Sriya Muralidharan: Which is my heartland?

Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

Many people consider college an opportunity to dissolve their prior identities and develop what they hope is a more attractive or marketable one. When 17-year-old me had to choose my next temple of learning, I found myself shopping for a school where I could tangibly feel both Indian and American at once.

Coming from a large public high school with an (un)surprisingly small South Asian population in a largely Caucasian Midwestern state, I bifurcated my identity between home and school. This was due in part to my social atmosphere, in which stereotypes were far more interesting than cultural reality. At home, I spoke a combination of Tamil and English, devoured foods like dosa and rasam, sang along to the latest Bollywood songs and practiced diplomatic conversation with guests donning salwars and saris at some aunty’s Saturday potluck. At school, I threw on my 40-pound backpack, crammed in Spanish verb conjugations before the first bell, played Bach and Tchaikovsky in the symphony and slipped my ponytail through my Adidas hat on the way to golf practice.

This duality was a product of the lack of physical space in which I could identify as transnational. Thus, I viewed college as a place where I could practice my philosophical hybridity, fusing my identities together. In my college applications, I wrote about my interest in joining the South Asian students associations as enthusiastically as I wrote about my interest in Ivy League academics. So when I received my acceptance to Brown, I could see myself dressed in a gaghra in a brightly lit hall with worn hardwood floors from the 1800s — not unlike Sayles or Alumnae Hall — surrounded by my other South Asian-American peers: brown at Brown, if you will.

These expectations toppled during my first year on College Hill. I was pushed outside my comfort zone: In high school, I functioned under the assumption that sex and drugs were far removed from me and therefore inconsequential. At Brown, condoms sat freely outside the residential counselor’s door, and the smell of marijuana seemed to perpetually emanate from the dorm room down the hall. Campus dialogue induced even more tension. That fusion of identity I sought in high school was an abstraction, and I was not sure if my traditional values and liberal opinions could be reconciled. What did I really think about race relations? About abortion? About mental health? About sexuality?

It occurred to me that my cultural and social identities may not be entirely distinct — perhaps they were simply facets of me that operated at different times and levels. In the homogeneous environment of Indiana, I had been gifted with focus and a perception of individuality, but at Brown, I was one of many. It was a simultaneously liberating and inundating realization: I could be whomever I wanted … and it might not matter.

So began four years of discerning my sense of self. Before college, I had neglected to consider how difficult independence could be. And at a school like Brown, where everything from your courses to your meal plan comes with a kaleidoscope of options, each decision appeared to carry more weight. Moreover, I was pulled in arbitrary directions, enticed by the multitude and breadth of events, activities, programs and classes. As time seemed to whimsically waver between slow and fast, I tried to channel my insecurities into intellectual curiosity. I registered for courses in a variety of subjects, from environmental health, pharmacology and neurobiology to Indian philosophy, economics and graphic design.

I did not become an expert in any of these subjects, but I learned how to learn and communicate differently with each course. Perhaps most salient of all was that as I discovered more about the world, my identity felt less like a definition sourced from my learned behaviors and more like a dynamic tool informed by my experiences. The diversity at Brown taught me that the challenge of balancing social persona with home culture was not unique to me. Independence scared me because I thought it meant abandoning where I came from. But Brown has helped me nurture the idea that where we come from and where we want to go need not be mutually exclusive. 

Sriya Muralidharan is attending Alpert Medical School this fall. This, because a career as a dolphin trainer seemed like the easy way out. As did a career as a comedian.

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