The following article is part of a series dedicated towards celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM).
Poonam Benakatti, 130 YinD
There’s a requisite elevator speech that every Asian American serving in Thailand inevitably learns. While our fellow maybe more “typical farang (foreigner) featured” volunteers arrived at site and learned Thai, I know that the Asian Americans were learning the words for citizenship, nationality, ethnicity, multi-cultural, and diversity. We were learning the words to help explain who we are. There have been few times my identity has not been interrogated when meeting someone new. I hesitate to use the word “interrogate”, but it truly is a fast-paced, pressing, series of questions; Questions that challenge my already blended identity.
The moment I first met my host family is still clear in my mind. It was blatantly evident I didn’t fit their expectations. I remember feeling as if they didn’t like me, but with time, I came to learn it was more a reaction to the unknown. There was so much explaining to be done. If you looked at us now, you’d never know, because we’ve reached a point where they consider me their own flesh and blood. They even help with the elevator speech at weddings and monk ordinations when they introduce me as a part of their family.
Still, the memory lives in my head. It constantly places me in the situation of having to choose sides. Do I stress that I’m American and live with the self-betrayal of the proud Indian woman I am? Or do I emphasize and portray my Indian roots and culture that compose a different part of my identity? The goldilocks explanation has been ventured many times, yet I know the ideal level of comprehension of my identity will probably not be reached. I can only strive to share this part of me with my community. This is no one’s fault, yet the burden is heavy each time I attempt an explanation as I meet someone, especially when our encounter is brief. It sits heavy in my heart to have to be “okay” with being misunderstood and that living in a monolith culture presents its own innate roadblocks to understanding diversity.
I take this opportunity to point out that Western media’s historical misrepresentation of the diverse populations in America are misleading to cultures heavily influenced by this media. Maybe, this is why my host family was expecting me to look and act differently? Their exposure was limited to what was presented by American media, especially the past few decades. But on the flip side, the opportunity to share my blended identity (not half American and half Indian, but simultaneously both) in terms of traditions, clothing, food, holidays, movies, etc. presents itself too. I would be mistaken to consider myself anything other than lucky to represent India, America, and the global perspective I am privileged to have. In the meantime, you’ll find me waiting for the day I get to give my host mother a dosa with coconut chutney, potato palya, and sambar, and then later, serve her apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream for dessert.