Since coming to USC, I’ve had to make difficult choices about which organizations to get involved in. As someone who, both in high school and college, tends to sign up for anything and everything that catches my eye, there has certainly been a learning curve in deciding what to prioritize. Consequently, I haven’t gotten the chance to be as involved in the South Asian or Indian cultural organizations on campus as I had hoped, despite previously assuming these cultural organizations would play a significant role in my college experience.
I have always been connected to my Indian heritage, but not in the same way as some of my peers. Growing up in the Bay Area, there was never a shortage of Indian restaurants, Indian people or movie theaters playing Bollywood movies. My parents were very intentional in preserving our cultural roots while I was growing up. For example, we threw Diwali parties and I had a wardrobe full of Indian clothes. But unlike a lot of my classmates here at USC who also grew up in the Bay Area, I attended a school that was predominantly white. I spent half of my school years living in Palo Alto, not considered one of the many Asian “hubs” housed in the Bay Area. Unlike schools in the Bay, New Jersey or even parts of Los Angeles, we didn’t have sweet 16 parties where everyone, Indian or otherwise, wore sarees and lenghas. I didn’t have an Indian club at my school that put on a huge culture show and not everyone in my class was a talented Bollywood dancer.
South Asian culture was entrenched in their school life in a way that it wasn’t in mine. That might explain why I felt a disconnect when I came to USC — I was used to keeping my cultural heritage separate from my school, even if both were incredibly important to me.
When I think about what anchored me most to my “Indianness,” it would be my experience doing Indian classical singing. From second grade to my senior year of high school, I spent every Saturday morning driving 30 minutes to San Jose to be trained in Hindustani classical music. Those three hours of rigorous class, supplemented by competitions, recitals and practice, made me feel closer to India than anything else I had experienced. I was taught how to greet elders, pronounce Hindi and learned Sanskrit words properly as well as the stories and myths behind the songs that we were taught. I immediately felt a connection with family members and friends who had spent their childhood learning classical music or picking up old Bollywood songs. As I got older, I began to recognize differences between Indian and American cultural values, contrasting the educational styles and priorities of the two systems. Apart from the cultural aspects, singing taught me discipline, perseverance and commitment — probably more so than anything else in my life to date. It became my most important extracurricular activity, though it still remained somewhat separate from the rest of my life. Many of my friends didn’t know that I studied Indian classical singing so seriously, and only a few have heard me sing.
Over the last few years, I’ve considered whether I should be doing more by getting involved in cultural student organizations. My friends at other schools have found their homes on campus in the South Asian community, and I wonder if I am doing something wrong.
Through my experiences on and off campus, I’ve realized that my connection to my culture is shaped by choices that I get to make. Anyone who knows me knows that I love my Indian culture and it is an important part of who I am. I am allowed to appreciate my culture and feel connected to it in ways that feel right for me, whether it be through enjoying an Indian meal with my South Asian friends, bonding over Bollywood movies or getting dressed up in a lengha once in a while.
I may not be the one dancing on the stage to Hindi songs, but I certainly appreciate seeing them on the screen, and understand what they mean to my identity.
Nayanika Kapoor is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political economy. Her column, “In-Transit,” runs every other Friday.