A few months ago, a Buzzfeed article entitled “How My Culture Failed Me When I was Raped” made the rounds on my Facebook news feed. In it, Beejoli Shah (no relation) writes about how her identity as an Indian-American influenced her experience as a victim of sexual assault.
She carefully explains that the perks so closely associated with a Western childhood — dating, sex, alcohol — were things Indian-American youth enjoyed much more quietly than our unhyphenated counterparts. To do otherwise would be to disgrace our parents and belittle all the sacrifices they made to give us a better, more comfortable life.
This discretion, however, has a sinister underside. It has a created a culture of silence and shaming that echoes in the minds of any person unfortunate enough to be on its receiving end. It has its origins in the congealing of careful discretion, ethnic pride, and the “model minority” myth and it permeates in the conscience of many Indian-Americans, working insidiously to exclude, erase, and belittle any experiences that don’t fit within a narrow, normative mold. After all, to acknowledge these experiences would be to complicate and call into question some fundamental components of how so many Indian-American youth construct their identity.
I couldn’t be gay, because these things didn’t happen to us.
It is contained, as Beejoli repeatedly emphasized, in a single phrase: “These things don’t happen to us.” This phrase should be familiar to most US-born Indian-Americans. Our parents said it out loud as a way to distance themselves, and us, from elements of American culture they found repulsive. Homosexuality. Divorce. Rape.
Its rhythms and cadences played endlessly in our heads like any Hrithik Roshan song: These things don’t happen to us. These things don’t happen to us. These things don’t happen to us. We understood it. We believed. It brought us together by separating us from the Others, those who engaged in all those things that don’t happen to us.
We let it become a marker of our identity, a way to define ourselves as separate from our peers. It was reinforced and amplified by the “model minority” myth. This, the notion that we Indians worked harder, smarter, and better than any of our peers, was all that we knew. Anything outside of this narrow archetype simply wasn’t so.
As a child, I was taken in by this phrase. I let it sink inside my skin and define much of who I was. When I started realizing and understanding my sexuality, I knew what it meant in the context of my culture. It threw me into chaos. I couldn’t be gay, because these things didn’t happen to us.
When I had to choose between killing myself and coming out, I chose the route that kept me alive. To reward me for this act of self-preservation, my American-born cousins said that phrase loudly and proudly as an excuse to reject me. I must be doing this for attention, because these things don’t happen to us.
When I had to choose between killing myself and coming out, I chose the route that kept me alive.
By coming out I was disgracing my family, because these things don’t happen to us. I was ruining all my relatives’ chances for marriage, because what self-respecting Indian wants brother-in-laws that are married to each other. These things, after all, don’t happen to us.
This cultural dismissal went deeper than the traumas of homophobia. To be rejected for who you are is painful, without a doubt, but framing this rejection in a way that questions someone’s fundamental identity is worse.
If our identities are our anchors, keeping us stable against the push and pull of the tides, these judgments are nautical sabotage. They cut at the chains, fraying our experiences with our culture until the only thing we can do is cut it loose and let ourselves float off into waters where the maps we’ve been given are useless. We can try to put down an anchor elsewhere, but the water can be too deep, too dangerous, for us to withstand.
By gatekeeping Indian-Americanness with sanitized visions of who we are and what we go through, we deny our coethnics access to a heritage, a history, and social support that may be the very thing they need.
Both India and America are spaces of diversity and plurality, so why, when fusing the two, do we insist on homogeneity? Some Indian-Americans are not straight. Some Indian-Americans are not cis. Some Indian-Americans get divorced. Some Indian-Americans get raped.
In light of recent national (American) celebrations over marriage equality, movements for trans* rights, and outrage over sexual assault, how we understand ourselves as “Indian-Americans” must change. It needs to account for those experiences we do not personally know or understand, so that all of us can get support and solidarity when we need it most.
How we understand ourselves as “Indian-Americans” must change.
Be there for him when he comes out of the closet. Help her when divorce is her only escape from an abusive relationship. Believe them when they need a place to turn after sexual assault. To do otherwise — to insist on a culture that made Beejoli’s experience as a victim of sexual assault that much more difficult, that made my experience as a gay man that much more heartwrenching — is to deny all of us a community where we can live as ourselves, ethnic identity intact.
I’m an Indian. I’m an American. Both of these cultures made me and define me. While responses to my sexuality may have compromised the way I interact with both, it didn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of effort, it needn’t be for much longer.
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Neepam Shah is a New Jersey-based medical student who writes to understand his place at the intersections of time, geography, race, and ethnicity. He spends his spare time reading good books, trying to stay fit, and wondering whether Hogwarts had more than two Indian kids.