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  • Nikhil Dhawan

Where Do We Belong?

Where do immigrants belong? This is a question that has been in the news for the past several months, and one that has plagued me throughout my entire life. Being born to immigrant parents is a challenge many may not understand, but I do. Inclusion is an important part of our lives and it’s human nature to want to feel a sense of comfort, a sense of home, a sense of belonging. Growing up in America, people looked at my skin and features and said I wasn’t American. When I visited my family’s roots in India, people heard my accent and observed my cultural values and said I wasn’t Indian. That left me feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere.

Picture me: a 16-year old Indian-American teenager, short and chubby, standing at about five feet and a couple inches, weighing in at over 160 pounds with tan skin, dark hair, furry eyebrows, and some fuzz that looked more like dirt on my upper lip. I not only looked different from the other students in my school, but I also acted differently due to my unique upbringing.

My parents grew up in a conservative Eastern culture, so life at home was understandably super strict. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, there were no sleepovers, no formal dances, no PG-13 movies, and no after-school activities. I got dropped off five minutes before school and picked up as soon as the last class was over. The other students formed bonds and relationships, while I was the odd one out, eventually feeling like an outcast and getting bullied.

One day in high school under the heat of the San Fernando Valley sun, I was sweating profusely under a navy t-shirt. Despite the heat, I spent the entire lunch walking around the campus pretending to look busy so I wouldn’t be picked on. I sighed with relief when the bell rang for Mr. Weiss’ history class. It was 6th period; school would soon be over. The air conditioner chilled the sweat on my body. That’s when I saw a note being passed around. That note is about me, I thought and shivered with anger. If I could get a hold of that note, I could show Mr. Weiss and reveal the bullies who aimed to single me out. I snatched it away from the person next to me and opened it quickly. But my heart sank. The note read, “I missed my period. I think I might be pregnant.” I handed it back, overridden with guilt. I had tried to stick up for myself but only ended up facing the new wrath of the bullies in the days to come.

I often visited India to run away from my problems in America. I’d land at the airport and take in a breath of the not-so-fresh New Delhi air. Maybe India would be home. But when I stepped out onto the streets, many Indians stared at me. I didn’t look, or act, like them. When I spoke Hindi, my strong American accent made it blatantly obvious that I was not a native. A stranger snickered at me. “Firangi,” he said. I knew it was a derogatory term against white foreigners. Did he assume that non-resident Indians knew nothing about their culture or the history of their country? In hindsight, I don’t know why it bothered me, but at the time it made me feel like I didn’t belong in India either.

So what’s the point of all this storytelling? First generation Americans make up more than 10% of the population in the United States of America. That means 1 of every 10 people is like me, born in America to immigrant parents. That also might imply that 10% of people are also as lost as I’ve always been in terms of feeling a sense of belonging.

Here’s a little background: my parents migrated to the United States from India in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Prior to that, both my father and my mothers’ side of the families dealt with loss and grief over wars, conflict, and migration.

All four of my grandparents were born in present-day Pakistan, which, not too long ago, was all called India and was under British rule. In the 1920s, there were two movements, the Civil Disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Khilafat led by the Ali brothers. The movements were for different causes but Hindus and Muslims were united against the same enemy—the British. As soon as the British realized what was going on, they pulled a slick “divide and conquer” move to turn Hindus and Muslims against each other. This eventually led to the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (kind of an interesting history lesson for those who didn’t quite know the details).

All of that is important because my grandparents were kicked out of present day Pakistan and sent to the Indian side of the border. They were uprooted from their home against their will, forced to leave behind everything they were familiar with and start over. They were basically immigrants in their own home country (and I’m complaining about not feeling like I belong). Similarly, Syrian refugees today are facing analogous struggles, trying to find a safe place for their families.

Now back to the late 70’s/early 80’s, shortly after my parents got married, they got word of the “American Dream” and the potential to lead a better life in the United States. They packed their bags and migrated to America. They had two suitcases and $20 in their pockets. They dropped everything, including their jobs, families, friends (and probably their sense of belonging) and moved to the U.S.

Fast-forward another few years and out pops Nikhil, but as I was growing up, their sacrifice for a better life didn’t seem to pay off. I felt robbed of a normal childhood. My parents had tried their best to raise us so that we could belong somewhere, while also trying to achieve a sense of belonging for themselves. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, maybe my whole family has been a tribe of lost souls trying to find our place. The two generations of stories before me include plenty of moving around and starting over.

So what now? After college, I decided to spend a few months in India to learn more about my roots and connect with the culture on a more profound level. Moving away from home for the first time was important for me; I began to see the world through my own lens rather than that of the bullies. Over time, my lens enabled me to embrace my identity. I saw that both cultures had incredible things to offer, and I didn’t have to pick between the two.

After years of thorough & ongoing introspection, I’ve finally begun to realize how extremely privileged I am. I belong to the rich and colorful culture of India. I belong to the open-mindedness of America. I belong to the aesthetically beautiful and artistic elements of India. I belong to the athletic, go-getter drive of America. I carry the family values of Indians, and I believe in equality for all as an American. I’m fortunate to be exposed to two incredible nations, but also, living in the melting pot that is Los Angeles, I’ve been exposed to almost every culture.

Many immigrants have a difficult time adapting and belonging, and it’s only going to get worse. Syrian refugees are being met with closed doors at borders. The UK voted to leave the European Union, in part, to have more control over immigration policies. In the U.S., Obama’s immigration plan received a blow from the Supreme Court. And, most recently, President Elect Donald Trump winning his campaign has given closet racists a platform to feel justified and express their racism. Are the bullies still out there, but on a grander scale? I wonder where the immigrants will go. I wonder if they’ll be afforded the same opportunity as I have—to find my place.

Afterword: I wrote this piece several months ago but I wasn’t quite emotionally ready to put it out there. Over the past few months of continued introspection and more profound conversations, I realized that I was ready to update the post and share it with all of you. Meryl Streep recently used her wit to make it obvious that immigrants are important to our daily lives. But this piece is only partially about immigrants; it’s really about all of us, belonging, together. I try and make a conscious & deliberate effort to be my best self. I’m far from achieving my goals, but I’m grateful for the life I’ve been privileged to live and I treat everyone with utmost respect and love.

Over the past few months, I’ve taken notice that my sense of belonging has increased dramatically. Ironically, it has nothing to do with me conforming to society or what anyone else expects of me. Rather, I belong because I’ve become a more authentic version of myself. The naysayers don’t bother or rattle me anymore. Everyone is equally entitled to an opinion and I’ve grown a love for discussing important and relevant topics. It humbles me to be transparent and share all of this with you because hearing stuff from my peers has helped me overcome my own difficulties in the past. I have nothing but gratitude for those that have helped me through tough times, so I can only hope to pass that on to anyone else who may need it.

This world is our world. The journey we’re on is ours and no one else’s. For all intents and purposes, we decide the “legacy” we want to leave behind, and then we execute it. I know it sounds super idealistic, but we can all belong, together, as long as we continue to spread love, respect, and positivity. It's in our hands, let's do our part. Let’s have more open conversations and discussions. Let’s talk to the people who may not agree with us and find out why. Let’s become problem solvers, together. Thank you for your time, much LOVE.

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