As a 10-year-old in New Delhi, my biggest dream was to go to an All-American High School. This dream was fueled by the American pop culture that I ate up daily after school. The world of these TV shows was in a lot of ways alien to me–I didn’t know what Oreos or peanut butter tasted like, why kids had a whole glass of milk with dinner, or why getting your ears pierced was a big deal.
But it still seemed appealing and wonderful. I was charmed by the brightness that filled the lives of the people in these shows. The colorful candy, the thick and full-of-illustrations textbooks, the glossy lips, the silky blonde hair, and the cute outfits with cuter accessories.
I wondered what it would be like if my school was like Lizzie McGuire’s. The kids in these shows seemed to have a lot more freedom than me.
I traveled by school bus. My mom always dropped me off at and picked me up from the bus stop. I didn’t have a café or mall near my house where my friends and I could meet up. If I met my friends after classes, our mothers would transport us to and from one another’s houses. All my friends lived in different parts of Delhi, and it was not safe to use public transport on your own as a 13-year-old.
My encounters with American pop culture always left me feeling that my reality was not reality. It was alien, false, temporary, not good enough. I believed there was a better reality out there, far away.
The better reality was only available to me through these TV shows, movies, music videos, even fast food. They allowed me to briefly access this “dream life.”
By the time I started at my university, I was able to initiate the process of unlearning all that I had internalized as a kid. I read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, where he talks about how, by taking up a language, one also takes up that language’s culture.
This trade-off of my mother tongue (Hindi) for the English language happened twice in my childhood. First, as a four-year-old in kindergarten, where we learned British English–a colonial hangover. And again, as a six-year-old, when I started watching Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, followed by Disney, and learned the American vocabulary.
In my Catholic Irish school, we were allowed to converse only in English. If you were caught speaking Hindi, you were fined.
I spent my summer holidays dreaming of picnics and adventures in the English landscapes concocted by Enid Blyton, and I spent my school years lost in the American high school hallways with lockers and cheerleaders.
My environment was a careful mixture of certain acceptable “Western” habits and codes of conduct with the “traditional” Indian ethics and morals. This marriage was like a layered cake where the sponge represents the Indian ethics, and the icing, the Western habits and codes. Icing is meant to make an ordinary cake not only more delicious but also pretty and presentable–as if Indian culture wasn’t dignified on its own, and had to be camouflaged with Western education and intellectual and creative interests.