AAPI Heritage Month Q&A Series: Christine Chhatwal
AAPI Heritage Month commemorates Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that have contributed to America’s rich history and success. Growing up as an Asian American/Pacific Islander can be considered a collective experience that can impact each an every one of us in a variety of ways. Our cultural identity shapes a facet of who we are and I am happy to be featuring a variety of strong voices that will share their experience as an Asian American/Pacific Islander in America. I hope that this series helps you connect with your own heritage and reminds you to be proud of where you come from! Rest assured, I will be sure to share more stories as they roll in throughout June. After all, just because May is ending, does not mean we should turn our backs on our pride and heritage.
After reading a culmination of your stories, I wanted to end the official AAPI Heritage Month with my own experience. To be quite honest, I’ve struggled for many years with my identity and heritage for so many reasons. However, I’m happy to say I am much more settled and self-assured now. I’ve definitely come to terms with a lot of the demons in my head.
Q: What ethnicity are you?
Indian. I am a mix of two ethnic groups within this: Punjabi & Mangalorean (Konkani).
Q: Do you speak your language?
I wish I did! My parents decided not to teach me because they thought mixing 3-4 languages would get confusing for me. I would have had to learn Hindi, Punjabi and Konkani in addition to English growing up.
Q: Were you always proud of your heritage or did you initially reject it?
There was a time where I was extremely proud of my heritage before moving and transferring to Catholic school in the middle of 4th grade. From there, I really tried to downplay my heritage and felt ashamed because I was an outsider being the only POC in my grade. In high school, I began to embrace my heritage a little more and continued to do so in college thanks to meeting more Indian Americans like myself. However, I always felt out of place and as though I wasn’t “Indian enough.” In college, studying abroad in India took a toll on me because so many American and Canadian classmates of the same ethnic group (i.e. Punjabi, Telegu, Malayali) hung out together; whereas I am mixed. I felt as though I couldn’t truly culturally bond with my Punjabi friends because of the language barrier which affected my understanding during gurudwara visits (Sikh temple), inside jokes and knowing certain customs. I was raised Catholic on account of my Mangalorean side so gurudwara visits were rare for me growing up even though I am the same ethnicity. The last blow was an incident during my Junior year at Rutgers that occurred which led me to reject certain aspects of my heritage and people for some years thereafter. As a result, I was never truly proud of my heritage because I was always in constant limbo with my identity and acceptance of it.
Q: When did you begin to truly embrace your heritage and why?
I want to say I am truly beginning to embrace my heritage now. It might surprise you that it’s happened this late for me. I feel that I am more proud of my heritage now for so many reasons. First, I came to terms with the fact that I am mixed and that I won’t truly fit either groups 100 percent. I think for those of you who aren’t Indian, this might not seem like a big deal but my two sides of the family practice different religions, speak different languages at home, cook completely different cuisines and have entirely different customs. Somehow along the way, I’ve found the beauty in having two completely different and culturally rich histories flowing through me and embrace it thoroughly. Second, seeing others embrace their heritage fully inspired me to take more interest in my own and to celebrate it instead of downplaying it. I realized I actually love my two backgrounds and being Indian overall. It is something I no longer want to shy away from.
Q: What do you consider to be the best parts of your heritage and culture?
I really love the food first and foremost. Then, I would say certain fashions (bridal and party outfits) and Bollywood movies!
Q: What was the first experience where you felt that demarcation of being a minority/different?
In America, it was in 4th grade. I was definitely bullied a ton for being different and didn’t quite fit in with my eight other classmates. In India, it was when I first began interacting with locals because I look foreign and cannot pass as Indian there.
Q: How did growing up as an Asian American/Pacific Islander affect your relationship with your parents?
I’m lucky to say my parents are extremely liberal for being Asian. I think it helped that both of my parents acclimated to Western culture as young professionals before meeting, getting married and having me. Overall my parents have been extremely supportive of my choices and actions as a result.
Q: Did you have any Asian American/Pacific Islander role models growing up in media (i.e. movies/TV/music/books, etc.)? Did this affect your self-image?
I remember loving Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukerji, Kajol, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan as a young girl watching Bollywood movies. Otherwise the only other Indians I remember seeing in American media were Deepak Chopra, Norah Jones, Russell Peters and the twins in Harry Potter. As for self-image, I hated the way Indians were portrayed and wished they were more westernized like myself in media. I also recently realized how prevalent skin lightening/avoiding tanning is in Asia and how it has insidiously made its ways into my subconscious over the years.
Q: How do you feel about the rise of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in media today?
I’m so proud of all the Asian Americans in media and the fact our stories are being shared in mainstream ways. I also particularly love supporting artists who are blending into Western culture but still nod towards their Asian roots. Some shoutouts are in order for my Punjabi creators like Rupi Kaur, Lilly Singh (iiSuperwomanii), Raveena Aurora, NAV, Humble the Poet and my cousin, Ruby Velle. I also love Mishti Rahman who is a Bengali-Australian influencer and Mindy Kaling.
Q: If you could give your younger self advice regarding growing up Asian American/Pacific Islander, what would it be?
It’s okay to be different. You’re one of a kind and there’s no need to assimilate to any one mold. You might not check off all the boxes but that doesn’t invalidate your identity and heritage. Be proud of who you are and don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. Be unapologetically yourself because no one else can be YOU.
Q: How do you connect with your heritage and culture today?
I connect mostly through the food. I love Indian food from all the regions and love to explore different dishes within them. I try to watch Bollywood movies with my parents (with subtitles of course). I definitely love supporting my fellow Asian American creators in music and the arts, particularly ones that are similar to my heritage. Sometimes, I will also partake in celebrating different festivals such as Diwali, Holi and Navratri with friends who understand those traditions. I also try to visit gurudwara with my dad or grandma when I can. Lastly, I try to learn more about Indian history and my family history through my parents and spending time with them. In the future, I would like to embrace more of my heritage on this blog in different ways!
About Christine Chhatwal
Christine is a Philadelphia-based, travel, lifestyle & fashion content creator. She shares her passion for all things travel, food, fashion, beauty, music and lifestyle via this blog, YouTube channel and Instagram. Christine is committed to sharing her innermost thoughts and experiences through an honest, unique and personal narrative. Whether it’s her favorite product, a recent trip or an everyday routine, Christine aims to inspire you to broaden your horizons and pursue your passions. She hopes this space encourages you to reflect and open your mind to new cultures and people.