Sunday, April 23, 2017

Culture Diaries: Exploring the Growth of my Identities in Changing Cultural Settings

I have been grasping at the idea of identities, discovering and acknowledging them as mine in the past few years, and it is developing in this ever-growing, amorphous and radiant form with every cleared thought, good conversation and life event. It is going to be almost two years since I moved from Madras to Columbus. It's been one hell of a ride and I am learning every single day what I have going for me and what I don't. This piece though, is simply a personal way-finding of my identities in these two very different cultural settings. It's long and I hope you can bear with me in its length.

A recent introspection ever since I moved here, into what 'home' and 'community' means to me has been unraveling in many ways in modes of inquiry, delivery and affect. I have been asking people what it means to them, what they think it could be, I was a part in conducting an exploratory workshop with two artistic peers on one such hunt on 'home', I am looking at it through my art, I brought it into my own design research thesis work (as I want to work with local communities and on socio-cultural issues in the long run) and spent numerous hours just writing in my journals. It's amazing to see how people have adopted these terms into their lives and what it means to them. For some, it was a place and for some, it was a person or a community that they are a part of. These people and communities are identities, placeholders for what a person is. For some it was a vocation, it was what they do- art, poetry, being a community leader etc. and for others, it was relationships- motherhood, being a spouse etc. I sit here with all their answers in my hands and wonder about what I am really sifting through all these perspectives for, right now. Some part of it is clear already, others would probably emerge.

One large predicament I am in is of being in-between cultures. It's not easy to float in this space, not knowing where you belong or with whom. This might also be happening simply because of my age and this time I am in. I have friends who think this life I am leading in a developed country is amazingly easy and awesome. Well, it's awesome, I'll give you that. But I have to tell you that it's not easy. I have to dispel any thoughts you may have of me leading a rosy life based on my Instagram/FB news-feed. Different aspects of self-concept (by definition- 'an idea of the self constructed from the beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others') are churning like concrete in my belly of a giant mixer, it feels like it hasn't yet had the time to set. But I think it is finally setting at the edges at the least, for now. I had these key moments already mapped out in my head (it's been brewing in there for months now) and when I began to research the terms to articulate this discovery, this charting-- it fell right into my lap.

'Response of others' in the process of my identity formation has been rather pivotal in figuring out who I am. The aforementioned cultures I am a part of plays a huge role in what I have come to believe, how my interpersonal interactions are formed and the relationships that arise out of it. There are two different cultures I have already been a part of and that which I am having an opportunity to encounter right now.

India, by and large adopts a collectivist culture. A collectivist culture tends to put the needs of the collective ahead of the individual. In these cultures, selfishness is a vice, you work towards gelling in with the society and in helping one another. It relies on interdependence and an expectancy of largesse in your actions: my neighbours took care of me in Madras when my parents were away, I have taken care of the neighbour's kids when their parents were running late, you invite anyone who arrives at your threshold into the house, you share whatever you have. Growing up, there was absolutely no concept of 'mine' in my household. I am not joking about that. Any toy, chocolates, fancy food or gift that came through to my sister or myself were 'ours'. I didn't realise what my parents were inculcating in us as we grew up. Of course, it was also that we were two girls born five years apart with similar body types- we exchanged clothes all the time. My sister just returned from a trip from India, bought me a bunch of stuff I had asked for. I was over at her house the other day and she showed the clothes she had purchased and said 'take it anytime you want'. Perhaps, the sense of ownership has slightly tilted but the idea of interdependence and oneness hasn't.

America on the other hand, which is where I am now adopts an individualistic culture. This culture asserts itself through individual independence, by not wanting to 'bother' or 'burden' someone with health/wealth problems. Emphasis is laid on the individual, on their uniqueness and self-sufficiency. I don't know a thing about my neighbours except for a few of their names. Their doors are always closed. Most people I see eat by themselves, commute by themselves and have a large boundary around them for personal space (I am not here to say I think ill of any of these aspects of this culture, just making observations).

At this juncture in my life when I am still malleable and forming pieces of my self towards a more detailed, organised and acknowledged idea of a personal identity, it is hard to be floating about without any grounding. The concept of personal identity changes from one culture to another. I collect pieces of what people say, do and think out loud in my presence and I am always putting these  pieces together. I wonder why someone would say something to me and why they are comfortable enough or not to tell me something. And then, there is this huge, beautiful part of 'individual' and 'relational' selves that plays a key role in identity formations. In short, individual self (as I understand it) talks about personality traits, attributes and characteristics of a person (Example: cheerful, bold, analytical) whereas the relational self talks to our relations with the significant people in our lives (Example: friend, husband, lover, sister). There is also the concept of 'collective self' (from what I understand) that allows us to reflect on our membership in social groups (Example: Indian, American).

I believe these three aspects are important pieces that we need to ground ourselves in while on the path towards discovery of who we are and  with regard to the formation of our identities. I was recently riding the bus with a peer and we were continuing a conversation that had begun earlier. I told her how I usually befriend bus drivers and chat with them during transit whereas she mentioned how it was going to be nothing beyond a nod or a smile of recognition and familiarity. She's from Australia (which seems to have a similar culture to the States). She mentioned how she wouldn't like people entering her space on the bus, that she was on public transport but would be prone to assuming a setting which pretends that there is no one else there. I find that culture exclusionary, that you drop people who are on the fringes of your everyday life that aren't people close to you. I was sitting there and reflecting on how transit times in India, on the other hand, form deep friendships. My culture (and I use 'my' to refer to what I have been exposed to all these years) is about inclusion. It's about inclusion of your neighbour, your co-passenger, the grocer, the bus-driver, the extended family and their extended families. My mother's best friend (Kasthuri aunty) became her best friend because they have been taking the same bus back home for decades. The collectivist culture seems to have allowed and given space for deeper connections with increased familiarity. Here, I find it stopping at mere recognition. You will find co-passengers in India who take the same means of public transport everyday, at a fixed time talk greatly of their friendships there. Transition is a time for interpersonal connections in the collectivist culture and one of silence in this one. This is not to say that I have not witnessed passengers on the COTA bus not recognise one another. But I have not seen them talk beyond that first line of  'How you doing today?' or 'You don't have your hat on this morning!'. Transit is by and large via individual vehicles in this country and of the people taking public transportation, there appears to be a large sense of exclusion; less acknowledgement of the person sitting in front of you or next to you.

All this was very riddling to me initially. My individual self is that of holding a cheerful demeanour, to be kind/compassionate and to make someone feel included (for I knew from past experiences how it was like to be excluded). I can strike conversations with almost anyone unless they're visibly shutting me down out of a sexist/racist/any other -ist agenda. I know three bus drivers by name, two of whom will know me by name and what I do because we have already discussed that. We have discussed about work shifts, about art in the city, about what we do, about our 'everydays'. One of them, Carl, asked me recently if I am always like this-- always this cheerful with a smile on my face? I told him I have my down-times but I have no reason to frown at someone because I am having a turbulent time on the inside-that's just not right. It warmed me the first time when another one of them, 'Happy' Harold told me that I made his day because I asked his name as I was getting down at my stop. I was elated that day because it dawned on me that people in different cultures still are the same at the basic level- everyone wants to be loved, recognised and most importantly, be seen. It still bothers me that I have no neighbours whose doors I can knock on to give them some food for Tamizh new year or have a cup of tea with. As an individual from a collectivist culture living in an individualistic culture, I am afraid to step on people's toes. What is a sign of inclusion into my personal boundary in my culture is a breach of privacy here. This makes it all the more harder, to navigate through these social situations and relationships.

It's hard because my ways of making someone feel included or make known as important to me is to risk losing them altogether in this culture. Where does one find that line? I feel rather lonely in this country sometimes. I have kind of lost my sense of belonging to any one place because I seem to be losing friendships in India and not really being able to ground some in America because of the vastly different connotations of relationships between these two spaces. My expectations of a relationship/friendship and cultural norms clash. Of the select few that I have come to love and trust, I tell them beforehand that it isn't my intent to breach into their space. I am only trying to connect in ways I know to and if I withdraw, it's only because I am scared of losing them.

When I look at my past and about how I have transitioned in the last decade, I see a pattern and a sense of seeking something on the 'other' side. Growing up in a collectivist culture had me guarded and safe. I was always looked out for- by my parents, siblings, cousins, family, road-sweeper women workers during late nights alone, auto and bus drivers, and most other people on the roads. I was fairly certain in my assumption that I would have someone to help me if there was a predator that I couldn't manage myself, and that gave me a sense of fierce boldness to be authentically myself in public and private spaces. The intimate levels of my personal self has lesser borders as I trust someone but I am never something I am not. It's still a part of me. I believed in not giving up my personal self of identity away for the sake of the society, which paradoxically also curbs you from doing/being/saying something that is tangential to societal norms. I don't believe in conformity. I also ended up reading a lot of Ayn Rand as a teenager and it has taken me a while to see large holes in her theories. I think it would be interesting to discuss this with someone from another cultural setting. It appealed to me at a time when I felt society was suffocating me with its ideal collectivist expectations and norms. Now, with the time to reflect in a different setting- everything changes. I was moving towards establishing a sense of increased individual self of identity when I was in a collectivist culture.

The collectivist culture that I was a part of had assigned most of my individual self itself. I was a tom-boy growing up, rebellious, masculine, an athlete and a gymnast, loud, obnoxious and unafraid. This collectivist culture only managed to pick out what already stood out in the crowd for further reinforcement. I was well-known as a sportswoman. I was associated with toughness and masculinity. My softer sides went largely unknown. I was a trained Carnatic vocalist and I realised only recently that most people didn't know about that side of me. I am a very sensitive person and very few people actually recognised it. My sense of individual self came from the acknowledgement from outside and then, myself. I recently did a Johari personality awareness mapping and most of the people I invited to take part in it were from my relationships in India. 'Bold' was a recurring word. I also realise now that it might not be the chief word any of my American relations would pick out because my own sense of personal identity took a huge turn here. It became all the things people in India missed seeing, it was beyond educational qualifications and professions. In India, one's qualifications became an easy acquisition into one's own identity. I can very easily tell someone that I am an architect and a designer, I don't think twice nor do I doubt it. But for the longest time, I never claimed I was an artist (until a year ago, to be precise).

America allowed me to call myself an artist without fear or doubt. Now, I have to introduce something else before I take that previous statement further and that is about relational self identity. Bear with me for a moment. In India, I was always introduced in relation to someone else. I think that is why I felt like I belonged there. I was introduced as someone's friend, sister, daughter, family, neighbour. No one ever introduced me as a writer or a poet or an artist first. Relationship came first, everything about the individual came next. Come to think of it, I miss that in America. I realise that when I speak of someone here to someone else, of the relations I have acquired here, my first impulse is to speak of our relationship. I always say 'so-and-so', 'they are my friend from _____' and then, 'they are a wonderful poet/artist/designer/musician'. I also realise that most of my American friends don't do that. Their means of introducing me is generally on the front of how they formed this relationship with me (Example: she's my classmate) or what I do (Example: she's an artist/architect/poet) but not that of relationship. If I heard more people introduce me in relation to them as opposed to what I do, I guess the sense of belonging would automatically set in (as that is something I am used to). This is not to say that I don't encounter wonderful people in America-- I do. I love some people very dearly. I have just realised what may still keep me away from them. But if my introductions are about my art and not myself, if someone doesn't explicitly state my relationship with them- it's hard for me to imagine that I am what I think I am to them. This can be viewed as a silly problem space- but it's real. India always allowed me inclusion by emphasising on relational identities.

America on the other hand, has been emphasising on my individual identities. When my friends introduce me here to someone else, they say- 'She's Hemu, she's a visual artist'. Now, I must acknowledge that I have never introduced myself as an artist with the level of confidence that I do right now. I always said 'self-proclaimed artist/poet' (because what if someone came up to me and said 'you call this art?' or 'you call this a good poem?'). By not acknowledging something I could be potentially good at, I found myself searching for who I was all this time. America, this individualistic culture has given me the space to accept who I am- yes, I am an artist. Yes, I am a poet even if I may not be a good one. Yes, I know people have larger problems than I do living in a developed nation but that doesn't mean what I am going through isn't validated. I went on a huge rant one night to a friend  in America because I couldn't comprehend sifting through the scale of what I was feeling. I was losing friends in India because they can't relate to me anymore, that my struggles seem like a speck of dust in relation to their own, and I can see where that is coming from. But to lose the only few important friendships I have built, trusted and loved over the last decade come crashing down was a huge shift for me. I couldn't figure out if I was being an asshole to them all these years by talking about my problems, that what I am feeling now are 'complaints' that need to be seen against a larger picture, whether I am 'creating' these for myself. My friend listened and told me that my thoughts and feelings were validated no matter the scale and I am immensely thankful for that. America has allowed me time for myself: for developing my individual self, to carve out identities for myself that would have been harder in my own collectivist culture of upbringing. I reinvented everything when I came to America, especially my wardrobe. People call me 'feminine' in this country and you have no idea how wonderful it is to be seen the way you want to be seen: I was never considered 'feminine' or 'dressed on-point' in my country. Ever after I started embracing my femininity and established my intellectual assertions as a woman of her own free will, thinking and independence,  my community, friends and family always looked at me as their little girl who doesn't know what she was talking about or just ended up hurting me by not even listening.  

The third part of this essay talks about the realisation of my collective identity. Some days, this country has my knees hugging at my breasts because most connections are single-tiered. It hits me hard because I have taken my sense of community and belonging in Madras for granted, for 20 long years. I always felt at home at Madras, I felt like I belonged there (even though I was excluded in some social groups). I had a very clear sense of collective identity, I was from Annanagar (the locality), from the city of Madras, from the state of Tamilnadu and lastly, from India. Patriotism was a given. My sense of love for where I come from was unadulterated- here's where I have lived all this time, and the place and its people will have my undying love and loyalty. When that was suddenly uprooted, I had stumbled upon a whole new context for comparison, a new level of reflection to see what something really means to me because I, now, have a much larger picture of what it is I am looking at and seeking. Coming to America and seeing real racial problems made me more aware of my own classist society in India. As a person from a middle-class 'upper-caste' household in India, reservations were never for me. I belong to FC (Forward caste) as mentioned in our official papers by virtue of what religious community I was born into. I think I have borderline resented reservation systems. I felt that they had to be based on economic status and not on socio-religious agenda. But now that I have brought myself out of that system and see much bigger problems of the world, I have come to terms with the benefits of that system, acknowledge that my ancestors were oppressors in the past and that I have to live with that aspect of what my community has been in the past and the privileges I still have till date because of the community I was born into. At the same time, India offered me secularism. I don't understand America's large sense of 'other-ing' some communities,  religions and race. I am still learning. My perspective has shifted and I have now, started being a part of a different collective identity. If I had previously called myself an Indian, I also now call myself a 'person of colour'. I am learning every single day about race relations, about privilege and about power. Would I have known about what it means to have lesser socio-cultural privileges had I still been in India? I may have had an intellectual understanding of it but no experiential knowledge and sometimes, the latter teaches one more than the former.

In short, I guess I wanted to evaluate my growth as a person. Yes, I wish I had a different sense of relational identity in America, I wish I meant more to people in terms of being 'someone' to them. But I also learned what it means to embrace who I am without fearing what other people would think of my interpretations of my own identity. I have moved beyond boundaries I had earlier, towards adopting a whole other collective identity. I realise I am un-learning, re-learning, growing and trying to shape my life everyday. Some days it's crazy hard to not even find anyone to talk to. I find myself sitting in my house wondering who I can call and talk to without fear of losing them and eventually end up making more art, writing more or designing more. But there have also been times I have moved beyond that fear and been vulnerable with someone. These identities are changing, they're setting in and I am growing.

In the process of figuring all these out in the past few months, I have had different conversations with many of my friends and acquaintances-- some who are international students like me in America, people working here, immigrants, people from the past with whom I have a whole shared history with and some over here, with whom I establish an immediate sense of collective identity with. My closest relationships are with whom I seem to connect on all these three aspects of one's identity. My friend from college recently sent me the link to a very interesting TED talk by Taiye Selasi. She explores our multiple identities in this world with an intriguing set of three R's: Rituals, Relationships and Restrictions. She speaks to the intent of a question and it made me think of how it all falls together with these aspects of one's identities I have been talking about so far. It's an interesting talk to see if you haven't already!

At last, I have lost some, I have won some. I am changing. It's scary. Not everyone understands that and that's okay. But I am glad I am moving forward and that I have acknowledged pieces of who I am, what I could be and where I stand at this point in my life so far. Life isn't easy at all but it sure as hell is beautiful to understand and learn from this journey.

Thank you for reading all the way till the end.

Much love,

P.S: I have interpreted these based on my research of these terms and how it fits with my experiences. If it is jarringly wrong, please do let me know though this is largely a subjective account. I would like to learn.

A picture of me at a place that is closest to Madras- A beach in Florida, shot by my high school friend, Vimal Raj.