The following is adapted from my new book, Generation Zero.
When I was in kindergarten, a boy asked me on the school bus, “What are you?”
The question honestly didn’t make sense to me. What was I? I was a kid, just like him.
He clarified, “Where are you from?”
Though the question still didn’t really make sense, I told him, “I’m from Flushing, Queens.”
“No,” he said. “You’re different.”
When you have a hyphenated identity in America, this is something you learn from a very early age: you are different. You have a foot in two different worlds, but you don’t fully belong to either one.
This dichotomous struggle hovered over my childhood, in ways seen and unseen. Though I did not fully comprehend it at the time, the way in which I navigated that fractured identity grew to define me. In sharing my story, I hope to help others put words to their own experience and to help those without a hyphenated identity to better understand this common experience.
The Confusion of an Identity Crisis
Confused by how I was “different,” I went home that night and did what so many kids do when they have questions: I asked Mom.
“What are we?” I asked.
“I’ve told you this already,” she replied. “Your heritage is Indian, and you’re an American. You’re both Indian and American: Indian-American.”
You might think that cleared everything up for me. Far from it.
The next day, I told the boy from the school bus—who was, of course, white—that I was Indian-American.
“So you’re Native American?” he asked. “Like you wear something on your head and speak a different language?”
Technically, that applied to Indian-Americans as well Native Americans, so maybe I was Native American? I went home and again asked my mom about it.
“Who’s asking you all these questions?” she demanded, going into protective mode. “Your teacher? I will call them right now!”
When I told her it was a boy, she immediately switched gears. “Boys? You can’t talk to boys.”
And that was the end of the conversation. I walked away without learning whether I was Indian, American, or Native American. All I learned was I wasn’t supposed to talk to boys.
Many people undergo an identity crisis at some point in their life, but for most, it doesn’t come at five years old. Yet this early-childhood experience of confusion and uncertainty about your identity is very common among those with a hyphenated identity in America.
Even if my mother had sat me down and had a long chat about what it meant to be Indian-American, I believe I still would have been confused. The very fact I needed to have this conversation at all was confusing. My Caucasian classmates had certainly never had such discussions with their parents.
So to me this is the first theme of a hyphenated identity: from an early age, you don’t know who you are with certainty. Your identity is something you must discover and build for yourself.
A Battle Between Self-Image and Others’ Perception
When many people think about the struggle of a hyphenated identity, they typically imagine it as a battle between the two sides of the hyphen: in my case, Indian vs. American. What I discovered as I tried to figure out my identity, was that the larger battle was between my self-image and others’ perception of me.
When you’re a kid, you’re a sponge, absorbing everything around you and learning how to exist in the world. It’s impossible for your self-image to not be influenced by others’ perceptions. Because my white classmates saw me as different, that’s how I began to feel.
This conflict between self-image and others’ perceptions also played out in my experiences as a girl in Indian culture. In South Asian culture, sons are typically valued more than daughters, because while sons carry on the family name and continue to live with their parents into adulthood, daughters take their husband’s last name and move in with his family. This results in boys and girls being treated very differently.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that girls are seen as fragile—something to be protected and sheltered. A great example is when I got my first period. I’d had basically no sex education at that point, so I didn’t know what was happening. I was convinced I had stomach cancer. At first, I stuffed tissue into my underwear and ignored it, hoping it would just go away.
After two days, I finally told my mom. “Mom, I’m dying.”
“What?” she asked in shock.
“I’m bleeding down there.”
Her eyes went really big and then really small. “Oh, so you’re bleeding down there,” she repeated, not sounding nearly as panicked as I thought the situation warranted. “You’re a woman now,” she explained. “The only boy you can talk to is your brother. If you talk, kiss, or touch any other boys, you’ll get pregnant.”
Obviously, I now know that you can’t get pregnant from simply talking to another boy, but at the time, I believed it. It made me feel fragile. I hadn’t felt that way before, but once again, others’ perceptions of me had leaked into my own self-image.
Becoming a Chameleon
We all have a basic evolutionary instinct to fit in, and this is something felt intently by those with a hyphenated identity. As a child of immigrants, you imitate everything. You imitate your parents, your classmates, and your teachers. You imitate everyone instead of trying to be yourself.
My identity was confusing, and nobody at school or home could tell me what I was. I grew up thinking that I was everything and everyone. So I became a chameleon. I changed my behavior and what I believed in, according to the people I was around.
At home, I was Indian. I spoke Punjabi, I believed in Waheguru, I ate North Indian food, and I didn’t talk to boys—only my brother. At school, I spoke English. I ate cafeteria pizza. I talked to boys and girls because they were in my classes. I pretended I was American, even if I didn’t feel like one.
I became a master of blending in. I was a skilled chameleon. From the outside, I was a good Indian girl at home and a proud, normal American kid at school. But inside, I felt like a misfit, an outsider looking into both the Indian and American cultures. I felt like I was hiding.
I continued to live these two different and distinct identities—Indian at home and American at school—throughout my childhood. But slowly, I was becoming something new—something that was neither fully Indian, nor fully American, but completely, 100 percent Sabreet Kang Rajeev.
The Gift Reaped from Struggle: Choose Your Own Identity
Having a hyphenated identity is difficult, especially as a child. It can be confusing and frustrating and isolating. But it can also be beautiful and freeing.
On one side, my South Asian identity was heavily filtered through the lens of being a girl and fragile, but as an American, I didn’t feel weak or fragile. And on the other side, my American identity was filtered through my physical appearance, but as an Indian, I didn’t look different from other Indians.
This is the gift of a hyphenated identity. Whatever you’re lacking in one identity, you can use the other one to overcome it.
Today, I’ve created my own blend of Indian and American. I’m assertive and outspoken, and when I got married, I chose to keep my maiden name (Kang) in addition to taking my husband’s last name. I don’t feel fragile, and I love how I look.
Having to reckon with my identity at a young age was a huge struggle, but it has shaped me and given me confidence. Now, I can say not only that I know who I am, but that I have created who I am.
For more insight into having a hyphenated identity in America, you can find Generation Zero on Amazon.
Sabreet Kang Rajeev is a first-generation Indian American of Sikh descent. Sabreet is a full-time social-science researcher and holds an MA in sociology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently completing her doctorate at the University of Baltimore.
Throughout her life, Sabreet experienced the beauty and struggle of being part of a blue-collar immigrant family, and she is driven to raise awareness and empathy for a minority group of Indian Americans who do not historically come from educational or economic privilege. Generation Zero is her first book.