How much do you know about your own culture? Or, better question, how much do you think you know about your own culture?
It’s a worthwhile question to ask, especially during the cultural divide that our country is going through and because of how diverse America is. Most Americans are, at some point down the line, descended from immigrants. Which means prior to whatever culture they, or their ancestors, have developed in America, there was another underlying one from before.
This past weekend, I covered Holi for the Indian Student Association on the Great Lawn. For those who don’t know, Holi is an Indian festival that celebrates the return of spring and consists of a bunch of people running around throwing colored powder on each other. It causes a massive mess and is a ton of fun. It’s even more fun to cover and I have been privileged to cover it for the ISA for the past three years. Holi is an important part of my spring semester and I wouldn’t be able to graduate without participating in it one more time. This was my fifth year doing it at UConn. Prior to coming here, though, I didn’t really know much about it.
I’m Indian-American, if the name didn’t give it away. I’m also from Mystic, Connecticut. Mystic does not have a giant Indian-American population. In fact, until middle school, there was only one other Indian person in my school. And even as I made my way through middle school and high school, while there were more Indians, there wasn’t a large community. Neighboring towns had larger Indian-American communities, but because we didn’t grow up around those folks, we never really interacted with those communities.
Instead, most of my Indian cultural upbringing came from home. My parents were both immigrants from India, though they came at vastly different times. At home, I learned about Indian cuisine and about the Hindu religion. I learned how to sing the Indian national anthem and then promptly forgot it. I learned certain phrases and learned about the traditions involved with a lot of the holidays. In a lot of ways, I was just like any other multicultural American. I grew up learning about my two identities and how they would interact.
But on the half of the coin, I was a Hindu and an Indian in name only. I knew a lot of facts about my culture, but I never acted on any of them. It’s hard to have a Holi celebration when you don’t have a community to do it with. It’s hard to talk about what being an Indian-American means for your culture when you haven’t really met anyone else who is like you.
College changed that for me. I think I met more Indian-Americans on my first day than I had ever met previously. But what really introduced me to people like myself was my camera.
My camera didn’t just act like a passport for me to learn about new communities and cultures. It also acted like a key that unlocked dormant parts of my culture that I didn’t know existed. Through my camera, I was able to experience ISA and other South Asian cultural center events. I participated in Diwali celebrations and learned bhangra from people who had been doing it for years. I got to throw colored powder at people and learn what being a Hindu actually meant to me. I got to meet people with the same fears about the future as me and made life-long friendships.
Photography is fun because it allows us to see the world without really being noticed. Because we don’t impose ourselves on a situation, we get to learn about the world and let things play out naturally. Sometimes though, letting yourself get involved and drawn into a culture is fun. You might even learn something about yourself. I certainly did and it had very little to do with just throwing colored powder around.
Amar Batra is a senior staff photographer and weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @amar_batra19.