The Confines of Cardboard
We have this obsession with boxes. They carry our Amazon orders, deliver our late-night pizza and house our most nostalgic possessions. Boxes enshrine our memories and act as portals to our past.
But boxes can also reduce. They can place a collection of often intangible belongings in the constraints of one weight and one size. It is no surprise, then, that the confinement of people into a singular box of identity hinders the cultural expression of our world — a world that could never find a way to box my own multicultural heritage.
My story is not unique. Yet, a box large enough to fit more than one culture never seemed available. My ancestors were African slaves, and they were Irish and Scottish immigrants and Indian doctors. But for my sister and me, skin color, not cultural upbringing, came to define our box of limitations.
Much like the cardboard of our culture, we project a constant notion of being “enough” onto people of all stories. Can someone be Indian enough, yet still claim white and black heritage? Somewhere, I am quite sure there lies a perfect mix of this heritage and expression. Nineteen years into life, I stand no closer to finding this balance than I do in fitting the perfect, conventional image of multiculturalism.
My skin is that of my father’s, brown and exceptionally tan in the summer. On the outside, I am as enough Indian as my grandparents who voyaged to the United States in pursuit of a life with greater opportunity. My sister and I never heard Gujarati spoken in our home and learned only English throughout our adolescence. When we returned to India, the language barrier often left us feeling like foreigners in a country that dominated our diverse culture.
I live in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, surrounded by farmland and very few people who share my image. The challenge had never been being white enough, but rather, being too white that it upset the singular box of cultural identity. From a love of ’70s folk music to saying “y’all” in just about every setting, I came to know that my embodiment of traditional white culture was a sign of inauthenticity. I am the product of the charm found in my small town, and yet I disrupt the balance of my own multiculturalism. The dark skin complexion, the taste for acoustic music and the love for tennis fit the conventional image of Indian heritage and white upbringing. There was a single idea, a single notion of black culture that I could never fit.
In exploring this “single story” that defines our conception of culture and identity, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words reflect the adversity of simplification.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” Adichie said.
It was not black culture that had excluded my sister and me; it was society’s one idea of the culture that prevented the welcoming of those who challenged it. The balance of multiculturalism had not been one of equality nor just distribution, even when taking equal pride in the many cultural influences that shaped our being.
We all have complex identities, no matter our cultural background. And we have boxes for a reason: They help us conceptualize concepts that are difficult to label. However, sometimes we forget that concepts like culture and identity are impossible to be fully realized under a single label or in a single box.
We’re not all complicit in this pressure to conform. In fact, people with multicultural experiences are forced to conceptualize our identities outside of a single box every day.
I had always been “not enough” in some aspects of my life but also “too much” in others. I was never able to fully fit into one box of cultural identity. For a long time, I felt like it was a disadvantage that everyone else seemed to fit in and I couldn’t. Now, I recognize that by not conforming to a singular box, I am able to access many different cultural experiences instead of just one.
I balance multiculturalism like I do with life: imperfectly and yet in a way that I find fulfilling. This single story is not indicative of the individual mulitcultural experience. I, like many others, am still in the process of tearing the cardboard of my own cultural box and of driving my own multi-faceted experience.