Palo Alto High School's Social Activism Publication

Xiaohan Li

Sorry I don’t own a sari

Reflecting on my lack of connection to my family's Bengali culture

May 23, 2022

In the depths of boredom in the COVID-19 lockdown summer 2020, I opened Duolingo. 

It was time — I was going to learn Bengali, my grandparents’ native language. I finally felt ready to embrace an aspect of the culture I wasn’t immersed in, and I had the time to do it. But by opening the app, I quickly found that the language was nowhere to be found. I took to the Internet, which, really, has everything. But I still found close to nothing. 

I reeled back from my computer. If the Internet couldn’t help me, who could? My father doesn’t speak the language, and my grandparents and I have a language gap that we’ve never quite been able to bridge. I was stuck, feeling distant from the culture that had been lost in the preceding generation. 

My dad’s parents immigrated to America from India two years before he was born. His parents brought their culture along, and formed a community of Bengali friends in New York, retaining their traditions the best they could. 

But, growing up in a nearly all-white New York suburb, my dad conformed completely. He chose Billy Joel over Bollywood, and New York style pizza over samosas. At 17, he was flying across the country to go to college, leaving any trace of Bengali culture behind.

As a child, I was raised without any real concept of being “Indian.” To this day, I couldn’t tell you what Diwali is celebrating or how to tie a sari. 

As a child, I was raised without any real concept of being “Indian.” To this day, I couldn’t tell you what Diwali is celebrating or how to tie a sari.

I used to feel a certain pride in telling people these things, almost proud of my lack of culture. If I don’t know about Indian traditions, it must mean I totally fit in, right?

At one point, though, I realized that there was a problem with this — I am Indian, or half, at least. When people meet me, that’s one of the first things that they learn about me — it’s obvious. No, it hasn’t hugely impacted my life, but it’s true, and I think it should matter. 

Frankly, it was embarrassing that when my friend asked me if I was worried about the COVID-19 outbreak in India, I had to tell her I hadn’t really thought of it as something connected to me.

The truth is, I don’t know how to get that culture back. Bengali culture is such a specific culture and language that there just aren’t the tools available. 

Now, I’m left in a difficult spot. How do I get any culture  — clothes, language, food, traditions  — back when there’s no one to guide me? And if I’m not able to, how do I learn to be proud of my heritage anyway?

To help guide me through these questions, I turned to one of my oldest friends, Shaivi Sanchorawala. The two of us met in our kindergarten class and grew up together, so I’ve always known her family and home inside and out. Shaivi grew up closely connected to her own Indian culture, speaking Gujarati as her first language and visiting India every year. 

“By just being present and being there physically in India, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my culture throughout my childhood upbringing,” she said. “I had a nanny who only spoke Gujarati and I grew up going to the temple on the weekends. I grew up eating Indian food, and participating in the love of the traditions.”

I’ve always had admiration for Shaivi’s connection to her culture, and her unwavering confidence in expressing it. However, she too has struggled with balancing retaining her culture with being an American teenager, she said. 

“I think like living in a place where there’s so many different cultures, it’s really easy to get lost, not only in other cultures, but just lose your own,” Shaivi said. 

Still, she said that her cultural connection has helped shape her life by providing her with a stable community she can rely on and relate to in ways she can’t to other people. She gave some advice for reconnecting to lost culture.

“The first step would be to just reach out to family and start to rebuild those connections, because those are the connections that are going to connect you back to your culture and your roots and your traditions,” she said.

After talking to Shaivi, I can’t say that I know perfectly what path to follow, but I feel like I have more of a sense of how to approach the problem, and more motivation to do so. Once I’m able to find these reconnections, I’ll not only be more in touch with my family and culture, but my own identity as well.

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