At 6 years old, I’d already begun the delicate art of balancing my intercultural existence. In one of my earliest memories, I grabbed the delicious aloo paratha (an Indian bread stuffed with potatoes) out of my lunchbox and frantically tossed it under my chair after my crush hunted for what “smelled so yucky” at our table. “Sorry, little paratha,” I mouthed to my lunch silently, in panic. I really loved this traditional Indian lunch but decided it could no longer have a place in my “American life.” I also knew I’d never share what happened with my parents who had excitedly packed it for me—it would only hurt them. Going forward, I’d need to figure out how to alter my lunchbox’s DNA without ruffling feathers in either of my worlds.
Like many of my fellow second-generation Indian-Americans, I’ve spent a big portion of my life toggling between two distinct and demanding cultures. The Indian part of me is modeled after my parents’ own upbringing, which was rooted in tradition, conservatism, community, and respecting our elders. When my parents moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, they clung, white-knuckled, to these values like a life raft—their only link to home.
Going forward, I’d need to figure out how to alter my lunchbox’s DNA without ruffling feathers in either of my worlds.
On the flip side, the American version of me has been curated through my own experiences growing up as a minority in the Midwest, and this me strives to be an individual, independent and empowered. The expectations within these two parts of me often contradicted each other, creating a lingering internal struggle between the Indian “we” and the American “me.” Growing up, I found myself stuck at the intersection between these two ways of life more and more frequently.
Growing up was “hairy” at times
I was 12 or 13 when I started to notice that the other girls’ legs in class didn’t look quite like mine. With my dark hair sprouting up more every day, I needed to act fast before my classmates noticed how different I was. “Why is life so cruel? This wasn’t a problem last year,” I shouted at myself in the mirror while searching through all of my mom’s bathroom drawers in a full frenzy. I could not get caught, but nothing would be right in the world if I didn’t shave my legs.
Earlier, when I’d begged my mom to let me shave my legs, she seemed outright stunned. It was a firm no. I was too young, she had said. If I shaved my legs now, the hair would grow back even worse. It felt like coded language for something and left plenty of room for misinterpretation.
When I finally spotted my dad’s large green BIC razor, I felt like I’d struck gold. I beamed with relief as I sat on the bathroom floor and quickly ran the blade down my dry leg. Seconds later, blood was gushing everywhere. I looked like a Halloween costume; this didn’t seem like the correct way to shave. Resentment began gushing about, too. I just needed to fit in at school—why did it seem like my parents wanted the opposite?
Finding community gave me courage to change the conversation
My self-worth and sense of identity developed in my teen years, and negotiating between two worlds soon began to feel insincere and exhausting. The diverse environment of college is where I first discovered that many of my second-generation peers had their own “lunchbox stories” to tell. When I began to realize that I wasn’t alone—and that I’d never been alone—I became passionate about changing the conversation and no longer hiding my complete self—or my parathas.
When I began to realize that I wasn’t alone—that I had never been alone—I became passionate about changing the conversation and no longer hiding my complete self—or my parathas.
Communicating and actually reaching each other
Years later, in my 20s, I revisited the shaving incident with my mom. I realized I’d never taken the time to understand where she was coming from. She explained that growing up in her part of India, the concept of women shaving their legs was nonexistent. She’d only come across it when she moved to America after marrying my dad. All this time, I assumed my mother associated smooth legs as a gateway to some type of “risqué” exploration, when in reality, she’d been just as unprepared as I was.
To shave or not to shave was just the tip of the iceberg with my parents. We continued to (and still) tackle competing standards for big topics like intercultural dating, education, marriage, fertility, public breastfeeding, and more. I started to realize that my parents’ journey of raising intercultural children wasn’t always a walk in the park. As I learned more about norms from their upbringings, the resentment of my youth slowly dissolved into empathy and led to our new chapter of two-way communication.
Being proactive through transparent communication with my family allowed me to merge the intercultural identities that I was equally proud of. I now try to meet moments of disagreement with more curiosity, asking “why?,” digging deep, and searching for shared meaning. I realize my parents are curious, too. They continue to learn from the differences in our experiences. We still debate and end up at odds regularly, whether it’s about religious beliefs, old wives’ tales, dishwasher-loading best practices, or the appropriate milkiness of chai, but our mutual love always draws us back to one another. We have a shared interest in connecting and building bridges between beliefs that have been cultivated decades and thousands of miles apart.
How My Intercultural Experiences Will Inform My Parenting
Leading with empathy
As a mother of Indian-American children, I know they’re bound to feel isolated at times, and I vow to try and put myself in their shoes when guiding them out of tough spots. I’ll always make space for tough conversations with honest answers. My own experiences and struggles will act as reference points but never as a strict playbook.
Preserving old traditions, and embracing the new
I will be thoughtful and selective in the traditions I chose to preserve while adjusting others that don’t actually match my beliefs. This way, I hope to raise kids who feel comfortable asking questions, challenging assumptions, and curating their own belief systems.
Continually working on diversity and inclusion efforts
I’ll do my part in raising my children in an environment filled with representation so that they might form their cultural identities confidently while also building acceptance for others. Drawing inspiration from diverse books, shows, real-life success stories, and a multitude of different cuisines, I hope their lunchboxes are filled with a complex palate befitting their unique upbringings.