What is Indian ? A Culture Conundrum

By Arvind Srinivasan

Identity Crisis

Superman has Kryptonite, Batman has the Joker, Rama had Ravana, and President Bush has “nucular,” but none of these heroes, if we use a broad sense of the term, have antagonists that hold a candle to what I have had to deal with my entire life. The knife to my heart is not simply a fear of heights, snakes, tests, or a breakup with my invisible girlfriend, but much more profound. My complexity complex is…the idli.

Seen as an intrinsic part of South Indian expression of thought, the question has been posed: Does the idli make the South Indian, or does the South Indian make the idli? If only the answer were as simple.


We, as a South Asian society have merged with a different American society, and though we pride ourselves upon reinventing the concept of Indian itself, from old into new, we fall back onto the tired customs that we say “makes” us Indian. From healthy habits like a strong emphasis on studies to horribly backward practices of solely Indian-Indian marriages and an overly exclusive sub culture, there must be moderation.


America is America because of the “melting pot” of immigrants that wanted to cook their own idea of who they were as a group. America is Irish, America is British, America is Texan, and America can be Asian too. After all, isn’t Asian just Caucasian without the first four letters? We must seek to contribute to what America is, and furthermore, what we want Indian to be.


Stereotypical or Atypical

At Bellarmine College Prep, my high school, 75% of the population is Catholic while 80% is white and 5% is Indian. However, each individual fits into one, if not many stereotypes. There is “white,” “Indian,” “black,” and,”Mexican,” but also “nerd,” “jock,” and even “ditz." I have learned that whether I diverge from the stereotypes that bind me or not, I am still who I am, as you can run from stereotypes, but you can't hide.

The Indian American stereotype that I have experienced first hand, especially in Silicon Valley, is that of a very strong math/science background, with first generation engineer parents, anti-athleticism, and a tendency to have no "life." For some, this could be no further from the truth.

When I surveyed many of the Indians in my school as to what their career choice would be, I got several answers that portrayed the divergence from this stereotype quite well.

The astounding majority of those questioned that knew the answer said law, a liberal arts career that has not been as widespread for Indians, and only two said they would go in to an engineering career. However, as my school is reputed to be a heavy liberal arts school, the answers are skewed, but still represent one thing: we, as the younger generation, are still Indian.


So where do I fit into the picture? I was born in Scotland, raised in America, and am ethnically Indian. I have learned that no matter what I do in life, I can still associate myself with each culture. No, I do not look upon haggis as a delicacy, think well of the good ol' American rodeo, and hope not to have an inability to park, but the key is that I don't want to choose to be Indian over American, American over Scottish, or Scottish over Indian. I associate myself with many different people, and enjoy traveling to experience many different cultures.


So, Who Cares

The question you must all ask yourselves is, why should I care? There are certain norms and associations that people make with other people, and when people see similarities and connections to other people, it is easier to relate to others. However, the answer has not ever been to stop relating to other Indians. To Marvin the Martian, we are all earthlings anyway, so shouldn’t we be able to relate to everyone and reduce misunderstanding?

The differences we see in other people have led to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, Islamist hatred towards the US, giving Shilpa Shetty yet more attention, and…Jesus creating Christianity. The situation only worsens when we complain and protest, inherently segregating when we say that one group is persecuting another, and thus increasing the divide. We must accept that everyone is unique, and therefore if we must segregate, it can only be towards ourselves.

I do not expect to wake up tomorrow and only see the gray, and do not expect any of you to either. However, it is the small steps that count towards the greater goal, and would it be too much to ask to have pasta for dinner tonight?

Arvind Srinivasan is a self-professed nerd, a sophomore at Bellarmine College Prep. in San Jose, and likes to refer to himself in the third person.

13 thoughts on “What is Indian ? A Culture Conundrum

  1. Laxmi


    Spoken like a true Californian. I agree that you do not have to choose to associate with just one section of the population and that multi-cultural experiences is what will lead us to world citizenship. After all we are all earthlings and are made of the same bag of bones. I appreciate the uplifting point of view that you express in your very well articulated article.


  2. patti

    Dear Arvind,
    You have insight to me about the youngsters in general.You are not abcd(American born confused desi)like most are. They do not feel at home
    anywhere. You have your feet on level ground child. Be only human- world citizen That will end all problems!Love patti


  3. Srini

    Dear Arvind:
    I found a quote from Hubert Humphrey
    “Fortunately, the time has long passed when people liked to regard the United States as some kind of melting pot, taking men and women from every part of the world and converting them into standardized, homogenized Americans. We are, I think, much more mature and wise today. Just as we welcome a world of diversity, so we glory in an America of diversity — an America all the richer for the many different and distinctive strands of which it is woven.”
    I stand proud to be an idli engineer and would be happy to see you be a lawyer — so long as you finish your engineering first.


  4. Kashyap

    So young, yet so wise… Arvind, you have the gift of humor. You provide comic relief to a serious topic at an age when I would consider you too young to appreciate either. Your metaphors are polished. Getting away with drawing parallels between Hitler, Shilpa Shetty and Jesus is no child’s play.

    Congratulations for a great debut essay and please keep writing. Take Bellarmine’s claim to fame from liberal arts to liberal smarts. You may not completely fathom the power of your pen, mightier than its nucular friend.


  5. Anand

    Arvind, my dear world citizen !

    Wonderful read !

    When your dad and I were growing up in the Delhi of the 70s we did not have to wonder if we were the sambar oriented Tamil Brahmins or the chole chakking Delhi Punjus. Delhi embraced us as easily as it did folks from other cultures. Guess that kept your dad in good stead as he went about becoming a world citizen, at ease at all times and places. No wonder, you feel likewise.

    Go on and pursue your dreams – become a lawyer or a lead guitarist or a social commentator. Visit places (would love to host you if and when you travel to good ‘ol Chennai),and please do continue with your fine writing.

    All said, do not ever forget to keep those idlis and filter coffee hot whenever I come visiting !





    Bravo Arvind!
    You have great felicity of expression. More than that I was impressed that you could bring your insight in the discussion of your chosen subject.
    America is much like India. Both of them are first geographical entities before being political or cultural ones. In about 75000 years of her past India received a very wide variety of races and peoples at different stages of their different cultures. Enclosed by the Himalayas and surrounded by the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean, the diverse cultures got ‘cooked’. While retaining much of their individuality all of them acquired one unique flavour – Indian. The South Indian Idli, the Punjabi Aloo Parantha, the Gujarati Dhokla and the Bengali Luchchi-Aloo have remained and yet all of them have become ‘spicy’ and Indian.
    In the 15000 odd years during most of which the Americas hosted humans belonging to just a few stocks, culture rather tabled out. The arrival of Europeans and later the many hued Asians and Africans have replicated the situation there too which India faced in the past.
    Not pasta alone, my boy, but Idlis, Paranthas, Tortillas, Sushi, Khimchi and whatnot would all go into making the American splendour in the very near future.
    Mani Chithappa


  7. R.S.Venkataraman.

    Excellent,indeed!Arvind,more than the lucidity of expression you are endowed with a vision and an analytical mind uncommon among boys/girls of your age group.

    You have your roots in a country which has perpetually been a melting pot for several millennia.No wonder the ethnic “idli” group throws up an adorable young specimen like you, with a thinking mind in a country whose “melting pot” status is just a century or two old.You have it in you to blossom into a famous writer for whom a Booker and ,perhaps , a Nobel prize may not be out of reach,in the foreseeable future. You are just wonderful! Love,


  8. R.S.Venkataraman.

    hi arvind
    amazed to read your thoughts flowing so freely punctuated with a subtle sense of humour. just like your dad. keep writing more. would love to read them.
    love. lakshmi athai.



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