From Embarrassment to Celebration: Acceptance of a Bicultural Identity During Diwali

“What’s that red dot on your mother’s head?” I answered this question more than a dozen times from acquaintances, friends and, at times, strangers.

“The red dot is a bindhi – it signifies she’s married,” I’d say in a quiet voice. Making this declaration aloud would lead to more questions about my Indian traditions, and as a teen in a small Texas town, I didn’t want my otherness to distract from assimilating into my American life. As much as I tried to squash my cultural identity, my peers were curious, often asking questions revolved around the practical — “Why are you vegetarian?” or “What’s a sari?” — to the more personal — “You go to a temple? Do you believe in more than one God? You don’t go to church?” My efforts to explain my differences became a place of ambivalence — I felt the texture of my other identity at home, speaking in my native tongue of Gujarati with my parents, eating roti and subji during dinner and gathering in the living room to play carrom, a traditional Indian board game. Mornings would smell of fresh masala chai while my parents played Bollywood tunes on the radio.

As soon as I exited our home, differences were crammed at the bottom of my backpack. I’d throw out the chutney sandwich my mother made for lunch and upgraded to a Snickers and a Coke. When friends stopped by the house, I’d disguise the smell of curry with Glade cinnamon air freshener and instruct my parents to speak English only. I’d never talk about my summer trips to India to visit family and friends or the leftover henna stained on my palms from an Indian wedding or mention Diwali, India’s annual religious celebration known as the “festival of lights.”

Thirty years later, my daughter’s experience with her bicultural identity pulses in a different direction. She not only claims her otherness, but flaunts it in a way foreign to my upbringing. In her lunch she is comfortable putting paneer in a small container while wrapping naan in foil to take to school. Old habits sometimes intervene and I casually ask, “Are you sure you want to take that to lunch?” My 10-year-old responds with confidence and says, “Yep, mom. It’s so good. Besides, lots of kids know about Indian food.” Her ability to claim her Indian identity doesn’t stop with the food she chooses to pack for lunch. Two years ago, her school decided to study India in her social studies class and my daughter volunteered to offer her version of her identity. She dressed in a salwar-kameez (traditional Indian clothing) and performed a dance in front of her classmates. The otherness for my daughter morphs into her backstory – she doesn’t separate her American identity from her Indian heritage.

My daughter can’t take sole credit for embracing her Indian identity. In the past decade, the United States government and leadership played a role in helping her claim her roots. In 2009, President Obama was the first to light the traditional diya(candle) to commemorate the beginning of Diwali. Since this time, Michelle Obama has brought Bollywood dance instructor, Nakul Dev Mahajan, to teach and choreograph Indian moves at the White House. Over the last few years, Obama has delivered a message on Diwali day. In 2014, he said, “For Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, lighting the lamp — the diya — is a chance to remember, even in the midst of darkness, that light will ultimately prevail.”

The awareness regarding Diwali continues in 2016. This year the U.S. Postal Service chose to commemorate the holiday with a Forever stamp. The stamp presents a small diya lamp in glittering gold background with the words Diwali in small letters. The cumulative impact of these gestures aren’t insignificant. It affirms the bicultural identity of not only my daughter, but of our collective heritage.

My daughter isn’t fearful of claiming her culture even if it’s different from the majority. She’s open to talking about what it means to have an Indian identity. She answers questions about where she comes and discusses celebrations like Diwali. For a bicultural child, the otherness slips away when their holiday is acknowledged in their place of residence or on a national platform. It’s a step toward educating those who aren’t familiar with certain traditions to learn about a culture different from their own. For the bicultural child, it means not feeling awkward about their otherness, and it fuels a willingness to have a dialogue about customs, culture and religion.

When I did a talk at my daughter’s school about India, I brought a set of “dots” to show to the class. I explained to her peers it’s an accepted practice to use bindhis as an accessory to compliment a traditional Indian dress — it isn’t always a sign of marriage. Several of her classmates raised their hands to ask if they could wear a bindhi, too, and one by one I passed the decorative dot stickers. They giggled and placed the dots on their forehead, while uttering the words, “This is so cool.”

I smiled, thinking back to my childhood, when the red dot was a place of embarrassment for me. But in 2016, for my daughter, it’s a reason to celebrate.

Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer and editor. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri. She is working on a memoir which explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook