I’ve known Akash Raje for three years. We lived in the same first year dorm at the University of Virginia. For at least the first few weeks of school, we were part of the same sparse collective of nervous 18 year olds, bound only by our mutual fear of eating alone. Even in this throng of kids slowly workshopping their college personalities and working new colloquialisms into their vocabulary, Akash looked comfortable. A brown boy with a large pair of headphones draped around his neck, an easy smile and an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop. He personified the casual and cool personality that the rest of us were still working hard to cultivate.
Akash was born in Detroit, Mich. in 1997 to Kshitija and Salil, who came to the United States from Mumbai, India in 1987 and 1991, respectively. They arrived at different times, but both with the explicit intention of establishing a solid foundation for their eventual children and the families they left behind. Though both had been living in Mumbai just prior to immigrating, they did not meet until a mutual friend arranged their introduction, kicking off a short romance followed by marriage in 1995, and, subsequently, Akash.
Akash has visited the family his parents left behind in India four times in his life. The first trip, at 3 years old, is just a vague assemblage of sights, sounds and smells, warmed by the natural optimism of youth. The second time, at 8 years old, is much more firmly embedded in his memory. It annoyed him. He was brought along to be introduced to family members who had heard tell of their American cousin but had never known him. However, even in the wash of love from wave after wave of extended family, young Akash wanted nothing more than to go home to Michigan. He arrived in Mumbai in the middle of monsoon season to scores of family members speaking Marathi: his family language; one that he understood but didn’t like to speak. In fact, he made a concerted effort to speak English.
"I knew the language, but I wasn't confident in speaking, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t even make an effort because I wanted to be more American,” Akash said.
The entire trip had the same embarrassing feel as a mother planting a wet kiss on the cheek of her child in front of his friends. Akash’s indelible Indian heritage was a constant source of embarrassment in the states. The sense of exasperation when his mother and father drew looks speaking Marathi in public was multiplied tenfold when surrounded by his family members in his parent’s homeland. There, it was impossible to shy away from the overt markers of his Indian heritage.