I was 6 years old when I had my first existential crisis. It was the terrifying moment when all the kids from my first grade class sat down in alphabetical order and opened our respective lunch boxes. I sat there frozen with fear, wondering if it would be worth the humiliation of opening my lunchbox, and if the fresh, familiar scent of my culture would bring questions or dirty looks.
I decided to open the lunchbox filled with homemade Indian delicacies that my mom had packed with much love and pride, and suddenly I felt nothing but shame and embarrassment. My lunchbox and its contents were the reason for a constant feeling of alienation I had in the depths of my mind. That moment, the “Lunch Box Moment,” forced me to keep my cultural identity hidden. The rigid dichotomies following my tan skin and dark hair encouraged people to minimize me to nothing more than a stereotype without even asking my name. The colorful and intricate qualities of my culture were never readily understood, or even accepted, by those around me. I was seen as nothing more than an Indian girl whose food reeked of spices and had no special qualities besides a good-looking report card.
In India, I never felt different from those around me. Everyone looked like me, spoke like me, and ate like me. When I first came to America at age 5, not only was I linguistically and socially isolated, I was given no choice but to reconstruct my identity in a world filled with hundreds of diverse ethnicities, cultures, and languages.
I had to teach myself how to speak English through trial and error, mumbling words in my thick accent and picking up American slang by copying the kids at my school. After years of collecting every part of me that made me distinguishable and putting them into the same lunchbox that once held the deep roots of my fragrant and exotic culture, I shut the lid tight so no part of the real me could come out.
By the time I walked through the doors of high school, I was no longer Aranya Gupta, a name that was ethnic and unpronounceable. Rather, I was Aryana, a different persona, one that was pronounceable and as easily identifiable as the assimilated front I put on in order to blend in with my peers. Every day I disguised myself more, whether that was by straightening my curly hair or being embarrassed to speak in my native tongue around people who couldn’t understand me or what I said.
Being stuck in the limbo between my true heritage and this facade I created for myself, I became restless and felt the harsh reality of living a false narrative. I gave into my surroundings and let society and its irrational expectations get the best of me by becoming this poster child for the model minority as I began to claim myself as nothing more than a high-achieving student who lurked quietly in the background, with no voice to identify myself as someone much more than just that, a feeling that made me uncomfortable in my own skin.
It was because of harsh feeling that the lunchbox I had once neglected was overflowing through its shut lid with beauty and delight as I realized I was left with no other choice but to start to take off its lid and reveal its beautiful colors and exotic tastes.
To alleviate this immense pressure, I started to work with nonprofit organizations such as VOX ATL and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. I found platforms to voice my immigration experience and published an article about my journey, “A Tale of Two Immigrants,” slowly coming to terms with my bicultural identity and being proud of who I am.
My article became one of the most clicked on pages on the VOX ATL website, and my senses of solidarity and pride grew with every view. Once I realized my words made an impact on the thousands of other immigrants in my community, I became involved to directly influence a change with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
In just two months, I registered hundreds of voters in my community through door-to-door canvassing and city-wide clip-boarding, which greatly increased voter turnout local elections. I was able to create a local zine, called Voices of Color for People of Color, by collecting stories from individuals and using them to embrace their vibrant cultures.
I learned to embrace my heritage instead of suppressing it by being more in touch with my community. By letting my voice define my identity without caving into the pressures and expectations of those around me, I was able to find myself and become proud of who I am. Slowly, I felt the same lunchbox I had once shut so harshly slowly open and release its beautiful colors and fragrant aroma.