Sapna is a twenty year old Indian woman from Arlington, Virginia. Her parents immigrated to the United States in 1994 while her mother was pregnant with her and her twin sister. Sapna is finishing her second-to-last semester in college. This interview highlights Sapna’s connection with Indian culture as a second generation immigrant in the United States. It also provides information on how certain major historical events, such as 9/11, impact particular immigrant communities.
Reasons for Migrating to the United States
Sapna's parents are from Kerala, India. Her parents are well educated, but still experienced hard times in Kerala because both of their families came from humble origins. Sapna's family felt that they wanted their children to have a different upbringing than they did, and her father felt that his Aeronautical Engineering degree would be more competitive in the United States. They moved to Arlington, Virginia in 1994 and have been living there since then.
School and Childhood Experiences
Sapna learned English quickly and excelled in Math and Science, earning her many academic awards throughout her school career. Sapna emphasizes that since her parents were well educated and wanted the best for her, she and her sister did well in school and both of them were eventually awarded scholarships to prestigious colleges in the Northeast. She was vice president of her school's branch of the National Honor Society, head of the Debate team, and captain of the soccer team. However, Sapna said that she also experienced discrimination as a student in her school.
Negative Experiences in the U.S.
Sapna highlights the impact that 9/11 had in increasing the discrimination that she and her family experienced.
It was September 2001 when she entered the first grade. Although the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with India, Sapna experienced hatred from other students. She still remembers a child in her first-grade class who said to her, “my dad says your dad is a terrorist.” Sapna comments that many other children and their families from the Middle East or South Asia were unfair targets after an act of terror unrelated to them. Sapna says that all throughout her childhood she remembers her parents being treated differently after 9/11. She remembers how her family received negative treatment from wait staff, people at the auto shop, and even random people they encountered in daily life. Sapna says that she is thankful that no one in her family ever experienced violence or serious threats, but the micro-aggressions bothered her.
Sapna also comments that many children in her school would assume that she and her family are Muslims. She remembers that when they saw her mother, who had a bindi on her forehead, dropping her and her sister off at school, many of her classmates would ask, “Why does your mom have that dot on her head? I thought you were Muslim.”
Connection to Indian Culture
Sapna had a hard time struggling to balance her family's Indian culture with the wider American culture within which she lived. Her parents raised her with very strict rules -- homework, after-school activities, and housework above all -- leaving her little time for friends and play. While this may have been okay for her when she was young, as she got into high school, the strict upbringing began to create a rift in her relationship with her parents.
In some parts of Indian culture, arranged marriages are still practiced. This has become the current point of contention between Sapna and her parents. She is expected to graduate college in the spring, and by the time she is done with school, her parents are supposed to have a marriage set up for both her and her sister. Due to her growing up in American culture, she is against this:
"You know, my sister is actually way more conservative than me, and even she isn't okay with the arranged marriage. It's just kind of, like, outdated to me. In 2015, and in America, I should be able to choose my own life. My parents really don't get that, and that's really hard. I'm kind of just treading water right now, because, you know, they're paying for my school and everything and, like, I obviously love them. But it's really hard. It sucks actually [laughs]. It sucks a lot. I wish they would see my perspective on it. Whenever I tell them that they don't do arranged marriages in America, they say, 'well, we still do in India'. Sometimes I feel like staying in college forever, just to avoid that."
Although she struggles with that aspect of her culture, Sapna still says that she would like to keep her Indian roots. She loves Indian language, religion, and culture.
"I mean, like... At the end of the day, it's something really beautiful. It's special to me. You can't just abandon your culture all together. That just seems wrong. It's part of who you are.”
Integrating into U.S. Culture and English Acquisition
Sapna comments that her parents only speak to them in Malayalam at home even though they can speak English well. She says that while this was good for retaining Indian culture, it was also an obstacle for her in school:
“I got to school, it was weird because I felt like an outsider. All of the kids in my class were playing and stuff, and I barely knew any English. ... I understand now that my parents wanted me to understand our culture and everything, and now I appreciate that, but it was hard. Kids made fun of my sister and me, you know? It was hard."
Occupational and Economic Mobility
Finishing her second-to-last semester in college, Sapna feels very lucky. She acknowledges her parents' financial ability to afford paying for her and her sister to go to college and that this may not be the case for other families. She understands that she and her sister have the opportunity for upward mobility, both economically and socially.
"My family has been really lucky. I mean, it hasn't been easy, but we've been lucky. I mean, my parents could afford for me to go to college and stuff. I know kids who can't do that. People like to think that it's all about you as a person, like your character. Like if you don't succeed, it's because you didn't try hard enough or you weren't good enough. I don't think that's true. If people only knew the struggle that immigrants go through in this country, they would know that's not true."
Thoughts About the U.S. Today
Sapna thinks that things are different today.
"I think that with time things will get better for minorities. As long as we try to change the conversation, things will definitely get better. I'm optimistic. I don't think my kids will face so much prejudice and discrimination than I did when I was growing up.”