The Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Panel at the UW-Madison Diversity Forum: Invisible No More!

Part 2 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

Since its inception over 20 years ago, the Diversity Forum put on by UW-Madison’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement has always been inclusive on some level or another, oftentimes in the smaller workshops held in the afternoon or on the second day. Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans, APIDAs, have rarely been in the spotlight of the main activities on the first day. The APIDA panel on the first day featured APIDA faculty, staff and students who exhibited the wide ranging diversity within the broad Asian American community. And there is broad diversity within specific Asian American country communities.

Anjali Sridharan is of Desi — a term that refers to individuals from the subcontinent of India — heritage. But she was born and raised in the United States.

“I look 100 percent Indian,” Sridharan said. “Yes, I have a definite connection to India and the culture because I was brought up with parents who grew up in India. But I would rather talk to my husband about Brady Bunch than the latest Bollywood movie coming out. I don’t watch Bollywood movies unless someone goes, ‘This is an unusually good movie.’ Maybe I will consider it. I’m American for all intents and purposes.”

While Sridharan was born in Madison, grew up in Madison and attended Madison schools, her parents also made sure that she grew up with Indian culture as well.



Anjali Sridharan speaking at the UW-Madison Diversity Forum on November 1st.

“The time when I was born, especially in Madison, there really weren’t that many people of Indian background here,” Sridharan observed. “In fact, we knew them all. And we could count them. There really weren’t that many people who knew the culture. And when people come from countries with strong cultures like India, they generally tend to be more strict in their upbringing and more connected in terms of religion, culture and traditions from what I have observed.”

Within the Indian community in Madison when Sridharan was growing up, there were differentiation in terms of who was thought be Indian enough.

“There weren’t that many kids like me who were born here or were born in India and then came here at a young age and grew up here,” Sridharan said. “The majority of people of Indian background were from India and came for education. They created this abbreviation ABCD to differentiate between people who were born and brought up here versus those who are from India. And so they would call us the ABCDs, ‘American Born Confused Desi’ because we didn’t know where we fit, as an American or as a Desi. I hated the term. ‘What do you mean we’re confused? Even now, it is confusing. Even though I didn’t like the term. I didn’t like getting branded, it is confusing. Which do I choose if I have an option? Am I American? Am I Indian? Am I both? Am I more of one than the other? Who knows?”

Coupled with the strong Indian community in Madison, Sridharan also spent significant amounts of time in India.

“My parents sent me to India every other summer my whole childhood to stay with my grandparents in India,” Sridharan recalled. “I went unaccompanied. I was probably eight-years-old the first time I did it. My parents drove me to Chicago. They put me on an airplane and I was designated ‘unaccompanied’ and flew to New York. There were no direct flights then. In New York, I was handed over to another group of individuals who were taking care of people who were unaccompanied. There was a room full of ‘unaccompanied’ children. Most of them were the children of ambassadors, prime minister and other international dignitaries. It was a 4-6 hour layover if there was no delay. And then there was a flight to London. I would switch in London very carefully handed over. You wore a tag around your neck. And then finally, I would go from London to Bombay. I don’t know what I did back then. There were no iPads or movies except the one they projected for everyone.”

Sridharan was literally half a world away. And although she was surrounded by loving relatives, Sridhara was, on some levels, on her own.

“Sometimes I was really bored,” Sridharan said. “And sometimes I had a blast. Through listening to music and other things, I got exposed to the culture a lot. It was tough. There was no What’s App. Telephone was difficult because my grandparents didn’t have international phones. My parents would schedule a call. They would call the neighbors downstairs and say, ‘We’ll call tomorrow at this time.’ They would call me and the neighbors would come upstairs and say, ‘The phone is here for you.’ I would go downstairs and I would have a five-minute phone call crying most of the time.”

In the end, Sridharan felt it was a wonderful and important experience for her upbringing, enriching her life in many ways.

“I really got connected with my grandparents and my culture,” Sridharan said. “There are times when I hated my culture because I was rebelling against it and the strictness where I had to do this and do that to be the right kind of kid. In the end, I made peace with it. And I realized, in the end, it is really nice to have something to connect to like a culture, which ties you to good beliefs. Most of the time, family weddings would take place during the summers. If that were the case, I would be sent to the wedding as a representative of the family. Most of the time, my grandma would go with me. We would travel to the wedding and she would help me get dressed and I would see my cousins. So when I had all of those weddings that I went to, typical South Indian weddings, I soaked in a lot to have my own wedding be like that.”

And Sridharan was quick to emphasize that she was rebellious in thought, but not in action.

“I knew a few girls in Madison who grew up with me who were much more rebellious than I,” Sridharan said. “If my parents said, ‘You can’t go to the dance,’ I wouldn’t go to the dance. But other girls would tell their parents they were going over to someone’s house for a sleepover and they would buy a dress, change at the friend’s house and go to the dance. So I would say I wasn’t rebellious at all.”

Sridharan is truly bi-cultural. She embraces her Indian heritage, but at the same time, she is American with children growing up in Madison and one more generation removed from India. Sridharan’s life is awash in an abundance of culture. And it can be an overwhelming demand on her time, leaving her exhausted by the end of holiday season, almost like fulfilling the demand of being part of two families during the Christmas season and trying to be there for both.

“October and November are always tortuously exhausting for me,” Sridharan said. “Even when I don’t want to participate in certain parties, I do. I love Halloween. Halloween was always my favorite holiday because it didn’t connect to any religion. And it brought out creativity. It was something I could do with a bunch of my friends. We would always have about 10 carved pumpkins in front of our house. That’s the end of October. And there are two big Indian festivals during that time. They land on different dates each year. There is Navratri, which is the nine night festival and Diwali, which is the Festival of Light. They are always held in an October-November timeframe. And Navratri, especially for women and girls, people invite you over for dinner and socializing. Of course last year, there was nothing.Sometimes there are 2-3 invitations per night. You have to dress up and go. And this is after work. Even if you don’t want to go anywhere and you’re exhausted from work, you pretend it’s okay and it’s a good thing to go to because you want your kids to learn the culture. Nine nights of this is exhausting. Of course, there isn’t a party every night. But on some nights, there are multiple parties. That goes on in October and then you have Halloween. And then you have Diwali. And together, it’s exhausting. And we don’t have holidays, so people don’t know. And my poor kids really suffer because they have exams and assignments. My older daughter is still recuperating from Halloween, Navratri, and Diwali. And this Saturday evening is the last Diwali party for her. She’s not had much sleep because she is trying to keep up with her demanding coursework and everything else. It’s good and it’s bad. I just try and pretend I want to do everything just so the kids don’t feel I don’t want to do it because then they won’t want to do it.”

It takes a lot of time and focus to be a part of two or more cultures. While it may seem to be too much of a good thing, the fulfillment that comes with it is well worth the effort.