I don’t have a first language. When I was learning to speak, my parents and grandparents spoke Telugu at home to me, but exposure to TV, books, and adults outside of my house meant that I learned to speak English simultaneously. When I visited my parents’ hometown of Hyderabad, India, I could have fluent conversations with my relatives, and when I returned home to the United States, I was equally comfortable. I was the poster child for multiculturalism, navigating between my American and Indian identities with ease.
But as I grew older, things started to change. As my parents assimilated to the norms of their professional careers, they spoke more and more English to me at home. And I spent more time at school and with friends, ultimately resulting in me speaking mostly English at home. This process culminated in a trip to India when I was about twelve years old. I still spoke Telugu more or less fluently, but I realized with shame that I had developed an American accent.
This may not seem Earth-shattering: after all, it’s only natural to develop an accent after living in one country your whole life. But my accent made me self-conscious of talking to people in my parents’ hometown and aware, for the first time in my life, that I was an outsider. Now, not only was I partially removed from White America by virtue of my Indian heritage; I felt estranged from that heritage, too.
This experience encapsulates the constant struggle that many first-generation immigrants face, trapped between their parents’ world and their own, unsure how to balance different value systems, constantly worrying about feeling out of place because of our skin tones and our cultures.
This struggle drives me: I want to understand how to build a truly multicultural and multiracial society. I don’t want to have to give up crucial parts of my identity in order to assimilate. I don’t want to second guess the way I present myself, don’t want to code switch depending on who I talk to. Being a 20|20 Scholar, to me, means understanding how I can build a more equitable society, one that sees everyone equally regardless of race or ethnicity, but a crucial aspect of this equity is multiculturalism. We should strive to understand and celebrate our differences, not simply ignore them.