If you are an Indian reading this, then my history in India might come across as the norm and not an exception. I grew up in a middle-class family in Hyderabad, India, in a family full of the academically-minded. My paternal grandparents raised me for most of my childhood, as my parents focused on finishing medical school and establishing themselves professionally. Grandparents being pivotal figures in children’s upbringing, and families obsessed over academics and in almost any other aspect of a child’s development, is a given in India.
However, this isn’t the focus of my post.
Over my thirty-plus years of life, I have lived under one roof with my parents for no more than six years – four in one stretch, and then a year here and a year there. The rest is split between growing up with my grandparents and living by myself. Never once during these first 16 yrs of life have I had the need or inclination to think about my identity. In retrospect, I lived in India, in a large city, and I think that is all that I ever thought about when it came to identity. I never once explicitly thought about myself as being Indian; I suspect very few Indians living in India do. It is just who we are. In fact, in daily life, there is more talk about what state, language, and cast one is part of, than about one’s national identity.
My grandparents both passed away from heart-attack like conditions, both within a year, and that was the trigger for my parents to take me away to live with them in Ireland. I left India at 16, and have since lived in three other countries on two continents: 4.5 years in Ireland, 12 years in California, USA, and for about a year in Toronto, Canada.
Despite adjusting well, by any observable standard, in each country, any time someone asked me “Where are you from?” I would struggle to answer. I would always struggle.
This is the focus of my post.
I lost my Indian accent within ten days of moving to Dublin. Five months later, I started college as one of only two ‘brown kids’ in a freshman class of ~200 engineering students at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland. Over the next few years, very few, if any, in Ireland would guess that I grew up anywhere but in Ireland. My accent was indistinguishable from any Irish person, my favourite foods changed to fish and chips and sandwiches, and my friends were all Irish (including the other Indian kid who actually moved there when he was 6 or 7, so was practically Irish). So many Irish people would be surprised by how Irish I seemed, after learning that I only moved there a few years ago. By the time I left Ireland for grad school in California, very few of my preferences and habits were what they were when I left India.
This adaptation continued in the United States. Believe it or not (actually I couldn’t believe it myself), but when I first landed in Chicago from Dublin, en route to San Francisco, I found myself talking, with a heavy American twang, to a flight attendant asking for directions to my next terminal. It took me 10 days to pick up an Irish accent, but only 30 mins to pick up an American one. I met a lot of Indian students at Stanford, but only made very few actual friends. My circle of friends was now mostly American, born and raised. Over the next few years, I developed a taste for the American BBQ, American football, and the American dollar :). All that mattered to me was work (tech startups in this case) above all else. The American dream had firmly and aggressively taken over. I have family ties in the US, and of course still in India, but very little of my daily life had to with anything Indian.
Ok, but what does all this have to do with personal identity?
After helping grow two tech startups, experiencing a lot of corporate America, and countless hours of ‘living at work’, I moved to Toronto, Canada, about a year ago to pursue my next career move and explore some entrepreneurial ideas on my own.
During this time, I found myself in a particularly introspective phase of life. It is perhaps my getting older, or moving after a long time in one country, having more time on my hands (!), but I have come to spend a lot of time thinking about my life in four countries, and the idea of personal identity. I found myself thrust into a state of extreme awareness, analysis, and exploration of that question “where are you from?” sometimes consciously and many times subconsciously.
I started realizing how aggressively (and subconsciously) I ended up adapting to each new country’s culture and norms, even if it required suppressing many aspects of my own. I was good at blending in. I loved the idea of ‘being like water’. Water takes the shape/colour of the container it is in, but never loses its core properties of boiling at 100C and freezing at 0C. This is how I saw myself. Still, I couldn’t understand why I struggled when people asked me that one question.
I would not say I am Indian, because I wasn’t just Indian. I would also not say I am Irish, because well, I am not as Irish as say someone born there. When I moved to the US, people would introduce me as Indian-Irish, but I was not that, genetically, so that didn’t fit well in my head either. Soon, I was the Indian Irish American guy, and that description was a great conversation starter/filler, and that was great, but I still wasn’t satisfied.
Digging deeper, I started realizing that I deeply cherished each aspect of my life in every country I lived in. I was uncomfortable just identifying myself with one geography, or region. The only way I felt comfortable is thinking of myself more as a global citizen, with strong parts that are Indian, Irish, and American. I may be Indian by birth, but I couldn’t think of myself fully without thinking about my Irish experiences, or my American ones. My time growing with my grandparents in India, my first Christmas dinner with friends in Dublin, my first promotion in America, these are all part of who I am. These are all the regions where I come from. I have my own memories, and memories with my parents and my sister in all these places, and more, and no one part can be left out or underrepresented. I am the sum of these parts, and feel comfortable only expressing myself this way.
I also realized that it was my eagerness to fit in, my fear of being an outcast, and my strong desire to feel ‘at home’, that subconsciously made me very good at blending in. Accents, cultural adoption, friends, came easy because behind it all, there was an obsessive compulsive desire to not feel foreign. My fear of being perceived as ‘different’ stayed with me ever since I left India. Only after years of adopting to different cultures, building lasting relationships, and well, growing older, have I come to explore my sense of self. With this sense of exploration came this realization of my multicultural self.
I love every aspect of my Indian heritage, my Irish teen years, my American 20s, and my new Canadian journey. That question no longer troubles me, and I am excited to be coming to terms with my identity, which I now realize is an ever-evolving concept, and that is beautiful.
So where am I from? I am from Hyderabad, from Dublin, from San Francisco, and now from Toronto, and in the future, who knows?!