a South Asian lens. The article above was originally published on Medium in January 2021.