Arcadia, My Ideological Home

by Shivani Mansharamani on March 13th

“How do you like it here?”

It’s one of the most common questions I’m asked as a foreigner studying abroad. Most people expect me to answer with a comparison to India. What surprises everyone is that I identify more with my new culture than the one in which I grew up.

As someone born into a modern, traditionalist mecca of diversity, it was quite disconcerting to be thrown into a school where most people sing Bollywood tunes and the norm is to pray every morning before class. My upbringing was shaped by my less-than-conventional parents who spoke only English in our home, played classical music and The Beatles, and watched Tom and Jerry and Bob the Builder with me. My father came from an orthodox Indian family whose staunch, dogmatic influence prompted him to seek more liberal, Western influences. My first language, unlike most children around me, was English. Only after methodical questioning by my first-grade teacher— a rather harrowing and tedious process for them— did I realize that Hindi was my second language and I was to study that until 10th grade.

Hey you, with your ear against the wall, waiting for someone to call out, would you touch me?

- “Hey You” by Pink Floyd

I found myself in conflict with my peers, unable to understand their interests. I felt an ideological disconnect with those who didn’t understand what it meant to not be religious. I never connected with traditions and social gatherings that emphasized the importance of community. My devout relatives expected these traditions— such as touching the feet of the elderly or wearing traditional, Indian clothing to festivals and family gatherings— to be followed and passed on to younger generations. But none of this resonated with me.

The Wall, one of my favorite concept albums by Pink Floyd, illuminates this discord: an individual who fails to identify with elements of society builds a mental wall, alienating himself from everyone else. In the process, he experiences feelings of isolation, and is unable to break down his wall and connect with those around him. I wanted to belong, and even tried to seek out entertainment that would deceive myself and others into believing that I was one of them. But as my contrasting ideas became more and more cemented into the bricks on my wall, the gulf widened between tradition and my bubble of rock n’ roll, The Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, Criminal Minds, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, American humor and slang. It wasn’t the presence of these American elements that widened the gulf, but the absence of Indian ones.

My room at Arcadia, with posters of my favourite bands and TV shows.

Eventually I had to accept that like my father, I gravitated toward a Western outlook on life. Before I was accepted to Arcadia, I had visited the beguiling West Coast-⎯ from the suave palm trees of Beverly Hills to Los Angeles, where the people are invitingly groovy⎯- and the elegant and dignified East Coast— from bustling and diverse New York City to the persevered grandeur of Boston. What stuck with me most was the strange sense of familiarity and belonging I felt, despite the obvious cultural difference.

After attending new student orientation at Arcadia, I realized that I most identified with American acceptance— that tolerance of people from different backgrounds. The individual was more important than the group mentality. Although India is a modern society with changing norms, its cultural traditions are immersed in collectivism. America is more liberal in terms of celebrating unique identities that do not necessarily fit the social norm.

Growing up, I was like a fish out of water in a group-oriented culture where it was impossible to be by oneself simply because the country is too geographically small for a person to have even a foot’s distance from someone else. Living with American roommates who value personal space resonated with me and liberated me, and was not unlike living with my parents at home. Being accepted for my own unique identity felt natural.

Exploring my own identity in America has been eye-opening. I love being part of such a diverse mix of American identities. It is all uncharted for me, but I feel more at home than I would ever have expected.