Indian American Tara Mahadevan was born and raised in Ladue, MO. She was reared in the Hindu tradition and was active in the youth group of her temple, but found it difficult to deal with identifying as both Indian and American. After attending college in Chicago and New York, the 24 year-old now lives back in the area and works as a freelance writer. Erin Williams talked with Tara about finding her voice, how being Indian is more than just ‘cool,’ and why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Here is an excerpt:
On struggling with being both Indian and American - I think I wasn’t born in India, and I never actually lived there. Constantly when I was younger, my family and my cousins would call me “too American,” which I guess had negative connotations. I mean, I don’t speak Hindi. If we got together with family they would make jokes in Hindi that I didn’t understand. I just felt left out.
That’s what made it harder. I didn’t have anybody who understood me or who I could relate to on that level. I never really thought I was Indian or anything until middle school. I didn’t even see color, really, which I think is the most interesting now, because I feel like everything revolves around race and religion and all that.
On fitting into several boxes - I’m very light-skinned, and South Indians are very dark. Sometimes even my facial characteristics – people think I’m Mexican or Latina. I’ve been called Hawaiian, Afghani, Lebanese, Colombian. I just say I’m Indian. They say ‘You’re full Indian? And I say yes.
On how others perceive her culture - ‘I feel like people think Eastern cultures are just ‘cool.’ I just feel like a lot of people - not that they take it for granted – but they just misunderstand it and don’t take the time to understand it, even as they appropriate and pick and take what they want from my culture or from other Eastern cultures. They don’t take the time to understand what they’re taking.’
I have my nose pierced, but my piercing is cultural. The right side is South Indian – which I am – and north Indians typically get their left nostril pierced. When I was three months old I got my ears pierced. Those are cultural things, but getting your cartilage pierced, getting your eyebrow pierced, those are all aesthetic things. That doesn’t make me as angry, I just find it kind of funny. People are gonna take what they want, but I just think it that loses its importance and value when you don’t understand the context from where it comes from.