[India + UK]
Maya discusses life as a Third Culture Kid, DoSomething.org, and the 2016 national election.
You call yourself a “Third Culture Kid.” Can you explain what that means?
It’s called a lot of things. Some people call it being a “Global Nomad.” I think that as time progresses and as globalization increases, it’s becoming more common, but growing up and even now amongst my peers it’s not common. My grandparents were born in India, and they moved to the UK in their late teens or early twenties. Both of my parents were born in England, so I was raised with a fusion of English and Indian culture. What “Third Culture Kid” means is that since moving to the U.S., I now have the culture of all three - American, English, and Indian.
What was that experience like, moving to so many places at once?
I first moved here when I was about seven years old, so I didn’t really have a grasp of how my life was going to change, but I definitely wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t really have an understanding of what moving as an entire family would be like. When I moved back to the UK in 2005, I was about nine or ten at that point. I knew it had been a bit of a crazy few years here, so I was happy to go home. In 2009, my family moved back to New Jersey for the final time.
Do you think that was overload? How did you adapt?
Growing up in the UK and being Indian is very common. South Asian culture in England is completely different, and it has a higher presence than it does in the US so I never really understood myself as being different. I think that moving between the U.S. and the UK became a huge deal because when I arrived in the U.S., there was no one like me or even comparable to me. I was quite alienated from a young age, and I think that is when I first realized that it's not just my race. It was three different things going on here. I think that with age and especially now as I'm in my twenties, living by myself, and have moved a little bit more, I'm starting to see the extent of those differences. Having a concept of what home really is and having a core identity is becoming a lot more complex than I ever realized it would be.
Yes, especially because you're trying to switch between those three worlds. With you being Indian, did you feel more comfortable living in the UK as opposed to here in America?
Exactly. Definitely in the UK. I think that for multiple reasons. The primary reason being that I grew up with all of my family there. I had extended family. I had my grandparents on my dad's side living on the next street. I grew up with my sisters around, and we all looked the same. My parents have English accents, and they grew up the same way, and so I saw that as something to identify with. Like I said before, South Asian culture is common in England for a number of reasons dating back in history. I came to the U.S., and it was two things. For one, the Indians where I'm living in New Jersey tend to be first-generation immigrants. Because I had that break of being in England and they didn't have that, we didn't identify with one another. They were first and second generation from India and they were still very much in touch with that. They spoke the languages and were deeply rooted in that whereas, through no fault of my own, I wasn’t. I think at times that was a point of friction and an alienating experience for me. They were already part of a community which I didn't really fit into. I think being English on top of that didn't really mix well both with South Asian people and also those who were from other countries. They didn’t exactly know what box to put me in.
Do you think that as you're getting older, you would be more curious to explore your Indian culture?
Yea, I think that with all different aspects of my culture, but especially with my Indian culture. It's becoming more important to me in my early twenties with everything that is going on politically. I don’t think you can really be a person of color and not be aware that you're a person of color in your day to day life. In a lot of places of my life, I've been forced to be hyper-aware of that and hyper-aware of where I do and don’t fit into places. With age, I've become more defensive, but more accepting of my culture. Growing up, I didn't really want to speak the language, and I didn't have any ties to that. When I came to the U.S. and all of that was taken from me, I realized how much it matters and how that's a part of me that can't be erased whether I want it to or not. I started taking Hindi lessons in university last year, and I also try to have a really close relationship with my grandparents. Things like that have become more present with age.
In what ways do you think that the U.S. stripped that of you?
I lost my family. Every time I moved here, I didn’t have immediate family. The closest family I have is in Toronto. I think that being here without being around people who looked like me aside from my sisters and my parents was a huge wake-up call. Not seeing myself represented anywhere affected me as well. There are so many South Asians in England that it's a part of the culture. You see more people that look like you in magazines and on TV. I did not see that in the U.S. I didn't even see the fragmented parts of culture that you see in other countries and I wasn't exposed to Indian-American TV shows. Even now it's 2017, and I can name maybe five Indian celebrities that are famous in the U.S. As I was thrown into these other social groups where I was trying to find myself and get through school, people would have different expectations of me which was challenging at times. I dealt with a lot of micro-aggressions. People would say, “Oh, you're one of our friends. You're not like ‘them.'” By that, they meant not like other South Asian people. At that age, I think that you don't realize how that is a stripping of your identity and damaging in a lot of ways. I grew up with that, and it was so normal that at times it felt like a compliment to be separated from everybody else, almost like I was being given special treatment. I started to realize what that meant, that I wasn't okay with it, and that those were core parts of my identity that I was allowing other people to take away.
How would you deal with that? Would you tell them that you weren't okay with it?
I don't think that anyone who knows me now at 21 would dare say that to me [laughs]. The people that I keep around me wouldn't even think to say that, but even at that age, it didn't feel right. There's always an instinctual intuition when you know that something doesn't feel right when someone says something passively offensive and incorrect in so many different ways. I think I almost felt a physical reaction every time something like that was said, but I never said anything. Anyone who's looking for validation at fifteen or sixteen years old is going to think of those comments as being positive. It was on both sides because I also got rejected from South Asian communities because I didn't fit their status quo and didn't have the same relationship with the culture. I've always been caught between two or more different things when it comes to my identity.
What advice would you give to kids that are going through this similar situation of other people passive aggressively putting them down?
Throughout a lot of my childhood and even now people use the term 'tolerance' and they teach you to be tolerant of other people which is a term that I kind of reject because I don't feel like that's enough for an individual or communities. Tolerance is not equal to acceptance. I think that also coincides with yourself. I was tolerant growing up when I should've been more accepting both of my own identity and how others reacted to my identity. While I would love to say that younger people should accept who they are and dive into that, I know that's not realistic and that it's really tough to grow up in today's world. Understand that it's a process and giving yourself the priority and respect is important. If you invest in yourself and the different parts of your identity and find pride in that, then I think that's what's most important.
Do you think that by joining the organization where you met Kashara, did that help you adapt more to the U.S.?
I met Kashara and Nhi at DoSomething.org, which was one of the best decisions that I've ever made. It was just something that happens for a reason and that's out of my control. Sam Arpino, the HR person at DoSomething.org that hired myself and the other 17 interns did an amazing job because I got 17 best friends out of it. It's a testament to her because we're all still friends a year later. DoSomething.org attracts certain kinds of people that are amazing human beings who are passionate, creative, that care about others, and are just really good-hearted. This might sound ridiculous, but it was the first time in my life where I stepped into a space of what felt like curated people. It was the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me, and it wasn't even so much that I identified with so many people as it was just being able to connect with them. They weren't the same race, gender identity, sexuality, nationality, or whatever and we still would get along like best friends. We were all there for the same cause. We wanted something powerful, better, and important to happen in this world. I think that social impact is such a beautiful and connecting space in the world and so it was an incredible opportunity to meet with all of those people.
So what did it feel like once that internship was over? There went your 17 best friends that for once understood you for you, right?
Yea. I think it was actually really funny. I took a year off after high school to figure out what I wanted to do before going to college. Then, I went to school for a year which was fun, but it was a bit tough for me to transition to life at a university. After I left university, I went to DoSomething.org and so I had this amazing group of curated minds around me every single day. It ended, and I had a few weeks before I had to go back to school. I wasn't expecting it, but it was a huge shock because I'd stepped out of this really progressive, thoughtful, safe space and into this world where people didn't know right from wrong in a lot of ways. I think that we were really spoiled. For me, I found DoSomething.org to be an incredibly healing experience. I can't speak for everyone because I'm not sure if that was their experience, but it was tough to step out of that bubble and realize that not everyone cares about social impact in that way. It was tough to adjust, but after that, it just gave me so much more respect and admiration for the organization and the people that work there.
How do you as an international citizen feel now that Donald Trump is elected?
Personally, I wake up every day and think that it didn't happen, but it did. It's kind of a unique perspective simply because I'm applying for citizenship, Brexit happened, and then we, of course, had the election. With the political climate being incredibly tense in a number of different ways, I think that it was a wake-up call that we all needed.
I go to school in Philadelphia, and I was there the night before the election with Hillary Clinton and the Obamas because they came for the night of the election. Leaving that space which will soon be a majority-minority city and coming back to my hometown in New Jersey where I was seeing Trump signs everywhere was one of the most difficult things that happened post-election. It was so confusing because I thought, "Hold on! We went to school together, and I used to go over to your house. I walked past this house every day, and this person lives in the same neighborhood that I do. These people have similar lifestyles that I do. What happened here?" I think the more that I thought about it, the more I wondered how I could have been so blind. It’s so hard to stomach. They're not necessarily bad people, but to see that they voted for him and that they also were celebrating his victory was a huge wake-up call.
Did you in any way feel betrayed?
I think there is always a personal reaction as there is with most things. Regarding politics in the U.S, I think that I was a little bit upset at myself because my immediate thought was about how I could've ever been friends with these people. There was also a thought of whether I could've educated them. It's a really tough place to be in because I haven't talked to a lot of them since high school. I don’t know if we just went separate ways or if they were always that way and I was just so unaware of it for so long. I don’t feel unsafe, but I do start to wonder what they think of me because he is saying a lot of things about women, South Asian people, immigrants, or whatever. A lot of those things apply to me, and if they don't apply to me, then they apply to people that I care about. Unfortunately, that's one of the things that Trump is able to succeed at very well by making people who disagree with him or are offended by him feel very targeted. When I think of him, while my knee-jerk reaction is to take it personally, but I also think of the thousands of people, not just in the U.S., but around the world, who are directly affected by him.
I think that when a lot of people hear "safe space," they say that it’s for wimps, but it's not. How would you explain why having a safe space is necessary?
I think that to be completely honest, growing up whenever I heard "safe space," it reminded me of Viva which is a space for individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ or for those who were being bullied. It wasn't that I didn't have respect for it at all, I just didn't really understand how it would ever apply to me in my adult life. I think that what I found is that I didn't understand it until I was in it and I didn't understand the value of it completely until I was out of it. For me, a safe space isn't anything other than being able to be free in your own identity or presence which is something that I think as a young person is accessible or available to people of all different identities and characteristics. It's so important in 2017 for individuals to have that, not only as part of a community for their friends and families but also to figure out who they are themselves. I think that the older you get, that gets taken away from you a lot because you don't really get alone time or time to invest in yourself. Safe spaces really give you the opportunity to take time to relish in the moment and be who you are.
As soon as you left that safe space at DoSomething.org, have you attempted to enlighten the narrow-minded or do you think that it's even worth it?
So one of the most eye-opening experiences while at DoSomething.org was when we had a meeting following the Orlando tragedy. We discussed the way that we as an organization would respond. Somebody started speaking about the fact that we live in this liberal or progressive echo-chamber where we go on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and we talk to our friends who are also in this bubble where we all agree and believe the same things. It makes us think that everyone agrees with us or gets the majority of things the way that we do. In a lot of countries, the political climate is so polarized because we are stuck in these echo-chambers. That for me was a huge awakening experience because it made me reconsider a lot of things. I realized the importance of not needing to prove my point, but instead of having a conversation and educating people. It's really important to have that communication because regardless of the subject, country, or whatever, nothing happens if two people are completely disagreeing and refusing to engage with each other. Right after leaving DoSomething.org, I fell into the 2016 election. I think that was an important learning moment because it was a hard thing to stomach at that time and to not block people out of my life.
I had to understand that we're all just people and maybe I can't understand people on particular subjects, but I can understand them on others and there's something that can happen there. Nothing is going to get done if everyone disconnects from what they don't want to hear. You grow so much from hearing other people's arguments whether you agree with them or not. You can't figure out what you believe if you don't know what you don't believe. More than anything this is just an opportunity for growth of individuals, relationships, and communities.
Moving forward, what are your hopes for your future?
In a very straightforward way, I see myself traveling more because I've grown up moving around a lot and I get bored very quickly. I would like to continue exploring new cultures and experimenting a lot. I'm a strong advocate for trial and error. I believe that it's one of the most impactful ways for people to live their lives. I'm only 21. I have a lot more to learn about myself. I think the older you get, the more complex you realize you are. There are a lot of different parts of me that can develop so I'll be working on that.