by Ravi Popat
I have been homeless for almost 18 years. Or maybe, I should call it “homeland-less.” I am a citizen of France, was born in England, am living in the USA, and am of Indian origin. And so my opportunity or dilemma starts with my lack of a definitive home country.
I have the opportunity to make my own culture, picking and rejecting elements from the different places of my upbringing. For example, I am an Indian as I declare that my parents will never see the inside of a nursing home. I am English and American, knowing I will never exist in a caste.
I face a dilemma when I allow other forces to dictate the choices for me. I realized this when I met “John.” I was 12 years old working at my uncle’s convenience store in England. The shop was calm as usual on this Tuesday morning, with a steady trickle of men from the nearby factory coming for newspapers and cigarettes.
“Good morning John, can I get a pack of Marlboro’s as well?” asked one of his regular customers.
I looked around the shop, searching for “John.” My name is Ravi and I know my Uncle as Ramesh. Who was John? My uncle responded by happily handing his customer the pack of cigarettes. I realized that John was the name that regulars used for my uncle. I was bewildered, yet I still accepted my uncle’s Anglicized name. As I grew older, I came across more “Johns.”
John was not just a name; it was my uncle’s effort to keep his English customers comfortable with him. My first personal “John” moment was in a hostile place: the school bus on the way to Bedford. On the bus we often laughed at the latest episodes of The Simpsons. One conversation veered towards Apu, the show’s Indian shopkeeper. His arranged marriage–once a cultural staple of the Indian community–attracted my friends’ laughter. “Are you going to have an arranged marriage Ravi?” I had never really thought about the question of marriage before, but understood that saying “yes” would be totally un-John. “No way,” I replied. I was keeping my western peers comfortable.
At 13, I moved to New York. The city’s cultural diversity makes it an ideal place to be a cultural chooser. In New York, I learned to choose or reject in a way that strengthens my individuality and outgrew that “John” model, which forces one to choose names to please others and reject customs merely to fit in with peers. Rather, I choose and reject based on my view of the world. As a global cultural chooser, I am forced to think deeply about values and morality in a fresh way. I do not automatically embrace or reject something because it is Indian, American or English. I often deeply consider if something feels compatible to my taste. In doing so, I have grown to control many of the cultural influences of my identity.
My embrace of my religion challenged the “John” template. It started with a question in my English class junior year: “Do you think people look down upon you if you’re religious at Trinity?” My classmates hands flew up to answer “yes.” Why? The answers were antithetical to my sense of religion as a force of morality in my life. “Most kids at Trinity think that being religious doesn’t make logical sense, and so those who are religious are kind of seen as illogical.” For the most part, all the kids in the class felt this way. I felt cornered because I was amongst the minority; I did not agree at all. I had chosen Hinduism as my religion; my parents had left the decision up to me. To me, it seemed logical to choose this part of my family’s Indian culture, because I related to many of the principles. How could my peers think that intelligence and religion were incompatible when I myself underwent such a logical process of choosing my faith?
A year later, I stood on stage in front of my whole school in a special assembly presented by the South Asian Society about Diwali and Hinduism. The topic of my speech? The role faith and doubt play in religion. I spoke about faith in front of an audience who were dismissive of its value because I am not “John.” I no longer need to please my “customers,” although I am interested in hearing their ideas as well as mine. I try to pick the best aspects of all the cultures at my disposal, in order to create my own “homeland.”
Ravi Popat is a freshman at Tufts University and a graduate of the Trinity School in New York.