I often tell my parents how lucky they are for having grown up in a society where they felt that they “belonged.” When I used to complain to them about the challenges of having a hyphenated identity, it was hard for them to understand why. And sometimes, it was hard for me to explain… Why did I feel the pressure to choose one identity over another? Why are so many South Asian Americans referred to as “American Born Confused Desis?” Why are we confused?
After living in Morocco for nearly six months now, I feel that I have come to some answers to my queries, as well as a better understanding of my own values. Growing up, my Indian family imparted in me Eastern values of collectivism, generosity, and community. There was little concept of “yours” and “mine,” but a shared idea of “ours.” Family and community formed the center of my values, and “we” as a unit were much more important than the singular “I”.
These values made sense to me– they were the way I was raised. But there was an issue: none of this was reflected by my surroundings. As soon as I left my home or the bubble of my Asian cultural community, I was faced by a sharp contrast of values.
While my family taught me to never eat food in public without offering to others, the cafeteria of my school prohibited sharing with others. Each to his/her own. While I was trained to always greet my elders, none of my white peers did the same, so it felt weird for me to go out of the way in the park to say “Namaste” to my grandparents’ friends, while my own non-Asian friends would be playing. If the others don’t do it, why should I?
Being immersed in an Eastern society this year has made me see the same cultural values that were “weird” or “foreign” back home as the norm. Rather than being portrayed as “different,” I am now living in a society where the lessons I was taught as a little girl are integral parts of the way of life that surrounds me.
It’s shocking, almost. I vividly remember a recent moment when I was sharing a bench with an old lady and doing my homework, and when she took out a packet of cookies, she asked me first if I would like to have some. Back in the States, you don’t talk to strangers– let alone share your food with them! I smile as I recall the time when I was studying in a cafe and had forgotten my notebook. I asked a couple of girls nearby if they had a loose sheet to spare, and they both enthusiastically tore paper from their own notebooks and handed it to me. For some reason, I would not have had the confidence to make that request of an unknown pair of teenage girls in a Starbucks back home. These little moments seem incredibly small, but they reinforce lessons that my own society didn’t teach me. When I see my host mom go over to a neighbor’s house to give them a plate of rice, or when a family friend drops by to share a pot of steaming Harira, it reminds me that sharing with one’s’ neighbors is not simply a feature of my immigrant Asian-American community. I realize that this is a way of life, and it exists as the norm in so many parts of the world.
Living in Morocco has made me understand better the idea of community, beyond the individual. It has made me see that the ideas I grew up with were not limited to “foreign” communities in my city, but rather are part of the culture in which I am now immersed. All of this seems trivial, but when you live your life juggling values and practices from two contrasting cultures, and are suddenly given the opportunity to live in a world where the people around you were raised in the same way, it’s empowering. It’s not that I don’t miss home and my community back in Austin– I certainly do– but at the same time, the culture I have been able to experience for the past few months is the first time that the society around me echoes the same beliefs that I was taught as a child, and it really means a lot to me.
A lot of hyphenated-Americans grow up confused, and we’ve all had moments of frustration when facing the contradictions of two colliding value systems. And now, I understand why. Morocco has strengthened in me the values I gained as a child. I now appreciate the “we” more than the “I.” I now unapologetically hold onto my Eastern cultural values. I now understand clearly the importance of the “collective” over the “individual.” Oh and by the way, I’m also a proud democratic socialist and you can bet I voted for Bernie in my first election! ❤