By: Ashima Grewal
Having grown up in Berlin as the child of a first-generation immigrant, it took time for me to begin to identify with my culture. At the age of 8, I entered a new school and started learning a foreign language. I was exposed to a whole new culture and way of thinking, that I had never known before; the kids in my class asked me to teach them Hindi and told me they envied my skin colour, a concept I couldn’t quite grasp, having been taught that fairer skin was more desirable. Already on the first day, I made amazing friends, who are my closest friends to this day. Being very good in school academically, the teachers started to notice me even more and asked me to assist them with some topics and explaining concepts to my classmates. All in all, I was doing good!
However, as well as all the positive experiences, there were many negative ones. It didn’t take long before a couple of immature middle-schoolers kept calling me ‘curry’ (yes, very creative) and asked me whether I prayed to cows. Back then, I used to shrug it off and laugh about it. After all I was in third grade and didn’t fully understand what they were talking about. Looking back at it now, I understand that while maybe some of it was meant as an insult, most of it was just uneducated humour. Back in 2007 I remember many racist jokes and gay jokes being made in school that would just be seen as ‘normal’.
Although my parents left India to first go to the US, where they had my brother and then to Germany, where I was born, my family used to always have a little temple somewhere in the house and whenever my father was home, or at celebrations, we would pray. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Hinduism itself, aside from the fact that Hanuman-ji was my favourite god (something I decided after watching cartoons on Cartoon Network in India).
Soon came 5th grade, in which our school required us to choose a religion – Catholicism or Evangelism or a subject called ‘Life Studies’ in which many different topics were discussed. In the first lesson of the Life Studies class, we were asked why we took the class – specifically whether we took it because we were atheist. When it was my turn to speak, I really didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t an atheist, but I also didn’t know too much about Hinduism. Feeling kind of embarrassed and unsure, I decided to do research on my religion. I asked my parents to tell me stories about all the gods, customs and festivals and googled whatever else I wanted to know and honestly, I kind of started liking the different things I was hearing about Hinduism, especially because the culture in Germany seemed pretty boring-if I might say so- compared to all the things we have in India.
Although I felt much more connected to my culture, it still took some time until I wore traditional Indian clothes in – get this now – 2018, at my 18th birthday. I had been forced to go to many Indian events of Indian families in Berlin ever since we came here. Even at Christmas we’d attend one of those parties that goes until 4am, all the aunties are dancing, and the music is so loud your ears stop working for the next week parties. I think all my fellow immigrant kids know which one I’m talking about. All I wanted was to have a ‘traditional’ German Christmas and in 2012 my brother and I took a stand. We refused to go to the party and wanted a quiet family dinner and to watch a Christmas movie and open presents. So that’s exactly what we had. Although we would never admit it, we kind of regretted doing that, because it wasn’t quite as fun as an Indian party.
After I joined my high-school, I found many kids around my age in the Indian community, and started to actually want to go to the events, especially for occasions such as Holi or Diwali. I remembered how fun it used to be back in India with my cousins, Mehak, Aayush, Ishu and Pihu and although nothing could live up to the real thing, it was always fun. As I got older, I started appreciating the fact, that even so far from home, we get to experience what Indian culture is all about with the people we love – the people who have become our second family. Ever since I started going to these parties by choice, I posted a lot about them on Snapchat or Instagram, and anytime I did, I got at least 5 people replying that they’re jealous and want to attend these events too. Especially my best friend Laura was set on attending one of these infamous ‘Inder-Parties’ (translates to Indian Parties). When I did take her to the one on Diwali 2014, she fell in love with the food, the culture and the hospitality of everyone at the event. Although she was clearly the only white one there, she fit in perfectly and has since accompanied me to many other celebrations. It was her love of the culture that showed me how proud I can be of the amazing celebrations and customs we have, that so many Germans envy.
As time went by, I got a lot of questions from aunties asking me why I never wore traditional clothing and honestly, I didn’t know. In the beginning, when I was forced to go to these events, I wore nothing but a jeans and a t shirt. However, now that I actually wanted to go, I also became open to the idea of wearing a suit or a lehenga. So on my 18th birthday celebration with the Indian community, my mom had a beautiful lehenga that I chose delivered to Berlin from India. It was my first Indian style clothing and I still love it so much. After wearing that lehenga and celebrating my birthday, I told my mom that on the next annual India trip, I wanted to experience an Indian wedding. Luckily, not only did I experience one Indian wedding, but three in 2019. Admittedly, for the first two, I went with my cousins, uncles and grandpa solely for the food ( which was amazing), but for the last wedding I went to marketplaces like Sarojni Nagar and Laxmi Nagar with my friend Vidhi to choose the perfect lehengas and shararas to wear for the two days of rituals. The weddings were all so amazing and so much fun with all the dancing and colours, that I am already waiting for any wedding invite that comes my way to get on a plane and just go back home.
As I’m sitting here in Munich in my second semester of college, writing this article, I come to realize how much Indian culture has shaped me. It has taught me many valuable things like respecting elders and teachers, always working hard and being friendly (somethings that all Asian cultures share). For anyone reading this article, who is in the same position as me, I know that being the child of an immigrant can be hard. We have to juggle the new found freedom with the traditions our parents would like us to follow. Although in the beginning, to fit in, we just want to lay off our old culture and follow the new one, we owe it to our parents, grandparents and many more before us, who have sacrificed so much for us to educate ourselves about our roots and become knowledgeable representatives, because whether we want to or not, we will always be asked to speak about out cultures and countries as representatives.
Ashima Grewal is an 18 year old currently studying at the Technical Institute of Munich.