Evolution of Identity

Towards the end of my freshman year, a graduate student at Cornell, also from India, asked me how my identity as an Indian had evolved since moving to the United States for college. At that point, I was barely 18, newly independent and looking forward to my first slope day. I certainly did not have any profound insight/reflection to share. So I quickly responded with something superficial and that was the end of that conversation. It’s been two years since that incident and I feel ready to answer that question now.

When I came to college, my thoughts were like those of any other Indian teenager from a large Indian city. I was quick to criticize all things Indian. There was much to complain about the social systems in place. I was frustrated with all the neighbors and acquaintances who were too curious about my life and wished for a more individualistic society. I tried hard to avoid the terms “conservative” and “traditional”. During my first year in college, I was busy trying to break the norms I grew up with and was very willing to embrace the “Western”, “progressive” and “modern” lifestyle and mindset I can find here in the United States. At the end of freshman year, I was more aware of being Indian than I’d been all my life and was perhaps semi-intentionally trying to move away from it.

I’m not sure what triggered the change that has followed. Sometime in the past year, I began to think more critically about why I believed the things I did. What makes one way of life more progressive than other? A newly developed idea may be chronologically progressive, but is it necessarily better? If yes, what is so wrong with the conservative notions? Is an individualistic culture better than a collectivist one for everyone? Why not keep some tradition around? To my own surprise, I’ve left behind many of the modern/western/liberal ideologies that I was trying to adopt. I’m not advocating for either side; I’m just approaching notions of progress and modernity with the same critical eyes that I had previously reserved for tradition and conservative thought.

Where does that leave my evolution of as an Indian, or even as a human being? It’s a constant process of questioning, examining alternatives and making conscious decisions. How have I evolved? I can’t say, because no snapshot I can provide is representative of the evolution.

Glimpses of Myself and the World Beyond

Every day on campus, there are several events about cultures, arts and ideas I may have never heard of. Cornell brings together talented researchers, performers and artists of diverse interests, backgrounds and nationalities.This is a place where I only have to walk for a few minutes to get a glimpse of anything in the world beyond.

On Friday evening, I watched a documentary called “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” at the Cornell Cinema. I had first read of El Camino de Santiago in a textbook for my Spanish class. It’s an ancient, Christian pilgrimage which now attracts modern pilgrims of all faiths, nationalities and purposes. One of my housemates who I watched the documentary with had studied abroad in Spain last year and walked a part of the Camino. I hadn’t imagined that many people even knew about the Camino, never mind that I might be living with someone who has walked it.

The documentary followed the journeys of six strangers along the Camino. Some were doing it for religious reasons, some for spiritual ones, some as a form of healing, and a few who had no idea why. What stood out to me was that along the way, everyone’s backpack seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps we don’t need all the things we think we need. I also realized that the Cornell Cinema plays an excellent,diverse selection of films and documentaries throughout the semester and that I should probably be watching more than one film per semester there.

While making plans for Saturday night, a friend mentioned that SPICMACAY Cornell was sponsoring a concert by the Mysore Brothers, classical Indian violinists. Although I was initially uninterested, I decided to go because a friend convinced me to. The music was brilliant and we stayed for the entire duration of the concert – about two and a half hours. I left with the feeling that I should learn enough about music, art and dance to be able to truly appreciate it.

What was funny about the night was that I was being introduced to my own cultural heritage as far away from home as possible. Being a South Indian, I should have probably been more aware of Carnatic music while growing up. But at home,neither I nor my friends would have attended a classical music concert. I had to be half way across the world to be able to appreciate its beauty.

At the end of last semester, a graduate student from India had asked me how my identity as an Indian had evolved since I had come to Cornell. I didn’t have an answer then. Last night, I realized that I’ve only been aware of my identity as an Indian since I came to Cornell. In the homogeneity of Delhi, where everyone around me shared the a common culture and upbringing, I never had to think about it. Here I’m forced to think about my differences, to acknowledge and embrace them.

I left the concert feeling more consciously connected to India than I ever have before. At Cornell, I see not only glimpses of the world beyond but also glimpses of myself and where I come from. As a Cornell student, I probably have access to the best professors and resources in the world but I think the most valuable part of my education comes from these experiences and reflections I’d have never had in the familiarity and homogeneity of home.