I grew up as a Muslim-Indian-American. But if I’m being honest, I’ve always felt uncomfortable saying that whole title. Because when I am in America, I am seen as an Indian first. The amount of times I’ve had to explain that I was born in the foreign land of “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” rather than New Delhi eludes me. And even though I’m seen as an Indian first, that part of my identity is largely discredited due to the fact that I grew up Muslim. Many don’t believe the two identities can coexist despite Muslims making up over 14% of the total population in India (second highest in the world after Indonesia). This large misconception has even caused me to buy into this belief – thus pushing my Indian identity to the side.
One of my major motivations for partaking in DukeEngage’s program in Ahmedabad, India was to connect with my ancestral heritage. I don’t speak the languages. I don’t fully understand the culture. I don’t know a lot about what makes an individual Indian. What I yearn for is a connection to something larger than myself – something that makes me proud of the varying intersections that make up my Muslim-Indian-American identity.
My first couple of weeks navigating Ahmedabad have been eye-opening. For example, the locals get excited when they see the white members of our group. They pull out their phones and ask for selfies with people whose skin color they’ve never seen before. Then they look at me.
“Aap India se hein?”
I answer, “Well, yes. I mean – no. I wasn’t born here. My parents came over to Ameri- well actually just my dad. My mom actually…” and then I realize that none of the words I’m saying are being understood because I’m speaking in English.
“Merey pitaji Bihar se hein,” I force out – which loosely translates to, “my dad is from Bihar.” The other person then rattles off a string of sentences, but I can only make out a few words. Instead of responding, I just smile. I’ve only been studying Hindi for two weeks, but I hope that they know how badly I wish I could have a conversation with them.
It’s strange being in a country that is simultaneously foreign and familiar. How can you feel both at home, but also so far away from it? And up until this past week, I’ve struggled with coming to terms with my identity. Do I even deserve to call myself Indian if I am only Indian by ancestral heritage and appearance?
But – the Balghar school I work at has allowed me to answer these questions. Duke partners with an NGO named Saath, and one of their initiatives is to instruct local school teachers in basic English and computer skills. Part of my assignment is to develop lesson plans for teacher training and lead them through one-hour classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
Balghar holds a special significance for me. Its mission is to provide an education to all people irrespective of religion, since many of the town’s residents are Muslim. One might think that the demographics of the area wouldn’t cause that big of a difference in lifestyle from the rest of India. However, from the architecture of the buildings, to the Arabic calligraphy marked on signs, to the way people dress, speak, and walk – the Muslim presence runs through the hearbeat of this city.
As I walked into the school to undergo my first computer skills lesson, I was greeted by a joyous “Assalamu Alaikum” (meaning “Peace be Upon You”) and a crowd of smiling faces. Another DukeEngage student and I led the teachers through some basic English phrases. But to our surprise, they were very advanced. They already knew everything that we had planned for them. And rather than being complacent with that knowledge, they were ravenous to know more. The head teacher told us that her goal was to be able to have a full English conversation with anyone that came into her school. Such a determination to learn and be able to provide that knowledge to other people was inspirational.
As I was packing up, one woman asked me something in Hindi. I couldn’t figure it out, but a translator that was there with us said, “She wants to know your last name.”
“Ahmad,” I replied. Her and the other women there started smiling and then they quickly raised another question.
The translator then stated, “They want to know what common Muslim last names are used in America.”
“Oh,” I answered. “Well – I guess Khan is a pretty popular last name that I know.”
“Khan!” they exclaimed. They laughed with glee and exchanged joyous remarks with each other. I laughed along with them.
I told them (through broken Hindi and with much help from the translator) my mom and dad’s name. The story of how my grandparents came to America, that I was the middle child, that I was here for the first time. I told them how happy I was to be spending the eight weeks of my summer time with them.
But what I didn’t tell them, even though I wish I did, was how much that moment validated me. I know it seems simple. It was just an exchange of information. Yet, it felt like my soul was connected with these women. I felt as if I had known these people all of my life, despite me introducing myself for the first time only an hour before.
As I walked out of the building and looked over the town as the Islamic call to prayer was playing over the loudspeakers in the background, I took a moment to reflect.
I am not only a Muslim. I am not only an Indian. I am not only an American. I’ve always thought the intersection of these markers restricted me from belonging wholeheartedly to a community. But these identities do not need to be distinct. They don’t exist in isolation. I am who I am because of how these components and markers of a person’s multiple identities fuse together.
I belong to multiple communities. I am a Muslim-Indian-American and I can exclaim that with confidence. My home is not solely in one of these spheres. My home is in my heart – and my admiration is to those who made me the hybrid of an individual who I am proud to be today.