Assimilation. The first time I heard the word, my fifth-grade teacher was at the front of the classroom scribbling vocabulary onto the chalkboard for our upcoming spelling test. At the time, we defined it in the context of Jim Crow America and as having a strictly pejorative connotation. In fact, if you go back and find my dusty composition notebook, it would probably tell you that to assimilate is “to become white.”
Five years later, my definition is surprisingly similar, although of course I’ve come to understand that assimilation is still a powerful force in shaping modern society and even many aspects of my own life. And while I have come to be proud and accepting of my Indian heritage, the decision to be something other than just “American” was a deeply personal struggle. “Assimilation” has consistently taught me that if I want to be successful, I can no longer be Akhil Rajan.
Before coming to Andover, the pinnacle of white, upper-class American society and a place far (in many ways) from my hometown, I swore I would never give in to the pressure to assimilate. My name, in particular, was important to me; no matter how “weird” and “foreign,” Akhil would always be my name.
But soon after my arrival, Akhil (pronounced Uk-hil), became Akhil (pronounced Ah-keel or Ah-kul). It was a reflection of a much deeper, subconscious desire to distance myself from my Indian heritage.
When people asked me what Diwali was, I would shrug my shoulders and mumble something about it being a festival of light. For the Diwali celebration itself, I wore jeans and a t-shirt, leaving my kurta pyjama — a traditional South Asian garment — hanging in my cupboard. When friends corrected me on the way I was saying “Raagini,” I played along.
When people asked me what ethnicity I was, I would shed the hyphen and insist “American” — a perversion of the truth. I was disconnecting from my Indian heritage.
It was especially hard for me to watch as prominent Indian Americans and role models of mine anglicized their names and became devout Christians, rejecting the Hindu tradition into which they were born. Nimrata Randhawa, Governor of South Carolina, became Nikki Haley. Piyush Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, is now Bobby Jindal. The two prime examples of “diversity” in the Republican Party were subliminally telling me that, if I wanted to become a valuable part of America, I would have to whitewash myself.
These messages have become increasingly more pronounced and direct. Last year, I found a beaming Bobby Jindal on the CNN homepage, lambasting immigrants for their refusal to assimilate into American society. The one person in politics that looked like me was telling me that he did not want to be like me — and that I should not want to either.
The reality is that, while I am an American, I am Indian as well. Because I am a first-generation American, I do have a different perception of and experience in American culture and society. But simply because it differs from the majority experience of white America does not make it wrong or something I should conceal. America is a country built upon values that have been molded by the ideals and values of generations of immigrants. Their values are American values, and, even though they may not have had ancestors on the Mayflower, they are still as American as anyone else in this country.
_Akhil Rajan is a two-year Lower from Chicago, IL._