Ramaswami: When two worlds collide

June 12, 2021, 6:31 p.m.

The metaphor of being “between two worlds” is commonly employed to describe the experiences of immigrants as they navigate the cultures of their native country and host country. As a second-generation immigrant with my parents from India, I had an experience that was no different. One world was the Indian: I would be at home with my family, or go to the temple, or go to a community center and meet other Indian families. At home, I was talkative and loud, generally felt more comfortable and talked in an Indian accent. But in the other world, the American, while at school or work or with friends, I was more reticent, serious and talked in an American accent. Both worlds were, quite literally, separate spheres of life that rarely crossed.

When reflecting on my experience at Stanford, what really stands out to me is how much these two worlds began to collide, and the consequences of such a drastic shift in perspective.

First, Hindu religion, spirituality and Vedanta philosophy — formerly restricted to my Indian world — began coming into my American world. It was partly due to meeting a ton of new people who were interested in topics my friends at home were never interested in, such as religion, philosophy and the meaning of life. At Stanford, I started explaining concepts from Hindu philosophy and Vedanta — and even getting into debates about them — with my friends from SLE. I appreciated Hinduism in a different light when being able to read primary texts from religions such as Christianity and Islam. Classes that dealt with topics such as Buddhist meditation and Orientalism helped me better understand how South Asia was seen by the West. In a class on South Asian American history, I learned about the long and complicated history of gurus and yoga teachers in 20th-century America. I learned about the direct correspondence and exchange of ideas between Gandhi, who pursued Indian independence through spirituality, and Black leaders of racial equality in America.

Additionally, new information about my Indian heritage and culture now came from my American world and influenced my Indian world. Through Sanskrit classes at Stanford, I gained the confidence and ability to read ancient Hindu texts and scriptures in their original form. And for the first time, I made friends with students who were not second-generation Indian-American, but rather came from South Asia to study at Stanford. I made friends with South Asians with new perspectives, who were Muslims, Parsees or Sikhs, or who were from Pakistan or Bangladesh. I learned, for example, the surprising fact (for me) that caste is not exclusive to Hindus. I talked with my parents about who I met and what I learned, bringing this knowledge back to my Indian world and sharing a unique perspective with them on our own culture and religion.

At the same time, the politics of America began to seep into my Indian world. The presidency of Donald Trump, which aligned with most of my four years at Stanford, heavily polarized South Asian Americans. As some supported actions such as the Muslim ban, other South Asian Americans became more active politically in response to the former President. My parents, who had only somewhat followed politics in the past, started discussing the news with me on a daily basis. American politics became more familiar and relatable to us, too, as we realized that Vice President Kamala Harris’ mother was from the same place in Chennai where my mom grew up, Besant Nagar.

Through Stanford, Indian politics also came to my American world. Much like America, India was polarized by a new leader, one whose party revolved around Hindu majoritarianism. At Stanford, I met friends on both sides of the Indian political spectrum, and Indian politics, which I had only been dimly aware of before college, began to play a larger part in my life. I participated in protests and debates with other students around salient issues in Indian politics and learned from speakers invited by the Stanford Center for South Asia and Stanford South Asian Society. These experiences gave me a new perspective with which to engage with people in my Indian world. But bringing up Indian politics with some relatives, whether in India and America, became as toxic and uncomfortable as it is for some families to talk American politics over Thanksgiving dinner. My Indian and American worlds were colliding. 

The variety of perspectives and ideas I was in contact with at Stanford helped transcend and ultimately remove the constructed boundaries that had separated my Indian and American worlds. While eating lunch one day with an Indian-American friend and a friend from India, I noticed that I was switching back and forth, every couple of sentences, from an Indian accent to an American accent, based on who I was addressing my words to. I realized that there were no longer — and there had never been — “Indian” and “American” worlds that could be nicely cordoned off into discrete realms of experience. Both worlds were inevitably shaped by who I am as an Indian-American and my own experiences in both worlds. Even the simplest distinction was not clear-cut: my “Indian accent” sounds slightly American in India and my “American accent” sounds slightly Indian in America. Like the archetypal example of the rope and the snake in Vedanta philosophy, any distinction I had perceived between these two worlds was but maya, an illusion, and such a distinction quickly disappeared once I gained the right knowledge and perspective.

The collision of these worlds has left me with some important questions, though. First: Growing up in America has given me a unique upbringing. As a deeply religious Hindu, I have a rich familiarity with ancient Vedic scriptures and Vedanta philosophy. But South Asian Americans continually try to balance their American and South Asian identities, and even people living in South Asia struggle to preserve ancient ways of life in the face of modernization. Meanwhile, religious principles or appeals to race / caste form the basis for the politics of division that have engulfed both India and America today. I am also graduating with a computer science degree from Stanford. The computer software industry is not only largely responsible for recent waves of immigrants from India to America (including my parents), but has led to negative societal effects, from misinformation in Indian WhatsApp groups to falsehoods about the 2020 election and COVID vaccines. South Asian Americans have grown to have a unique and influential voice on these issues: advocating for equity within their communities, leading multinational tech companies, breaking barriers within American law and government, shaping America’s India policy and even financing domestic Indian politics. What responsibility do I have as a South Asian American, and in what role can I utilize my interests in order to best serve society according to my values?

Next: Having one’s child graduate from Stanford would be any immigrant’s dream after coming to this country. I have attained such an opportunity at Stanford, but at what cost — and at whose expense? America is built on the genocide of indigenous peoples and forcible enslavement of others, including many injustices which have not even been fully acknowledged, let alone redressed. Unlike some South Asian cities that are thousands of years old, my home in Atlanta was Native land just two centuries ago. Stanford is itself built on indigenous land and the exploitation of Chinese workers. And for all the hard work my parents did to come here, it was only possible because they come from an upper-caste and well-off family in India that could actually afford to fly to America — and to what degree has that ameliorated inequality in India? Being a Stanford graduate and an American citizen gives me significant opportunity and influence to advance the values I believe in, yet this very power is built on countless injustices in the past and present. Can the proximity to power that a Stanford education gives me still afford me the latitude to make the system more just, rather than merely profiting from past injustices?

These are some of the questions that have risen in me over the past few years and will stay with me long after I graduate, after I begin attending law school at Georgetown this fall and after I begin a career. I’m not sure to what degree I’ll find satisfactory answers to them, but I do know that they’re worth pursuing. And my friends, teachers and experiences at Stanford were the ones who helped put these questions on the table in the first place.

Contact Ashwin Ramaswami at [email protected].

Ashwin Ramaswami '21 was the Chief Technical Officer of the Daily from 2018-19 during Vol 254 and 255 and in 2020 during Vol 257. Contact him at ashwin ‘at’ stanforddaily.com

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