By Nimisha Thakore
USC sophomore Maithreyi Shankar was part of a tight-knit Indian community in Burlington, Mass. She's realized now that being APA isn't about being Asian or American, but both. Photo: Nimisha Thakore
Maithreyi Shankar had an interesting problem growing up: she was an Indian American who felt left out of the Indian American crowd.
“I always felt like they were talking about me! I know it’s irrational, but it’s a feeling I always get. I wanted to be included in the community,” she said.
She’s talking about the community in Burlington, Mass., where she lived from the age of 5 until venturing cross-country to USC to study neuroscience (or maybe biomedical engineering, it’s still up in the air).
Burlington is a small town northwest of Boston that measures just less than 12 square miles and is home to 24,521 people, according to the city’s website. It is 80.6 percent white and 10.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Shankar guesses of that Asian demographic, 10 to 20 percent is Indian.
Despite the largely Caucasian population, Shankar, an excitable 18-year-old sophomore, speaks of multicultural clubs, fairs and Asian American leadership programs at her high school. She even recalls the sometimes stuffy nature of an extremely close-knit Indian community. All things considered, Burlington is a lovely and diverse place to live.
“I liked living in the suburbs,” said Shankar of the safe area. “In April and May, we would walk around places… It made us feel independent.”
Shankar was born in Mumbai, India, and spent four years in Singapore before moving to the East Coast. Her South Indian family hails from the state of Tamil Nadu and speaks both Marathi and Hindi.
Many of the Indians in Burlington are Gujarati (originally from the state of Gujarat in North India), leading to language and interethnic barriers that Shankar felt kept her slightly outside their “very, very cohesive” community. A lot of immigrants weren’t interested in exploring American culture, while Shankar’s family enjoyed such “non-Indian” activities as hiking.
She is small, but her frame walls in a kind of energy that seems on the verge of exploding. Yet when Shankar talks about her experiences finding cultural connections in a cliquey high school environment, she waxes philosophical. She pushes back a drape of jet-black hair in a brief moment of silence when she’s searching for the right words.
“The way I really did culture was through dance and family, not the school. I didn’t like [all] the people. You don’t really want to be around that when you know you’re Indian enough,” she said.
Bharatnatyam, a classical Indian dance form based on Hinduism, helped shape Shankar’s Indian American identity. Because dance wasn’t something that came easily to her, she sweated over it for 13 years.
“It’s very physical, mental and spiritual… It was very core to developing as an Indian for me,” she said.
At USC, she has continued her passion for dance. Shankar is the founder of USC Drishti Classical Indian Dance and is in the process of getting the team recognized as a student organization. She is also involved with Undergraduate Residential Student Community, the Hindu Student Organization, and is coordinator of the DESI (Discovering and Enriching South Asian Issues) Project.
It wasn’t until she left the suburbia of Burlington that she realized being Indian American is not just about being a gung-ho desi or completely whitewashed.
“I realized there’s a spectrum of Indianness… I’ve come to terms with it. I have a better understanding of where I fall,” she said.
Shankar gestures animatedly with her hands as she speaks, especially when she delves into her freshman year wake-up call. She skipped her senior year of high school to come straight to USC with the Resident Honors Program. Shankar doubted USC’s ability to challenge her – but she was wrong.
“Things didn’t pan out completely according to plan. I think I was overconfident,” she said. “I thought I would ace everything and transfer.”
Instead, she had to work hard for good grades in her science classes. But as a reward, she found her place.
“Something connected when I got here,” she said, noting she didn’t have that in high school. “I like what I’m trying to accomplish, so there’s no reason to leave.”
In the next three years, Shankar wants to continue her involvement in various corners of campus to connect communities and build conversations. She then hopes to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor and entertains the idea of one day returning to Burlington.
“I love the Northeast for a lot of reasons,” she said. “It feels intellectual, the seasons [are] more in tune with reality… And I associate with the East Coast culture,” said Shankar.
And, after all, it has played at least some small part in making her who she is.
Shankar is nothing if not a free spirit. She’s carved out her own unconventional path from a northeast town known for Amy Poehler and a “ginormous mall” to an urban heavyweight like Los Angeles.
Her strikingly young age belies her introspection and self-confidence. She never wanted to be whiter, but she also never wanted to be more Indian. Shankar has what many children of immigrants struggle to find: peace of mind with her place on the spectrum.
“It’s how removed you want to be and how connected you want to be with your culture,” she said about finding one’s roots. “I’m Indian enough for me now.”