Lily & Krithika*
We met Lily (Chinese-American) and Krithika (Indian-American), both college students from New York, sharing dessert at a local spot. In a fifteen minute conversation, we gained insight on Caucasian-dominant colleges, Hindu traditionalism, and the absence of Asians in conversations on race.
Samantha: Okay, so if we could start by getting each of your names, your cultural identity and how maybe how you feel connected or disconnected to that today.
Lily: I'm Lily. I'm Chinese, and—wait, what was the last question? Do I feel connected?
Samantha: Yeah, do you still feel connected to it today? Because I'm guessing your parents are probably the immigrants here.
Samantha: So, do you still feel like there is a disconnect between you and Chinese culture or do you feel more close to it?
Lily: I don't think it's like, changed recently. I feel like relatively connected, but I'm not fluent in Chinese.
Serena: Me neither, that's okay.
Lily: Yeah, like... I definitely feel some discomfort sometimes when I like, go visit. But overall, I feel pretty connected.
Serena: (to Krithika) How about you?
Krithika: I'm Krithika. So I'm Indian, and I feel like, pretty similarly to what she said. My family and my grandparents specifically are the ones who've like, taught me a lot about my culture because I obviously don't live in India, but I guess like... I definitely prefer—I feel more comfortable here, because that's where a majority of my identity was like, formed, because I spent a large part of my life here. And I guess I feel discomfort when I go to India just because I don't know my way around, or I can't relate to anyone there the way I can relate to people here. But I look at my family more for a source of cultural identity than from anywhere else.
Serena: That's really cool. Do you guys do like, things at home to kind of preserve your culture? Like do you speak the language with your grandparents or parents?
Lily: Yeah. I don't like, speak it with my parents, but they speak it to me. Like I'll speak it back, and if I speak to my grandparents, I do speak it. And I eat, like, Chinese food at home as well. And I did Chinese dance in high school, but... yeah. Well I used to do Chinese dance. Not even I used to. Literally like last year and then I quit because of COVID and everything, but yeah.
It used to be very embarrassing. Definitely, like there were some photos that are just like, really embarrassing, but you know, it's okay. I liked it.
Krithika: At my house, we eat Indian food for most of it. We're South Indian, so we have like South Indian food... Um, I've done like, Indian classical singing since I was little, and we have a cultural center so like, my brother and I would go perform there with our other classmates from the singing place that we go to. And I speak Tamil with my grandparents, mainly. Not really with my parents, we mainly speak English. I'm not fluent, either, but, it's definitely weird because when I'm at college, I like, forget so much vocabulary. And I come home and I have to revive everything, but yeah, those are my ways.
Samantha: Now asking about like, you guys, I guess, growing up, because for me, I started in this relatively white town, and then I came to live in Basking Ridge, and if you know anything about Basking Ridge, it's such a diverse town. So this question is just about you guys and your childhood. Was there ever a sense of like, outsiderism, or did you grow up in a more accepting community?
Lily: Yeah, so... I'm from Montgomery, and it's so, super Asian there. But honestly, I feel like that made it worse. Because like, it's still majority white, but there's a large Asian community, so like... I felt like the white kids were just meaner to Asian kids because of it. Because they were like, "oh, it's just the Asians, they're like a separate thing."
Samantha: Which makes me sad, because it does feed into it. Because I'm guessing the Asian kids at Montgomery do act like, a certain way.
Lily: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's like, reinforcing the stereotype, and we actually—she (Krithika) doesn't even live in New Jersey. She's from Queens. She's like visiting, her cousin's here. But we go to school together, like we go to Hamilton, and it's like super super white. But I honestly feel it's like, more of an accepting environment there than Montgomery ever was, so...
Serena: Yeah, that's super cool.
Krithika: I agree with the Hamilton part. I guess it also comes with like, more maturity, like I don't know why at a younger age any sort of difference between people just makes it a point to make fun of. But concerning my school, I didn't really have too much—I went to the UN school, so it was like pretty diverse. But I do agree that in high school it's fine, because everyone is sort of better traveled, and just knows more about empathy in general, and things like that.
But I would say in junior school there was this one kid—he moved here from India, and he started going to this school, and in my grade at that point there were only twenty kids, so he was one of the few newer students, and he was from another country. So like, that definitely,I feel bad about it, but like, the class made it really difficult for him to immigrate in to the school, and it's like, literally built on like, the ethos of the UN and all that kind of stuff. But just because he was like, different, or did like, really small things in a different way or like, he wasn't used to the way the school operated and social norms and things like that—that made it tough for him. But for me personally, I haven't felt anything. But I feel like within the Indian community sometimes it's like, if someone acts "too white" or "too Indian", that sort of becomes like, a gossip thing to talk about within the community. But for me, fortunately I haven't been affected by it.
Serena: Yeah, I see that a lot too in like, the Chinese-American community in our town. Like there's people who you're like, "oh, this person is like whitewashed", or, "this person is so Asian". It's like, there are divisions within even the Asian community, which is really kind of sad.
Samantha: Okay, so next, I guess um, this one is more to you (Lily) regarding all the violence against East Asians, whether that's, you know, the recent Atlanta shooting or the blame for coronavirus falling on Asian-Americans—how does that affect your family, how does that make you feel?
Lily: Like, my family... I do think my parents are a little more concerned generally, but I think—well, I was at school when everything happened, and like I said, all my friends at school are extremely white—it's a super white environment, so it was like really difficult for me to process it. So that was really difficult. I think it's just like one of those things where it's like, you kind of live your whole life like, downplaying racism against Asians, and like, thinking it's a joke or like not real, and suddenly something like that happens and you have to convince yourself that it's like, real. Or like... yeah. So it's just kind of like, shocking, and something I had to take a really long time to process.
Serena: Yeah. I totally get that. (to Krithika) Do you have any thoughts?
Krithika: Yeah. I mean I don't really want to like, speak on other peoples' experiences. But I felt like at school, especially in the past year, I feel like, there's so many atrocities that have been happening and that people have been reposting on social media, and things like that. But I definitely noticed that people are sort of, like—they say things like, "oh, I had a really difficult conversation about, um, the Asian-American experience" and it's like, some white person saying that, or things like that.
Lily: There's a lot of like really performative activists.
Krithika: And it's kind of like... they would just like bring it up in front of a group of people, and it's like—we were both in the same sorority, and like, this one girl sort of brought it up in our chat, or we had a group meeting and she suddenly brought it up. And I didn't think it was right to speak on someone else's like, trauma. It's not like a group you are reading with a sad ending. It's like, someone's life, and whether you like it or not it's kind of your narrative that you're putting on it, like a white narrative on something you're not experiencing. So I told some people about that, that it like, wasn't really fair—you should check on people privately, like assuming they want to talk about it, like it should be up to them to lead the conversation, otherwise like, everyone should just be educating themselves, instead of making everything like, a big show.
Serena: Yeah, for sure.
Samantha: Yeah, I think that's a really subtle point that in America, when everyone's like woke and talking about racism, it's very much a narrative of like, "oh, white people oppress African-Americans". But Asians have been so absent from that conversation, that like, I guess as you were saying, it's hard to talk about like, racism against Asian-Americans because it's so casual, and of course we haven't experienced slavery.
Lily: Even I feel guilty, like I feel like every time I talk about it, I have to like, preface it. It's like, I'm like—I am recognizing I have light-skinned privilege, or like, all these other privileges of being like, Asian. So I always [inaudible], but I think it's sometimes worth talking about.
Serena: Yeah, it's just really kind of sad.
Samantha: Quick question for you (Krithika), individually, I know Indian parents are more attached to their culture than I guess some other ethnicities that live here. How do you think that's going to influence your future? I literally have friends who talk about their concerns about like, their freedom to marry, which their parents are very strict on. Do you think that generational gap plays a big role in your life?
Krithika: Um, that's a good question. I've thought of it before, but right now, I don't really worry about my future in that way, like I'm fortunate that my parents have created an environment for me—and I have a brother too—it's like, kind of focusing on ourselves. I'm going to graduate next year, like just kind of focusing on that, or like our career. I feel like there definitely is an expectation to continue or like, be able to pass on a culture to the next generation, and like, I don't really feel like—for me personally, I'm not actively reading like, things about Indian culture either, but I see the importance of it. But I'm not really worried about that right now, because my family isn't worried about it, or doesn't care about it too much. Um... I guess if I talked to my grandparents more, then yeah, like I'd worry about it. But I do see a good amount of peers or other people that I know, who like—they talk about arranged marriages, but they just don't really like, put themselves out there. I don't know how to phrase it, but they just like don't, like, do anything for themselves because their families kind of have expectations for them. I don't really have that experience, but I'm like, aware of it.
Samantha: (to Serena) So, last question?
Serena: Yeah, sure. So, in regards to your experience, what does equality look like to you in the future?
Lily: I guess like very broadly just like, your race and stuff doesn't like—well I don't ever think it's going to happen, but your race and stuff doesn't affect like, other aspects of your life. But, that's a really hard question to answer.
Serena: (Laughs) Yeah, sorry, it's a bit of a hard question to answer. If you want to skip it that's okay.
Lily: No, it's okay. I just don't know how to phrase what I'm thinking. (to Krithika) Do you want to answer first?
Krithika: Yeah, sure. I don't have a great answer, but I guess like, everyone has... hurdles, I guess like, speaking for myself, I guess—like being a woman is, like one boundary. And being an Asian-American person. There are so many things to grapple with in that way, I guess like, the struggles of being female, and also some sort of like dual identity, like, having a culture that's kind of been spoken to about, but also living in another culture and having to balance both of them. I guess like, not having to factor in all these things, in terms of doing whatever you want or achieving—it shouldn't matter, like these are all personal lives that should not affect an academic or work life aspect. That's what I would say.
Lily: Yeah, or like not having to carry this extra, I don't know if trauma is the right word, but like, trauma, or like, another thing to worry about with everything that you do. It's just like, almost a little more exhausting to do everything, as like a person of color.