As a first generation American, it was hard for me adapting to the American way of life. Growing up, I mispronounced words because my parents have very thick accents. I wore strange clothes, tucked in my shirt, never knew how to play baseball or who the Beatles were until high school. I didn’t understand common idiomatic phrases, like pulling some one’s leg or knocking some-one’s socks off. During my grade school days, I found ways to immerse myself into the student body by putting myself out there. I joined clubs and sports that I had the least clue about. It took me a few years to find the ones I liked, but I eventually fell in love with track and field. I would spend countless nights watching videos of Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner tearing up the track. There came a point where I gave up being vegetarian just so I could get faster and stronger. It amazes me how much I changed throughout high school. But once I graduated, I felt like I had finally adjusted to living like an American. At the same time, I had lost touch with my Indian culture, my heritage, my identity.
My freshman year at Cornell, I joined the track team and the majority of the new friends I made were white, Hispanic or black. It took me a little while to realize that I had completely abandoned my roots. My confirmation came in late October of last year, when I attended Society for India’s annual Diwali Show. I remember sitting in the back of Bailey Hall, admiring every act, recognizing a few old Bollywood songs and wishing I was up there. After the show, I was incredibly annoyed with myself — not because I had committed myself to the track team, but because I felt I had completely lost touch with heritage. I already stuck out like a sore thumb in my friend circles, but now I felt that I couldn’t even fit in with the Indian community here at Cornell. It was then when I felt a switch go off. I wanted to make that change.
The group that caught my eye during the Diwali Show was Cornell Bhangra. I emailed the president of the team right after the show asking about tryouts. All I got back was a three word response. COME TO PAO! So I went to Pao Bhangra (an experience every Cornellian should have). And this time, I was could barely keep myself in my front row seat. I became more intent on trying out for this team, even willing to give up track and field. As I watched a couple of dancers fly through the air, I thought to myself ‘hey, I can jump too!’
Trying out for Bhangra has been one of the best decisions I have made at Cornell Being on the team has allowed me to branch out and meet other South Asian students. My involvement and role in the Indian community, as a result, increased significantly. Currently, I am on the executive board for Society for India, the student group that hosts the annual Diwali Show. I am still astounded by how I was able to go from being anonymous in the Indian community to dancing for one of the best South Asian dance teams on campus and serving on the board for SI. My YouTube recommended videos are now filled with Bollywood music videos and Bhangra performances.
I am but one of many individuals who have recovered, discovered or chanced upon their own South Asian heritage while at Cornell. The South Asian community here is home to several different cultural groups, three competitive dance teams and even a Hindi a capella group. We’re fortunate enough to have the support of the Asian and Asian-American Center and the South Asia Program as well as the support of a strong alumni network. And all of this has made it possible for someone like me to find something meaningful in my Indian heritage and forge my own identity at Cornell. Over 25,000 students, parents, and faculty have seen our show over the years at Cornell and I can only imagine how many students like me have sat in those seats, smiling throughout the show and tapping their foot along to the beat. Who knows — you might be one writing this article next year.
Original Author: Pavan Kottamasu