Four different takes
Four students of different origins discuss their perspectives on identity
Additional reporting by Hannah Lee
Just minutes before the MVHS Bhangra team participated in its annual tradition of performing in the Indo-American Student Association (IASA)’s annual show, Spotlite on India, junior Madhav Danturthi anxiously waited backstage in his elegant blue kurta and a microphone in his hand. As he rehearsed his lines before his performance, he could sense the excitement in the crowded theater in front of him. When he finally stepped on stage, the anticipation built as the crowd chanted his name, and at that moment he knew that many members in the audience were there to represent their Indian heritage — one that he, too, valued deeply. With that, Danturthi gripped the microphone, waited for the applause to die down and began a performance that meant more than just singing, but rather the story of his cultural journey.
“Culture has influenced the way I live life quite a lot,” Danturthi said. “For example, most of my extracurricular life circulates around Indian art forms, especially singing. My ancestral culture from India mainly shapes the way my life rotates and also makes an impact on the decisions I take, whether it be in personal life or in academic life.”
Danturthi’s connection to Indian classical music was fostered from a young age. According to Danturthi, he wanted to stay connected with the culture that shaped his family. His passion for music was due to a relentless pursuit to understand what it was like to be a true Indian while still living in America.
In addition to his contribution to Spotlite, Danturthi is a treasurer for the IASA, a club that gives Indian Americans an opportunity to interact with Indian culture. Furthermore, Danturthi participates in many cultural events across America as the co-founder of the non-profit organization Swaravedika. He holds concerts to raise money for underprivileged children in India, as well as those in America.
“The biggest thing I do to stay connected is give back to the homeland,” Danthuri said. “[Artists] generally realize that there is an industry out there where they can use their talents to make money. However, I felt that being an Indian [artist], it was only right to do something [for] India.”
Danturthi’s strong ties with his culture help him in his everyday life and makes him appreciate it on a deeper level.
“Staying connected to my homeland is a choice rather than an obligation,” Danturthi said. “At first, [I believed that] being raised in the U.S. will cause anyone to have a slight ignorance to their ancestral culture and ideologies. [However, once] I realized that each culture has a certain beauty to it, attaining the knowledge of the beauty [of my ancestral culture] kept me connected to my it.”
When the lunch bell rings, junior Sayalee Mylavarapu rushes out to share inside jokes with her friends and eat Indian food, such as Idli, together. Mylavarapu and her friends bond over their shared Indian culture, occasionally attending Indian events both in and out of school. However, she didn’t always celebrate her ethnic background.
Prior to living in Cupertino, Mylavarapu lived in the small town of Burlington, Mass. In contrast with the predominantly Asian community at MVHS, Mylavarapu grew up as a part of the minority in a mainly white neighborhood.
“There were a good amount of Indian people considering it was in the East Coast rather than here. But almost all of my neighbors were [Caucasian],” Mylavarapu said. “In my classes, I was the only Indian kid. Here, I have only one or two white kids in my class.”
Due to this, Mylavarapu always felt self-conscious growing up. Surrounded by students of Caucasian ethnic background, Mylavarapu realized that there were differences separating her from her classmates.
“Sometimes we had to do these presentations where our parents would come or we would have to give a story about our lives and mine would be really different from a lot of people who lived there,” Mylavarapu said. “Even if they weren’t from America, they still looked [Caucasian] and their experiences were different than mine.”
Mylavarapu felt the dissimilarities even more when other people defined her by common stereotypes. In fact, Mylavarapu recalls an instance when she was unfairly accused by her teacher because of the misconceptions about Indian people.
“My mom came to class one time and she did henna for everyone,” Mylavarapu said. “The next day someone dragged in dirt from outside and my teacher yelled at me saying that [the dirt] was henna just because I’m Indian.”
Stereotypes like these made it harder for Mylavarapu to make friends at her school. She felt that people judged her before they even got to know her because of the oversimplified images of Indian people that they were accustomed to.
“Maybe it was just because of my personality, but a lot of the times I felt like it was because I was Indian,” Mylavarapu said.
In contrast, Mylavarapu feels much more comfortable and safe in Cupertino. With many classmates and friends who share her culture and ethnic background, Mylavarapu has embraced her identity as an Indian.
“Here, I represent the majority so I feel like I am safe in the sense that there are more people like me,” Mylavarapu said. “Even if people feel a certain way about me because I’m Indian, they are scared to say something [about my race] because they are hurting the majority of the people at MVHS [when they make racist Indian comments].”
Mylavarapu is grateful for this environment in which different cultures are embraced. However, while Asian representation is more prominent in some areas than others, she hopes that societies everywhere can have open minds towards people of all ethnic backgrounds.
“There are a lot of people who are like, ‘Asians are like this, this and this, and they can’t be anything outside of this box,’” Mylavarapu said. “If that box that people have could go away, that would be nice. If we could incorporate things from [Asian] culture into regular American culture, that would be even better.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Lee
When junior Rohit Sonawane talks about fantasy football or the latest updates in his life with friends, he seems like a typical American teenager. While he has assimilated into the culture of Cupertino, he often recalls his past experiences living in his home country of India in a sentimental way. His past in India is one that Sonawane believes has shaped his life.
“The thing I miss most about home is the atmosphere and character present there,” Sonawane said. “It brings back a nostalgic feeling of childhood and is what makes trips back there enjoyable.”
However, according to Sonawane, the predominantly Asian society in Cupertino partially represents what he misses back home. The cultures celebrated by his peers are ones that he enjoyed back when he was in India, such as traditional Indian holidays like Diwali. In addition, people in the community share many of the same values.
“There are many ways in which Asians are represented,” Sonawane said. “First, we are represented by our work ethic, with many CEOs, Congress members and other leaders in general being Asian. As a result, we are characterized as being focused on education. We are also represented culturally, with many Asian restaurants, holidays and festivals being held across the country.”
Despite these similarities, Sonawane notes that one of the biggest differences to adjust to was the school system. While India focused more on individual work and one final assessment to determine grades, Sonawane noticed that the American education system places greater emphasis on group work and in-class participation.
When it comes down to representation, Sonawane believes that Cupertino as a whole is able to showcase people of many different backgrounds because it embraces cultural and ethnic diversity. In fact, Sonawane explained that people from India, including himself, choose to move to Cupertino because of the open and accepting atmosphere that allows them to adjust more easily to American culture and society.
“It feels good because I feel like I’m part of a community that shares parts of my belief, morals and ideas, in a completely different country,” Sonawane said. “It essentially makes me feel like I am back in India.”
When sophomore Alexandra Sze saw the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast, she did not relate with the cultural aspect of the movie. However, she did feel a sense of fulfillment seeing people who had a similar appearance to her.
Sze has lived in the Bay Area her entire life. While her father is of Chinese descent, he also grew up in Cupertino, attending Kennedy MS as well as MVHS. Because he labeled himself as an American, Sze felt she needed to classify herself as one too. Her mother, on the other hand, immigrated to America from Korea when she was six years old. Despite the fact that she was born in a different country, she also labels herself an American.
“The way I have been raised and the way my [parents] have been raised made me consider myself more American because [my parents] haven’t raised me learning a different language,” Sze said. “I guess I have grown up with the stereotypical American kids watching the shows that they watched and wearing all the clothes that they wore.”
Despite relating more to her identity as an American than her parents’ background in China and Korea, Sze still understands the importance of Asian representation in the entertainment industry.
“There’s a total lack in media or any entertainment business of Asian representation,” Sze said. “If you look at movies and TV shows, I can barely name any Asian lead roles. That really affects kids growing up because if they don’t have representation that they need, they’re not going to be as motivated or influenced to pursue their dreams in the entertainment field.”
Sze explained how there is a lack of Asian representation not just in the media and entertainment industries, but also in the modeling industry. When she shops, she has noticed that many stores only use white models to promote their clothing.
“If you look at Brandy Melville or any other clothing store as an example, there’s one Asian model out of how many white models,” Sze said. “The ratio is like 30 to one. It’s insane, and no one seems to focus on that. People ignore the fact that Asian people need to be represented too.”
The lack of Asian representation at the mall can cause people of color, like Sze, to see themselves as not good enough for society. Having more diverse models showcased at the everyday stores people go to can increase people’s self-esteem.
In addition, she observes how society perceives Asians through stereotypes, which influences the lack of Asians in a variety of industries. These stereotypes will often affect the path the children will choose to go to.
“How are [Asian] kids going to feel empowered if all that they can think about becoming is engineers because that is the stereotypical opinion?” Sze said. “People only focus on certain races, but Asian people are a huge part of America’s culture and society, yet they are completely ignored.”