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  • Writer's pictureVaishali A. Patel


Updated: May 3, 2021

When I was 16 years old, I came to America. We moved here for good. Many years since, there are distinct memories I carry with me about the first time I landed in the United States:

1. The peculiar smell of the air freshener in the bathrooms

2. The first time I tried cheddar cheese

3. How clean everything looked

A somewhat surreal experience, it felt much like I was transported to a movie set in downtown Los Angeles, complete with bright lights and people who actually followed the traffic rules. There was obvious order, and yet it all seemed so odd and out of the ordinary for me. In the larger sense, it lacked the familiarity and intimacy of belonging to a place. I no longer felt like I belonged where I was.

Our memories are linked with our senses. What we smell, taste, see, hear and touch are known to be triggers for embedding events into our long term memories.  This means I will probably never forget the smell of that cheese!

If you came to the United States as an immigrant, I am sure you can identify moments such as these that struck you so strongly, they will remain with you forever.

On my journey here, I discovered I had a deep desire to be part of this wonderful, lovely-smelling, clean, fancy kind of world.  I believed in order to do so, that it was necessary for me to put behind me all of what I was in my India life. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to blend in. Be part of the crowd. I had to quit being me in order to be “American.” It took me over 20 years to realize that I don’t have to give up one in order to be part of and love the other. As it turns out….I LOVE being an Indian American.

I wish I had known then what I know now about how to assimilate myself into a new culture.  So if it can help you or someone you know, I will share my experience and any nuggets of so-called wisdom that I have gleaned.

1. Be who you are.  You don’t have to change who you are in order to fit in or to be liked by everyone who is already here and assimilated. They may stare at you for the way you look (and most likely they will!) or the way you are dressed (yep!  that too) or the food you eat (sometimes you’ll feel like you came from Mars), but know that it is not a negative judgment. For most people, you are their first introduction to Indian culture. They may not have seen others like you or smelled your yummy spices, tasted your unusual food. Most likely any attention you draw comes from pure, innocent curiosity.  It is not meant to imply one is better than another. Honor and value your authentic self. When others see you valuing your own heritage, they will too.

2. Allow others to be who they are 

Their values and culture are unique for them. They may not fit into your conditioning of what is right and what is wrong. So, just as you hope to be received and accepted by them, give them the same favor and don’t judge them either. Berating and judging them or putting them and their culture on a pedestal are two sides of the same coin.  Neither is productive. Keep in mind that none of your interactions are a competition.  You are you.  They are they.

3. Keep an open mind and keep learning 

You are in a new place. Local customs may be unfamiliar to you, you may even be without a guide, and the tendency will be to cling even more tightly to the customs you hold dear from your homeland.  So just be gentle with yourself. Be brave and ask questions.  Even the wisest of people realize that no one can know everything. Everyone has to learn somethings sometime. Observing and asking are great ways to expand what you know.  When you are open and accepting of others, the journey is much easier for you.  Remember, you think much more about how you look to others than they are actually thinking or looking at you!

Had I known these things early on, I would not have been so insecure about walking around in public wearing my Indian clothes or eating my daal bhaat and bataka nu shaak during lunch at an American high school. All things happen for the reason to teach us and to make us stronger.

And for all my struggle, as strange as it sounds, a really strong memory remains: that smell of the air freshener in the airport bathroom. My very first impression of the United States: pleasant and clean!

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