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Welcome Home

Shruti writes about the journey to embracing your culture when one is a part of the diaspora.

Shruti Rajkumar Staff Writer

For those who grew up or lived within the diaspora, cultural shame is not uncommon. We’re often othered from our peers, made fun of for the food we brought to school, mocked for our traditions and practices. As these encounters cloaked our lives and created a sad, universal experience, a sense of resentment for our roots begins to broil within us. 

Assimilation begins to take over our lives. The delicious foods we once looked forward to opening our lunch boxes to are swapped with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that attract no attention. We try to alter our hair and clothes to fit the standard around us to save ourselves from the judgemental stares and laughter. 

We gain emotional safety and a false sense of acceptance, all at the expense of our love for our culture—or so it may seem. The love we have for our culture never really goes away, but rather is buried beneath the costume we put on to appeal to our white counterparts. 

A few weeks ago, I saw a TikTok video made by a South Asian creator in which they talked about how artwork had never affected them that heavily until they saw S. Elayaraja’s artwork. They showcased the artist’s beautiful oil paintings of South Asian women dressed in sarees with their hair adorned with flowers. 

These paintings captured these women living their lives, often sitting on the ground, carefully weaving traditional garlands together. The creator talked about how it sparked a sense of contentment, nostalgia, and pride in the little South Indian-specific cultural practices that they had once felt embarrassed about—a feeling that hit me as well right after I saw the video.

In rare but invaluable moments, such as seeing the artwork of South Asian women fearlessly existing in the authentic form we wish we could have, we’re reminded of that love and filled with nostalgia for our culture and the ways we were surrounded by it when we were younger.

Just like the TikTok creator, I had never really been impacted by art all that much, and I always thought there was something wrong with me because of that. What I realized is that it was because I was constantly seeing artwork by white creators who captured life’s moments from the white gaze—a perspective that I could never be fully seen in. 

S. Elayaraja’s artwork, however, touched a part of my soul that art has never been able to reach before. Not only could I see these beautiful South Asian women, but I could also smell and feel every aspect of the paintings. It took me back to all the times I visited India to see my relatives. I’ve been known to complain a lot to my family about visiting Chennai because of the overwhelming humidity and the fact that all we do there is catch up with our relatives who we haven’t seen in years. Yet, there was always a sense of comfort that came from being hit with a wave of Chennai heat the moment you step out of the airport. From there, you’re met with so much more peace and familiarity, from the gentle smell of sandalwood lingering every which way to the brown faces that mirror your own on every street corner and sidewalk. 

I’ve only ever been to Chennai a handful of times, yet it is just as much my home as my hometown in Connecticut is. Knowing how much I loved the smell of jasmine flowers, my chithi would always find the time to pick some for me the moment I arrived so she could pin them in my hair just like the women in S. Elayaraja’s paintings. 

Now and then, we would all go out for family gatherings or parties, which meant time had to be spent pulling together our traditional outfits. The clothes materials were always so scratchy, and if you didn’t get it fitted to your size you always ran the risk of getting stuck in it by the end of the night. On every occasion, I would forget I had a bindi on and would accidentally rub it off halfway through the evening. The bangles that decorated my arms would jingle as I walked, alerting everyone of my presence, and by the end of the night my arms would be covered in its glitter. I remember one night, when I was about five years old, my bangles were stuck on my wrists. Seeing me struggle, my chithi came over with a bottle of coconut oil and gently massaged them off of my hands. It still hurt to take off, but it was almost as if my chitchi hoped that the soothing nature of her hands and the oil would make me forget the pain.

Still, the scratchy, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful attire was all worth putting up with for the price of being able to look in the mirror and see myself dressed in the traditional garments that hold the significance and beauty of my culture—one that dates back centuries and is fully and wholeheartedly my own. 

Looking back at those moments, I am filled with cultural pride and warmth. But sadly, I didn’t always feel that way.

From a young age, I tried so hard to assimilate into Western society to find a sense of belonging among the people I was surrounded by. I endured ignorant comments about my culture and the motherland while I was growing up. I was often either labeled as exotic or considered dirty for the color of my skin. There was so much attention—all negative but sometimes disguised as positive—given to me and my culture, most of which was unwanted by me. 

As I got older, I began to develop an even more complicated relationship with my culture as I started pinpointing some of the toxicity and harmful mindsets and phobias that existed within many South Asian households, such as fatphobia, homophobia, ableism, sexism, and misogyny. Recently, I listened to podcasts, such as Brown and Bold, created by other South Asians who have had to endure or witness similar experiences. It was appalling to see how these problems existed in my culture and how they were passed down through the generations. I began to learn about intergenerational trauma, and how many South Asians in my generation and within the diaspora are coping with it and unlearning the toxicity that was passed down to us.’ 

I began to associate the racism I was experiencing outside of the house and the toxicity I was seeing within my house to my brownness, thus prompting me to reject it. I just wanted to exist, and since those around me wouldn’t let me because of my ethnicity, being Indian quickly became something I didn’t want to be. 

Was I being selfish for rejecting my culture and running away from my affiliation to it, all to appease my peers and gain white validation? Was I demonizing my culture and the issues within it even though they exist in every other part of life as well because of white supremacy? Or was this all act of bravery, a way for me to protect my culture from once again being uprooted, mocked, and destroyed by those who don’t understand it? 

I’m not sure entirely what my motives were in every moment. Maybe it was all of the above, but I think it all came down to survival and self-preservation. I did the best I could navigating white spaces while I was growing up and trying to understand this messy world that I was new to. I had yet to learn how the issues within my own culture reflected bigger societal issues and existed in different ways in other cultures as well. 

Still, I think back to those beautiful moments where I was immersed in my culture, and feel a pang of guilt for wanting to distance myself from my roots.

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to heal my relationship with my culture and to return to the love and pride that I have for it. I’ve started to connect with other South Asians and got involved in a lot more community-based projects and spaces, all while distancing myself from the people and things that made me hate a beautiful part of who I am. At the same time, I’ve been educating myself about the issues within my culture and its history. Rather than ruminating on its past, I’ve chosen to channel my energy into holding myself and those around me accountable for ways that we perpetuate these issues and putting in the work to heal from intergenerational trauma to put an end to the cycle of such toxicity. 

I am allowed to disapprove of the issues within my culture and work towards dismantling them. I am allowed to have love for my culture; the two are not mutually exclusive. I am learning to navigate what that means for me and the way I live my life. Over the past few years, I have also begun to re-immerse myself into my culture and engage more with it. For example, there was a point in my life where posting photos of traditional Indian food was something I would never do. Now, I don’t think twice about it. I used such acts to reclaim the cultural pride I had lost for so long. 

Throughout this journey, I was surprised to notice myself experiencing immense feelings of nostalgia for my culture. I was no stranger to nostalgia for things of the past, such as your childhood. But why was I missing my culture—something that never really left me? Was it because I spent so long rejecting it, and the grief was finally catching up to my body? 

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The conclusion I came to is that with your childhood, you can never really get that back once it’s gone. You can revisit who you were and heal your inner child, but you will never be able to return to that state of innocence or entirely become who you once were. 

Similarly, regarding my culture, I will never be able to go back to the time in my life when I wasn’t tainted by the need for white validation or even become the innocent girl I was when I was little. However, I can get my culture and the ways I felt about it back. My roots are ever-present, and have always been within me. No matter how far I emotionally deviate from them, they’ll always be beside me and will welcome me the moment I choose to embrace them again. The nostalgia reflects the guilt I felt for so long, a feeling I am learning to make peace with as my culture welcomes me home.

Staff Writer

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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