There is a scene in Hasan Minhaj’s popular comedy special “Homecoming King,” in which he pauses to ask the audience the same question that every Indian parent has repeated incessantly: “Log kya kahenge?” It’s a timeless phrase that roughly translates to “what will people think?” and it’s usually accompanied by wide eyes and a disapproving click of the tongue, when your cousin wants to take a gap year to travel, or when your mom finally finds out about your sister’s secret tattoos. How will people react? Will we be ousted from our community? What will people think?
I internalized this idea at a young age, and so when it came to navigating my identity as an Indian American at a predominantly White high school, the fear of what others may think often found me. I moved around constantly as I was growing up, but always ended up in primarily White spaces, and over the years began to feel uneasy in my Indian identity.
I remember moments here and there when I pulled out my phone, eager to show pictures of my traditional Indian dance costumes, or when I opened the containers of Indian food my mom had packed for lunch and sudden feelings of otherness crept up on me. I was acutely aware of the subtle shared looks of distaste, and I would try to keep the lids on my lunch closed and eat bhaji with a fork I got from the cafeteria—because lord knows I wasn’t about to eat with my hands, as my mom intended.
Each attempt to share something so beloved was met with confusion, sometimes even disdain, as my classmates found it easier to ignore these pieces of myself. And I, picking up on these cues, hid half of my identity and never questioned their lack of sensitivity or interest.
How selfish it felt to be embarrassed of the traditions that my aai kept alive in our house out of love for her home. But I was extremely aware that bringing up my culture would result in distant, uncomfortable conversation as my friends hesitantly broached a topic they weren’t entirely sure how to navigate, due to how little they truly knew about this other side of me.
And so I put the pictures away, and tried to slyly eat my lunch without drawing attention to the smell of masala, quietly harboring a small ache as I realized that this part of my identity was one to be kept separate from the one I shared with my classmates.
This dilemma is one that has flared up time and time again throughout my life: too Indian to be American, yet too American to be Indian. There were times when it seemed better, smarter, and more convenient to pick a side, and I, admittedly with some shame, always chose the American one.
The decision only felt natural. Whenever I visited India growing up, I was praised for my fair skin, because of how White-passing it made me appear. Each compliment from an aunty—“Oh, she could be Italian, or Hispanic, or even mixed!”—was laced with the same undertone: an Indian woman’s beauty lies in not looking Indian. Or sounding Indian, or dressing Indian. And I, being expected by my family to be grateful for such comments, never really knew what to say. So I would quietly thank them, and discreetly look at my mother, with her tanned skin and strong features. My aai, my home, is the most beautiful person—how can you say my beauty comes from not looking like her?
“Your value lies in hiding these pieces of yourself,” is what I slowly came to believe. So when my mom insisted I wear a lehenga to senior prom, or when she begged me to perform a bharatnatyam piece for the talent show, I refused with little hesitation, desperately not wanting to label myself as something different.
Throughout high school, I was unsure of how to find a middle ground between my colorful and often contradictory mix of languages and customs. I have grown up with influences from both my worlds molding me into who I am, but I often presented a toned down and acceptable version of myself that made sense to my White friends. These small lies occasionally felt monumental, but as I came to Tufts and found people from similar backgrounds, I realized just how much I love the traditions that my boisterous family has passed down to me. I was finally finding beauty in being brown.
It was the smallest things. Moments during those first few months of college, like that movie night with my new friends when we watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai on our tiny makeshift projector. I was elated to be sitting in the darkened common room of my friend’s suite, surrounded by people who would laugh with me at the cheesy Hindi jokes on screen, feeling the high of being with people who looked, talked, and acted like me. And each night I walked home with my bhangra team after practice–sweaty and exhausted, but laughing my heart out and feeling completely at peace, learning how these pieces of myself could simultaneously exist.
Amidst my peers, I unearthed a new pride in this side of myself. Yes, my name is Priyanka, but no, don’t call me exotic—because India is my home and there’s nothing exotic about it. When I go home for the holidays, I speak solely in Marathi because, after coming to college, I have never appreciated the beauty of my language more. And if you catch me on the phone with my mom, you will most likely hear a slight Indian accent emerge, one of many small remnants of the home that raised me.
Writing this is a testament to turning a new page—one in which we love every part of our identities, even the ones that others don’t fully understand, where we only surround ourselves with people who embrace these occasionally dissonant parts with the same acceptance we do.
I have, by no means, completely forgotten “log kya kahenge”—this mantra still weaves its way into my life from time to time, slipping through my door in the morning. It sits on my windowsill if it’s feeling gracious, and on my mind if it’s feeling ruthless, always quietly murmuring its background noise. But I hope that that one day, when someone asks me in Hindi or English or any other language out there, “Log kya kahenge?” I will be able to breathe deeply and say, “I don’t give a damn.”
And I will mean it.