The American Cousin
Finding a comfortable space as a second generation student

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.

Akash in his room at the University of Virginia

Visiting again four years later at 12 years old, the discomfort remained. Far from the home India should have been, it was an inconvenience. It was a necessary pit stop to appease his parent’s sentimentality and his extended family’s seemingly inexplicable yearning to see him.

This discomfort, even while surrounded by blood relatives who cared for him as though he had lived his entire life amongst them, is paramount to understanding the first generation American’s hybrid identity. At eight or 12 years old, to willingly “other” oneself is dangerous. This is especially true for a boy whose family, language and customs do not resemble those of his peers. Akash and young people like him aren’t one thing or the other, but rather a continual balancing act between finding a comfortable place in American spaces while also maintaining their parents’ cultural identity, inherently at odds with it.

It took eight years for Akash to return to India of his own volition. He was 20 years old and two years into his education at the University of Virginia. The university in Charlottesville dominates the town as a contemporary tribute to the aesthetic ideals of the gleaming South.

Broadly stated, the University is nearly 60 percent white, and almost half of the student body comes from families in the top 10 percent of income earners. In this landscape, Akash found himself sharing a freshman dorm hall with two other Indian students who spoke Marathi. There was solidarity in identity for Akash at the University. The Indian Student Association is one of the largest cultural organizations on campus and, of minority groups at the University, Asian-Americans have the largest population at 13 percent. The comfort of this community, however, was not enough for the self-actualization of his Indian identity.

Photos by Akash Raje

“The connection to the culture is limited to the Indian-American population … I wanted to define what it meant to be Indian. I wanted to meet my family,” Akash said. “The way I was able to be there is a way I’m not able to be here.”

Akash spent a few weeks of his summer in Shrivardhan, a small coastal city in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. This small fishing town, home to his mother’s family, rises in stark contrast with Charlottesville, the place he had called home for the last two years. In Shrivardhan, every view was colored by a cousin’s smile, every conversation crackled in his mother’s tongue and every step was taken alongside a brown-skinned compatriot, a hypothetical Akash analogue who had never left the coast. Far from awkwardness or exasperation at how unabashedly Indian the entire experience was, Akash found himself in a new, comfortable place.

He was picked up at the airport by his aunt, a woman he already knew well, and driven into Shrivardhan. During his stay in the city, he was constantly visiting and being introduced to distant and often non-blood related aunts or uncles with whom he had no real connection. The sheer number and ephemeral nature of these interactions left Akash initially awash in a whirlwind of names and faces, each one fading from memory as another smile shifted in to replace it.

Not all of his time in India was devoted to small talk. He attended a reunion of his maternal extended family. There, he found a vibrant patchwork of similar faces, the room emanating with a warmth that came as much from the number of people as from the sheer force of love. It was nearly every single member of his mother’s extended family, from rambunctious three year olds to the stoic, pensive grandparents and great-grandparents. Each one grinning broadly at the sight of their American cousin, saying hello in the Marathi that Akash now spoke with confidence. It was if they’d been waiting for him and had always been waiting for him.

“I was astonished and amazed by the unique lives that everyone lives and the fact that this is my family and this could have been my life as well,” Akash said. “It was just me putting my best effort to know them and understand them. In the short period of time I was with them I tried my best to just be with them.”

Akash in his room at The University of Virginia
"I definitely grew up wishing I was a white kid"

Until that point, Akash’s ways of expressing his culture were limited to his own imagination of what such expression would look like. His current love for hip-hop, developed in his early teens, grew out of a need to define his identity.

“I did certainly see it that way, I think the identity was developed more as the non-white identity, so it allowed me to feel my non-whiteness, my browness,” Akash said.

Though the art and the music he co-opted couldn’t be tracked back to his actual heritage, it was at least a departure from the norm of whiteness that he had been navigating most of his life. During this trip, the tension between his actual sense of self and the one he thought he was supposed to have disappeared. In his youth, Akash didn’t think of overtly Indian features as something to be proud of, and that manifested itself in his romantic relationships.

He didn’t like Indian girls.

“I definitely grew up wishing I was a white kid,” Akash said.

In his early years of high school, Akash learned to value the comfort that comes from developing relationships with individuals whose backgrounds are similar to his own. However, that pragmatic valuation of an intra-cultural relationship was shattered in the room full of Akash’s family members. Indian women were beautiful, Indian men were beautiful and everything about them: the way they moved, the way they spoke, and the way they laughed was cause for reverence.

His vague feelings of guilt for not fully appreciating his parent’s cultural gifts were replaced by a new sense of obligation. An obligation to spread his self-understanding wherever he goes.

“It’s something I think of as a responsibility to myself and my family and my culture for that matter. And to even this country, I’d be doing the country a service,” Akash said.

Akash will remain an all-American. Detroit raised him and Charlottesville matured him. He’ll converse with his closest friends in English. He’ll watch the NBA. He’ll soon receive a diploma bearing the name of the first American colony. At every turning point, the part of him that resides in Shrivardhan will be in attendance, guiding him and reminding him.