The metaphor of being “between two worlds” is commonly employee to describe the experiences of immigrants as they navigate the cultures of their home and host countries. As a second generation immigrant with my Indian parents, I had an experience that was no different. One world was Indian: I was at home with my family, or I went to the temple, or I went to a community center and I met other Indian families. At home I was chatty and loud, generally felt more comfortable, and spoke with an Indian accent. But in the other world, the American, at school, at work or with friends, I was more reluctant, serious and I spoke with an American accent. The two worlds were, literally, separate spheres of life that rarely intersected.
Reflecting on my experience at Stanford, what really strikes me is how these two worlds started to collide and the consequences of such a drastic shift in perspective.
First, the Hindu religion, spirituality and Vedanta philosophy – once reserved for my Indian world – began to enter my American world. Part of it was because of meeting a ton of new people who were interested in topics that my friends back home never interested in, such as religion, philosophy, and the meaning of life. At Stanford, I started explaining concepts of Hindu philosophy and Vedanta – and even debating about them – with my friends at SLE. I enjoyed Hinduism in a different light by being able to read primary texts from religions such as Christianity and Islam. Classes that covered topics such as Buddhist meditation and Orientalism helped me better understand how South Asia was viewed by the West. In a course on the history of Asian South America, I discovered the long and complicated story yoga gurus and teachers in 20th century America. I learned direct correspondence and exchange of ideas between Gandhi, who pursued Indian independence through spirituality, and the black leaders of racial equality in America.
Additionally, new information about my Indian heritage and culture now came from my American world and influenced my Indian world. Through Sanskrit lessons at Stanford, I gained the confidence and ability to read ancient Hindu texts and scriptures in their original form. And for the first time, I befriended students who weren’t second-generation American Indians, but rather came from South Asia to study at Stanford. I befriended South Asians with new perspectives, who were Muslims, Parsis or Sikhs, or who came from Pakistan or Bangladesh. I learned, for example, the surprising fact (to me) that caste is not exclusive to Hindus. I spoke with my parents about who I met and what I learned, bringing this knowledge back to my Indian world and sharing with them a unique perspective on our own culture and religion.
At the same time, America’s politics began to creep into my Indian world. Donald Trump’s presidency, which aligned with most of my four years at Stanford, has strongly polarized South Asian Americans. While some supported actions such as banning Muslims, other South Asian Americans have become more politically active in response to the former president. My parents, who had little followed politics in the past, started discussing the news with me on a daily basis. American politics also became more familiar and accessible to us, when we realized that Vice President Kamala Harris’s mother was from the same place in Chennai where my mother grew up, Besant Nagar.
Thanks to Stanford, Indian politics also came to my American world. Just like America, India was polarized by a new leader, whose party revolved around Hindu majoritarianism. At Stanford, I met friends on both sides of the Indian political spectrum, and Indian politics, which I was only vaguely aware of before college, began to play a bigger role in my life. I participated in demonstrations and debates with other students around salient issues of Indian politics and learned from guest lecturers of the Stanford Center for South Asia and the Stanford South Asian Society. These experiences gave me a new perspective with which to engage with people from my Indian world. But bringing up Indian politics with some family members, whether in India or America, has become as toxic and uncomfortable as it is for some families in America. talking about American politics at a Thanksgiving dinner. My Indian and American worlds collided.
The variety of perspectives and ideas I came into contact with at Stanford helped me transcend and ultimately eliminate the constructed boundaries that had separated my Indian and American worlds. While having lunch one day with an Indo-American friend and an Indian friend, I noticed that every other sentence I went from an Indian accent to an American accent, depending on who I was talking to. . I realized that there were no longer – and never had been – “Indian” and “American” worlds that could be nicely encircled in discrete realms of experience. Both worlds were inevitably shaped by who I am as an Indian American and my own experiences in both worlds. Even the simplest distinction was not clear: my “Indian accent” sounds slightly American in India and my “American accent” sounds slightly Indian in America. As the archetypal example of the the rope and the snake in Vedanta philosophy, any distinction I had perceived between these two worlds was only Maya, an illusion, and such a distinction quickly vanished once I got the right knowledge and the right perspective.
The collision of these worlds however left me with some important questions. First: growing up in America gave me a unique education. As a deeply religious Hindu, I have a rich knowledge of ancient Vedic scriptures and Vedanta philosophy. But South Asian Americans are continually trying to balance their American and South Asian identities, and even people living in South Asia are struggling to preserve old ways of life in the face of modernization. Meanwhile, religious tenets or race / caste appeals form the basis of the divisive politics that has engulfed India and America today. I also graduated in computer science from Stanford. The computer software industry is not only largely responsible for the recent waves of immigrants from India to America (including my parents), but has also resulted in negative societal effects, misinformation among Indian groups. WhatsApp to the lies about the 2020 election and COVID vaccines. South Asian Americans have acquired a unique and influential voice on these issues: defend for equity within their communities, first multinational technology companies, break down barriers within U.S. law and government, shape America’s Indian politics and even funding Indian domestic policy. What responsibility do I have as a South Asian American and in what role can I use my interests to better serve society according to my values?
Next: Having your child graduate from Stanford would be any immigrant’s dream after arriving in this country. I got such an opportunity at Stanford, but at what cost and at whose expense? America is built on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the forced enslavement of others, including many injustices that have not even been fully recognized, let alone remedied. Unlike some cities in Southeast Asia that are thousands of years old, my home in Atlanta was native land just two centuries ago. Stanford is itself built on native land and the exploitation of Chinese workers. And despite all the hard work my parents did to come here, it was only possible because they come from a well-off, upper caste Indian family who could actually afford to fly to the America – and to what extent has this inequality improved India? Being a Stanford graduate and an American citizen gives me an important opportunity and influence to advance the values ââI believe in, but this very power is built on countless injustices past and present. Can the closeness to power that an education at Stanford gives me still give me the latitude to make the system fairer, rather than just profit from the injustices of the past?
These are some of the questions that have arisen in me over the past few years that will stay with me long after I graduate, after I started attending Georgetown Law School this fall, and after starting a career. career. I do not know to what extent I will find satisfactory answers there, but I do know that they are worth pursuing. And my friends, teachers, and experiences at Stanford were the ones who helped put these issues on the table in the first place.
Contact Ashwin Ramaswami at [emailÂ protected]