Getting my shiny, red iPod Nano was one of the best events of my early teenage life. Even as a teenager I had a diverse range of musical interests. You would have found everything from the latest top 40 track to west coast “hyphy” rap to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Even though I had an alarmingly high number of Disney songs on my iPod, the songs that would have caused me the most embarrassment were not Disney, but the Bollywood and Hindi songs that had permeated my entire childhood.
I’d sit on the bus with “shuffle” on when everyone was sleeping early in the morning and frantically turn the volume down every time a Hindi song started playing. I’m not sure I could’ve explained why I did that at that age. All I knew was that I didn’t want anyone to hear another language coming out of my headphones. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem; I went to a high school where 30% of the kids were Asian. But I was a freshman, one month into the big experiment that is high school. My high school was probably the most tolerant when it came to other cultures and weird smells emanating from lunch boxes. This clearly had nothing to do with the environment I was in but rather, the type of personality I wanted to portray. Why did I automatically assume at 14 that listening to Indian music wasn’t “cool”?
I think to answer that question we’d have to go back a number of years. I was a pretty unabashed kid in elementary school when it came to my culture and identity. As a ten year old, I even went through a phase where I wore a traditional bhindi to school. It wasn’t really until I came into the company of other Indians in my extracurricular activities that I noticed that sometimes Indians didn’t think being Indian was cool. For minorities, you probably know what I’m talking about: the kids that vehemently tried to deny their culture and background by westernizing their names, shunning Indian friends or being vocal about their hatred of their own culture. It’s easy to roll your eyes at these kids or teens but their impact on your psyche is undeniable as an impressionable young kid. You’re in the time of your life when being cool is everything - the identity you portray feels like it will determine your entire life. Your worldview is entirely myopic. Not to say these were the only kids I encountered-- most were proud of their culture and enthusiastically sang along to all the lyrics of the songs in “K3G” with me. But those unspoken assumptions stick.
In addition, there were the typical problems you encounter as someone with a cultural background. People don’t understand the need for you to be anything but “American” and listen to American music. Along with the assumption that you’re automatically a “FOB” for engaging with your culture, being Indian is a huge potential minefield as a teen. It’s hard to be different, and even harder to be different as a teenager. And it’s worse when you feel you might be judged by your own race, one way or another. It was a challenging line to toe - being American enough to know the latest Motion City Soundtrack song but Indian enough to know who was in Devdas.
I often felt as if I had two lives: the life I had in school and the one I had at home and with other Indians. It took me a couple more years of teenage life to figure out how to balance the two - not that I’ve got it figured out by any means. I still catch myself hiding my screen a bit when listening to bhangra at work. But now, I step back and instead, turn the music up.