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Being Indian — and I am 100% South Indian by birth — is not about Bollywood or cricket for me. Rather, my culture revolves around food. Few countries can lay claim to cuisine influenced by Anglo-Saxons, Mongols, Turks, and Persians. No other country uses India’s hundreds of spices. Having learned to appreciate a multitude of seasonings, I have a deeper appreciation for life’s subtleties. And knowing that new cultural influences can spur new subtleties, I am always eager to excite my taste buds with new ethnic fusions.
A few years ago, my family was cooking Italian béchamel sauce for our lasagna. I remember chasing my brother around the kitchen and, in the process, accidentally knocking Indian garam masala into the sauce. Seeing my folly, my brother impishly stirred in Japanese miso paste, deciding that a second kind of Asian zing was needed. We thought the entire dish was ruined, but we still let our father sample the monstrosity. When he proclaimed it delicious, my entire family dived in. Ever since, we won’t eat our lasagna any other way. We’ve experimented since then, tossing kimchi on nachos and tandoori paneer on bruschetta. This is how the cultural experience should be, beyond my family’s kitchen. Like bizarre flavors deliciously combining, cultures should mingle to promote learning through interaction.
Few of the individuals I have met have been exposed to extra-cultural food fusions: even in today’s hyper-connected world, the truth is that not many people care about discovering customs beyond their own. Society assumes that my religion, rituals, and even spending habits are somehow inextricable from South Indian stereotypes. I’ve had friends ask if I dine on monkey brains, practice Hinduism, speak Hindi, eat curry every day, or hoard my money. In reality, I am a vegetarian and a devout Christian, am fluent in Tamil, and spend money like I eat samosa chaat — fast. Before they really get to know me, my friends assume that my mother and father are tiger parents — relentless, goal-driven disciplinarians — merely because we are Indian. My teachers have asked me if I felt that Miss America, who was an Indian-American, deserved that title. Presumptions like these are mostly innocent missteps — but they barely approach who I really am.
I have never been bound by attempts to categorize people based on race: limiting my vision only to Indian culture does not let me experience all that the world has to offer. At Princeton, I’ll honor my heritage, motivating other South Indians to embrace their identities and ignore expectations for them to fill the “Indian” mold — because, in reality, there isn’t an Indian mold. I’ll inspire others to use their education to find what sets them apart. I’ll encourage them to dabble in dissimilar cultures and sample diverse foods, not just because doing so is right, but because doing so is enjoyable. After all, variety (like garam-miso lasagna) gives flavor to life.
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