Third Culture

Every time I visit India, I am reminded of the feelings, smells, and sounds which make up my perception of my parents’ childhood home: waking up to the sound of the street vendors shouting to sell vegetables and rushing out of bed to have piping hot chai with my grandparents; hearing the loud and bustling traffic of Hyderabad and the sound of the soft but steady rhythm of the ceiling fan.

However, these memories belong to my parents, and I barely get a taste of them during the few weeks of my visits. 

Despite the fact that India is my parents’ home, I feel as though I am a foreigner not only there, but also in the US. When crossing the busy streets of Hyderabad, my mom will instinctively grab my hand, as if I have suddenly returned to being a clueless four-year-old. And while I am in India, I’m forced to carry around bottled water everywhere I go because my body is not accustomed to the water my grandparents drink. 

And it isn’t much different back in the US. People at school will discuss their parents’ craze for the band Queen, but until a few years ago, I had no clue what this “Queen” was. I only knew of my parents’ favorite Hindi film singer: Kishore Kumar. When my first baby tooth fell out, my parents were confused as to why I was demanding money from some “Tooth Fairy”, but when Rakhi (a Hindu Holiday) comes around, I gladly accept large amounts of money and gifts from my brother. 

These minor differences soon became more and more prominent as the years went on, and because of that, I had a growing fear of the idea of feeling separate from others. I hated that my family was different than those of my friends in New Jersey, but also from my relatives in India. But now I’ve come to realize that despite the fact that I may feel like an outsider in these two countries, I have something that a lot of people from either of these places will never have: the experience of what is known as “Third Culture”. 

“Third Culture” is not the idea of being foreign and separated to what exists around you, but rather is the idea of being immersed in two deeply contrasting cultures and creating your own mix of the two. When my family and I learned how to connect the two rather than to point out the differences, we were able to create traditions of our own that encapsulate both cultures. 

Thanksgiving with my cousins in Chicago is one of my favorite instances of third culture. Instead of a traditional American turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, we have mutton biryani, paneer, and tandoori chicken. Yet, we dress up in simple American clothing while listening to my cousin’s mixed playlist of obscure Western rap and Bollywood music from our Google Home speaker. We then go around the table saying something we are thankful for, usually involving one of the parents cheesily quoting an Urdu poem and the kids shaking our heads and laughing in response.

This is my third culture. It may be completely different from another Indian American kid, but that’s the beauty of it. It differs from person to person. You are able to learn from one another, allowing you to broaden your own third culture. If it weren’t for my initial disappointment for my inability to relate to my relatives and friends, I would have never even considered what it might be like to create something so unique with my family.

Naina Waghray is a jersey girl and junior in Montgomery High School. She loves to sing. Her other passion is running that she enjoys with her buddies at school all through the year in the central Jersey countryside.

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