For me, being Asian American is about compromise and embracing all aspects of my identity. For years I struggled with my identity, often settling for the answer that made things easier for everyone around me. Slowly, I cut out parts of my identity for the sake of fitting in, until I realized that I should not be compromising myself to make those around me feel better.
The confusion stems from the fact that my parents were both born in Guyana, which is the only English speaking country in South America and culturally considered part of the Caribbean. Their ancestors were brought over to Guyana from India as indentured servants by the British. Thus, creating the Indo-Caribbean identity.
After living in a predominantly Indo-Caribbean neighborhood in Queens, New York, I was not prepared for entering the melting pot that is New York City. Once outside of the bubble that was my neighborhood, where I never had to second guess my identity, people would often ask me “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” I quickly learned that no one was interested in the fact that I was born and raised in Queens, New York. What they really wanted to know was, “Where are your parents from? And their parents? And their parents? And theirs?” “I’m Guyanese” always prompted a mix of responses: “Wait, you’re not Indian?” or “You’re from Africa?” Explaining that my forefathers were from India rarely failed to elicit the same response: “Oh, so you are Indian.” “Not exactly…but okay,” became a response that I was all too familiar with.
Over time, these questions forced me to think about what I should choose as my identity. Do I accept the box that is most assumed? That I am Indian, which is an assumption entirely based on my skin tone and my name. Should I celebrate being Guyanese, which is a fusion of both Caribbean and Indian culture. Or do I embrace being American, because, as my parents believe, being American represents freedom, opportunity, and choice.
Around my family, I was not Guyanese enough because I don’t have a Guyanese accent and I don’t like roti (I promise—to those of you that don’t know—this is blasphemous). To Indians, I was not Indian enough – our curry is different, our language is different, and our music is different. And to the world, it was never enough to say that I was American because obviously my parents couldn’t have come from the United States.
After years of struggling, I finally realized that I don’t have to pick and choose parts of my identity. It is okay to embrace and celebrate all of it because I do represent all of these cultures. I am Indian. I am Guyanese. I am Caribbean. I am American. And I embody more than what any one of those words can describe.
*This is the second of several blog posts that will be published by Duane Morris attorneys during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.