The challenge of leaving the close-knit community and traditions of India I grew up in for the very different culture of America

by Shreyal Sharma, New Jersey

 Unlike many of my indian-american friends, I had the privilege of living my youth in India. During that time, I immersed myself in enchanting festivals, spent every summer with my extended family and basked in the feeling of being born into a country teeming with a captivating history. However, at the tender age of twelve, I bid farewell to the only home I knew and moved to America, a country separated from India by distance, languages and cultures. 

I struggled to make friends in seventh grade. My interests never aligned with my classmates. I needed to understand the new trends and pop culture; I hadn’t grown up with the movies they had watched. I live in a small suburban town where houses are segmented into blocks. Back in in India, my neighbors were like family. I miss that! I tried to embody the American teenage persona. I watched Hollywood movies, ate American food and read books by American authors. But I still felt out of place. I felt a sense of difference from my American friends, even though my daily routine was mostly the same. I woke up with the sun, feeling guilty for hitting the snooze button. After brushing my teeth and taking a refreshing shower, I would eat a hearty breakfast before rushing off to my school. I took the same classes as my American friends and studied with the same teachers, but I watched different shows and ate a different breakfast. What sets me apart from my American friends is the subtle difference in praying to the mini statue of Lord Ganesha on my car dashboard before starting my drive, just one of the intricacies of my culture.

I ache to belong to a close-knit community. When I was in high school, which was predominantly white, I sought help from other immigrant children and observed their habits. My hijabi friend taught me how to stay true to my religion while living in a different country. I remember asking if it bothered her to be different from the other kids who didn’t wear a hijab, and her response has stayed with me ever since. She said that she would rather be true to her Jordanian identity than conform to the norm. I also did not want to give up on the part that connected me to India. 

Why do my Indian-American friends and I have different experiences? While being born and raised in the US is one reason, there are many other factors that contribute to our differing experiences. Through conversations with them, I learned that no one wants to be seen as “the other.” My friends would refrain from wearing mehndi to school and shorten their names to make it easier for their white friends to address them. Even their parents, in an effort to assimilate into their new country, allowed their children to distance themselves from their culture. This saddens me, and I am grateful for having lived in India for a decade, which gave me the opportunity to understand and appreciate my rich heritage. Although I faced similar challenges as my friends who have lived in America most of their lives, I was fortunate enough to understand that my foreignness was not something to fear. I believe it is the responsibility of first-generation immigrant parents to ensure that their children stay connected to India and their culture, and it is equally important for white Americans to learn about the experiences of people of color.

I enrolled in a Hindu summer internship program that let me explore my culture and religion through reading. I read about traditions and warriors that were the backbone of the origins of India. I read about the mythology that had tremendous influences on my culture. I met people my age from whom I learned more about my origins. I think being an immigrant carries the responsibility of adapting to a new culture while staying connected to one’s own homeland.

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would have been like if I had never moved to America. Seeing videos and TikToks of Indian street food, vendors and places makes me nostalgic and sad because I miss those memories. On the one hand, I am grateful for the friendships I have formed and the opportunity to share my rich culture with others from vastly different backgrounds. I cherish the moments when I am invited to Thanksgiving dinners or join in holiday shopping, immersing myself in the festive spirit. Participating in activities like Secret Santa, sipping hot chocolate, and decorating Christmas trees at my friends’ homes bring me joy. Celebrating festivals like Diwali and Holi at the temple with my family has been fun. But, I cannot help but complain that I miss the unmatched spirit and vibrancy that permeates the air during festival times in India. 

I long for the early morning hours when families would rise before the sun, eagerly embarking on their Diwali preparations. The neighborhood would come alive, with elegant rangoli designs adorning the entrance of every home. The soft glow of countless oil lamps would illuminate every nook and cranny, casting a magical aura. I yearn for the joyous moments spent cycling with my friends, playfully rating each house’s dazzling lighting and decorations. 

I deeply value Dussehra as a ten-day-long celebration filled with joy and festivities. My apartment complex in India has always celebrated Dussehra in a grand manner, with beautifully decorated giant murtis of Gods for puja and delicious food counters. Even the lengthy pujas were enjoyable. At precisely 8pm, arati would commence, and everyone in the complex would gather for the waving of lighted lamps before the images of Gods or persons to be honored. As I write this, I realize that I may never experience this celebration again, but I am content knowing that festivals are celebrated differently in other countries, and that I have grown to appreciate and enjoy them as well.

Shreyal Sharma, 18, is entering her sophomore year at New Jersey Institute of Technology where she is a computer science major. She enjoys reading, writing for the school newspaper and volunteering at a local animal shelter.