My parents immigrated to the United States from India, and I was born and raised here. Growing up as an Indian American, I sometimes would find myself grappling with the concept of what it meant to be American enough.
I have always been proud to be American. Whether that sense of belonging was learned from my parents’ excitement to be starting a new adventure as U.S. citizens when I was a child or from the local community I grew up in, I had no doubt in my mind that I was American. Yet, at times, society challenged me.
As a young boy, I would often be asked the question, “Where are you from?” I would respond with the only possible answer to that question, “Illinois.” At that time, I didn’t fully understand why that response was never enough. It was often followed by, “Yeah, but where are you really from?” Over time, it was clear that they were looking for the answer, “India.”
For a question about my hometown, it was confusing that my parents’ birthplace was a more acceptable answer in their minds than my own birthplace. From the many stories my parents would tell me, India seemed to be a beautiful, exciting country to grow up in. Yet, I had only been to India a couple times in my life. I grew up in America, and Illinois was my home. As I got older, I understood what the question was really asking: explain your brownness. While I personally never assumed that these questions were coming from malicious intent, it was still hard to hear. It was society’s subtle messaging that I could not call America or Illinois my home.
Balancing both cultures is a personal and complex experience. Interfaith spaces are instrumental in helping us throughout our journeys.
The feeling of otherness is not unique to me or Indian Americans. It is a common sentiment experienced by members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. While the AAPI community is one of the most heterogeneous groups in America, many of us share a similar experience of being questioned about our “Americanness” and being depicted as “others” in the media. Therefore, we are constantly tasked with challenging the notion that we cannot be true to both our cultural heritage and our identities as Americans at the same time.
Balancing both cultures is a personal and complex experience. At times, it can be challenging to articulate the internal conflicts we face. For this reason, interfaith spaces are instrumental in helping us throughout our journeys. Interfaith work brings people of different cultures and worldviews together to find common ground. Interfaith efforts such as Exploring AAPI Experiences of Religious Identity and Diversity by Interfaith America and The Asian American Foundation are prime examples of how storytelling and cultural exchange can strengthen the identities among the AAPI community.
We must write our narrative of what it means to be AAPI in the United States today. Not only will it continue the legacy of the many AAPI individuals that came before us, our stories will demonstrate to society another way to be American.
I hope to create a world where future generations of the AAPI community have a less confusing time holding all of their cultural identities. And one day, it will be unthinkable to ask oneself the question “Am I American enough?” because it will be clear, there is not one way to be American.
Suraj Arshanapally, MPH is a Health Communication Specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suraj holds an MPH in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Yale University and a BS in Public Health from Saint Louis University. He believes that interfaith cooperation is a vital component to a healthy society and enjoys using his interfaith leadership skills to address public health issues. Suraj is a member of the Emerging Leaders Network for Interfaith America. With Interfaith America, he has previously served as a Better Together Coach, Interfaith Innovation Fellow, Emerging Leaders Mentor, and a trainer for the Interfaith Leadership Summit.
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Exploring AAPI Experiences of Religious Identity and Diversity
This article was prepared by Suraj Arshanapally in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government.