Golgappa or Puchka: The Identity Crisis of an International Student
There have been several times when I’ve questioned how ‘Indian’ I really am. Born and brought up in Bangladesh, India is barely a part of my nationality. Yet, the number of trips I’ve taken to this country is almost enough to make me a citizen...almost. My ancestors originally belonged to India, having later moved to Bangladesh for business purposes and deciding to settle. This makes my connection to India stronger and leaves me wondering what my identity really is—am I partly Indian, even though I have never lived here before?
The real crisis began after I came to college. Before this, the thought of being associated with any other nationality had seldom crossed my mind. Sure, I knew (mostly) all about the cultural practices followed in this neighboring country and could speak the language fluently, but so could a lot of other people who had grown up watching Bollywood movies, right? It wasn’t that easy to ignore the other things that made me Indian though. From my name to my food habits, everything seemed to erase the part of me that belonged to Bangladesh, the country that I call home. I was now met with surprised looks when I told people I was an international student, knowing very well that they wouldn’t be impressed—what’s the point of being an international student if you…really aren’t?
Months into college in this country that wasn’t really new to me but was supposed to be a foreign place, I was questioning my identity to the extent that the lines between being a Bangladeshi and an Indian blurred. It’s a strange feeling, really, when you cannot differentiate between what makes you a part of one country and what makes you part of another, other than your passport and the fact that you are in an ‘International Students’ group on messenger. From my accent to my diet to the festivals I celebrated, there was barely anything that set me apart. It was nice to feel like I belonged in the space I was living in, but I also somehow felt like I was doing injustice to the country I came from. My whole life, I had been proud of my nationality, of the history of my country, but now this very nationality had become almost insignificant in a place where it was supposed to matter most.
I can never be completely Indian either, of course. I’m Indian until someone brings up the cartoons they used to watch when they were younger or the candy they used to be crazy about. These are amongst the few things I cannot relate to because no matter how many Bollywood movies you watch or Hindi songs you listen to, there are some experiences that are exclusive to those who grew up in India. It is only at times like these when I fall silent that people suddenly seem to remember and acknowledge where I am really from— “Oh, I forgot you’re not from India!” Well, there begins another dilemma. Now it wasn’t just that I wasn’t Bangladeshi enough—I wasn’t Indian enough, either.
I spoke to another international student from Ethiopia to understand how their identity shapes their experience in Ashoka. This is what he had to say: “It's undeniable that my ethnicity has shaped my identity in Ashoka. In fact, even before and after Ashoka, it will still have a role to play in influencing my experience. However, in a much broader sense, most of my first interactions with people in Ashoka involved me telling them something about where I come from. Or them telling me something about my country and me correcting them. So their first encounter with me (mostly in my first year) would be a conversation about where I come from and where they're from (and they'll obviously tell me to come and visit... not that they’re paying for my travel and accommodation haha). But yes, for those who haven't interacted with me after our initial introduction, to them, my identity begins and ends with where I'm from.”—Absera Mekonnen, UG20
This account shows how vastly different my experience of being an international student is from other international students at Ashoka. They set themselves apart in the kind of clothes they wear, the kind of food they eat, and the kind of festivals they celebrate with such enthusiasm. They cannot go home during every break and feel homesickness to the extent I still haven’t, and don’t think I will in my time here. All of these things make them the person they are and form their identity. In the end, what your passport says does not really matter. My passport clearly states my nationality and that I am only permitted to stay in India as a student. But it’s the little things that make up my identity here, like freely dancing at Ashokan parties because I know all the lyrics to the Punjabi songs and celebrating Holi not just as the festival of colors but also as the defeat of Holika.
I don’t know if I will ever stop being at a crossroads when it comes to my identity, in terms of where I really belong. But most of the time, that’s not such a bad thing. My identity is not limited to some legal documents stating where I’m from or my cultural connection to the place I reside in. Having the best of both worlds is also a part of my identity. Being fluent in two languages that bring me closer to two kinds of people is a part of my identity. The fact that I don’t feel out of place in a room full of people missing home during Diwali is a part of my identity. Being able to navigate Delhi on my own while also muttering to myself about how things are so much easier in Dhaka is part of my identity.
By Payal Somani