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  • Ananya Patil Rao

Define Thyself: My Journey as a Cultural Nomad

Passports of the United States and India. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

For as long as I can remember, I have been defined by the things I leave behind.

On my first day at a California elementary school, I became the ‘girl from India.’ The girl who protested loudly at the notion of ‘colour’ spelt without a u, who carried sambhar to school in a thermos, who mouthed allegiance to a flag that was as unfamiliar to her as the nation it stood for. When, in fourth grade, I returned to India, I became an American passport at the Bangalore airport, flinching as the TSA agent’s label came down with a heavy thud. Fidgeting before my new classmates, I became the ‘girl from the US,’ the girl packaged with Target leggings and Crayola pencils, the girl who struggled to pronounce her own name.

As I grew out of elementary and into high school, my American accent slipped away. But there remained my San Jose birth certificate, my thrice-stamped passport. There remained the bemused faces of my relatives as I muddled through Hindi and Kannada, even as my ‘excellent’ English skills caused my teachers to label me with a reputation for eloquence that was thoroughly undeserved. There remained my friends from California, lost to space and time but not to memory. Most of all, there remained the question of why my family moved to America, and of why we moved away.

Before I was born, my parents spent twelve years in the US, during which they trudged up the steep road to naturalized citizenship. During my tumultuous first years, my mother said, they turned to their family for guidance and support. “You are Indian,” my mother said, exasperated. “We wanted to raise you within your culture. America is a good place to live for a little while, but then you start to miss your home.” You start, she explained, to miss people who truly accept you instead of just pretending to.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my mother’s best efforts to raise me within her version of ‘Indian culture,’ I found myself drawn to the country I was born in. I fished her empty mail-in ballots from the recycling bin, and badgered her to vote. I read articles railing about politicians and marveled at the abandon with which writers critiqued their government without fear of reprieve. With a painful combination of nostalgia and naïveté, I dreamt of justice systems unfettered with red tape, of education beyond rote learning and tests, of open spaces and clean air. To me, America – despite my mother’s warnings of disenchantment and despair – came to symbolize something better. My return became not a matter of if but when.

And yet, would America welcome her prodigal daughter? As I began to fill out my college applications, I was seized with uncertainty.

Was I first generation? No, but neither of my parents had gotten bachelor’s degrees in the US. How many years had I lived in the US? Some, but not enough. Did I qualify for in-state tuition or regional merit scholarships? No, because although I was an American citizen, I resided abroad.

The cost of tuition was daunting, the need-based aid process emotionally and logistically obfuscated by my parents’ high-conflict separation. Between taking my SAT and AP lit tests independently (my school conformed to an Indian curriculum), I read online articles about Mackenzie Fierceton – a student at an Ivy League University whose rejection of predefined categories and refusal to stay silent resulted in severe, undeserved retaliation. I Googled Tracey and Michael Landry, the founders of an independent ‘college preparatory school,’ who abused their Black students into conforming to elite universities' narratives of poverty and disadvantage. I wondered and I worried, about the collection of contradictory boxes I couldn’t seem to fit through, about the labels I’d accumulated from experiences I was leaving behind. I struggled with the story of myself, and with the notion that it was worth telling.

As I begin my time on College Hill, I am once more ‘the girl from India.’ My presence here is a miracle, the outcome of a domino-esque series of events that was triggered here in the US, where I was born. I am grateful, and I am happy, for the opportunity to explore intersections between cultures, subjects, and people, to develop my written voice in order to better represent others who exist within those intersections.

At the same time, I am overcome with guilt as I think of my friends back in Bangalore, who worked harder than I did to get into colleges with fewer resources. As I think of my parents, whose relationships with me are now those of aching emotional distance. As I grapple with the question of my identity, I remind myself to make the most of my innumerable privileges, in the hope that, someday, I will finally find myself worthy of them.

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