One of my oldest, most nostalgic childhood memories is sitting on the couch with my dad and little brother watching VHS tapes from the 1980s about the Mahabharata, an epic Hindu tale about the decades-long struggle between two ruling families in ancient India – the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
The Mahabharata is one of the most well-known Hindu historic legends and is the broader story from which the Bhagavad Gita, a prominent Hindu text, is placed. While my classmates were spending their Sundays at church, these weekend afternoon TV sessions were our replacement for trips to the temple (the closest one being nearly 2 hours away). It was my parents’ way of showing us the intersection of Indian culture and our Hindu religion. And given it was a box set of nearly 20 tapes, it was certainly no insignificant time commitment. Even before I had developed my own understanding of my Hindu faith and Indian cultural identity, I knew I was part of a lineage that began thousands of years before me and continued on in my small Indian and Hindu community in Michigan.
When I moved to Arkansas in middle school, I felt a dramatic shift in my own identity formation as a Hindu-American. I was not only cut off from the Hindu, Indian community I had grown up with, but instead of Hindu-Indian being part of my multifaceted identity, it became my primary identifier — whether I wanted it or not. Since I was one of the first Indian and Hindu people that most of my peers ever met, I was defined first and foremost by all the ways I was different. Yet it left little time for me to explore my own relationship to it and the underlying nuances and tensions I felt as a second generation American.
It’s been over 15 years since I moved away from Arkansas, and I’ve moved across the country multiple times since then. I currently live in Southern California, in a significantly more diverse community than the one I grew up in. But I think often about my time in Arkansas as I reflect on my own relationship to my Indian and Hindu upbringing and how my own story fits into the greater arc and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in America. Often referred to by the acronym AAPI, this community encompasses a diverse set of people with intersecting and distinct political, religious, and cultural identities. It can feel difficult to reflect on my own relationship to the AAPI community since it represents approximately 50 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages. On the days I struggle to feel “Indian,” I wonder if I should even try to identify with a category that feels like an umbrella for an even broader set of communities. I often find myself wishing for spaces dedicated to this exploration, especially with other second-generation Americans whose identities are straddling cultures, religions, and countries.
Late last fall, I was invited to participate in a focus group as part of Interfaith America’s research and storytelling initiative, “The AAPI Community & America’s Religious Diversity.” In learning of the opportunity, I felt grateful for the acknowledgement and recognition that the AAPI community is a deeply diverse one, one with stories that are yet to be shared. I was excited to connect with others who were interested in furthering their own exploration of their cultural identity, knowing that these conversations would highlight how difficult it is for one term to encompass the multiplicities we hold.
The focus group I attended featured diverse members of the AAPI community from different spiritual and cultural backgrounds, each carrying unique stories and identities. I appreciated the intentionality and thoughtfulness of the members of the focus group with many of us questioning — what does it really mean to be part of the “AAPI community” when this term is so broad? Does this term truly serve a community as diverse as the ones we represent? How does this term acknowledge the nuanced intersections between our respective countries of origin, or the role of power, privilege, class in how our communities intersect abroad and in the United States? I often felt at a loss to answer questions that were asked since I still am not always sure if I am included in the broader “AAPI” term. And if so, how do I share my perspectives in a way that doesn’t imply generalizations I’m not comfortable making?
I appreciated the candid nature of our focus group conversation — naming complexities in the racism and bigotry our communities experience as well as the ways our communities themselves can contribute to perpetuating systems of oppression. For myself, this is a constant tension I face with my own Hindu and Indian identity since my values for justice and service don’t often feel represented in how Hinduism is practiced in many places in America today. In addition, I felt deeply inspired by the stories my peers told about navigating their intersectional identities and translating their spirituality into service and justice. I was particularly moved by stories of communities of different faiths coming together to walk in protest or to offer support in times of tragedy.
Creating a tapestry of stories to represent the AAPI community is no small task. It can feel almost impossible to gather all the perspectives, opinions, and ideologies carried by this broad community, especially since our own definitions and relationship to our cultural and religious identities may constantly be in flux. I am glad for the thoughtfulness of my community of peers in acknowledging that we are still on a journey to find ways to define and celebrate our diverse communities. And I am also glad conversation spaces like this exist if only to remind many of us, even if we don’t feel like we always belong, we are certainly not alone.
Anu Gorukanti, MD, (she/hers) is a public health practitioner, pediatric hospitalist, and co-founder of Introspective Spaces, a social venture committed to building reflective space and community for women in healthcare. She is also a member of the Sacred Journeys and Witness fellowships.
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Exploring AAPI Experiences of Religious Identity and Diversity
This article is part of Interfaith America’s AAPI qualitative research and storytelling initiative, which explores Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ experiences of religious identity and diversity in the United States. Stories published as part of this initiative offer key findings from the research and spotlight AAPI changemakers across different religious, civic, and professional sectors.