By Rupal Ramesh Shah
I often get asked what it feels like to be an Indian from Tanzania who now lives in the United States of America. It’s a complex question, and one that requires a lot of thought. I can’t glorify my identity and say it’s always been wonderful because that’s hardly the truth. At times I have struggled to explain what it feels like to be me, and I have questioned my belonging because of my multiple identities. I imagine this may be true of the many other residents of Maine with multiple national identities.
Growing up in Tanzania as an Indian made my school friends sometimes question my Tanzanian-ness. We were often called Wahindi by local Black Tanzanians because our ancestors are from India (Hindi-speaking country). While I didn’t pay much attention as a child, I now don’t like the term. I was born and raised in Tanzania, my father was born and raised in Tanzania, and my grandfather was raised there from a young age and never returned to India. In fact, to Indians from India, we don’t seem Indian enough – that was clear during my last trip to India. My family was classified differently because we were the Indians “from abroad.” As non-residents, our Indian identity was slightly different from those who never left the country. And in the U.S., we have many times been questioned about being American enough. Even to this day, my immigrant status comes up. I have different views on many things because of having missed out on the “American childhood” experience. And since I often move in circles that are mixed in terms of culture, community, and identity, I sometimes have to explicitly state that I am an American citizen. The U.S. is, after all, a melting pot of people who come from different parts of the world, just like me.
The labels of who I am and who I am not have certainly made me stronger and more comfortable in my own skin. In fact, I am proud to call myself equal parts Tanzanian, Indian, and American. These days, I am excited to answer the question about my identity and also know why I feel comfortable with that question. For one, I have had multiple cultures to learn from, embrace, and follow. While Tanzanian and Indian cultures are similar in many ways, American cultural practices are very different.
In both Tanzanian and Indian cultures, we would never refer to elders by their first name. We usually address them with their last name, and a title such as “aunty” or “uncle.” This is a sign of respect. Elders in Tanzanian and Indian cultures are considered wise, unselfish – practically sages. Also, in both cultures using the left hand for eating is considered unclean. Many of us grow up using latrines without a flush system. We use our left hands to clean up after using the toilet, so the left hand is largely considered the “unclean” hand. Even to this day, this is second nature to me.
In my American world, we embrace the idea of independence. As Americans, children are given a lot of freedom. For example, at the age of 18 years, children can choose to vote on political matters, which gives them the right to think for themselves and own their decisions. As an American, I value the idea of traveling and seeing the world. I consider Americans to be very inquisitive, and our curious minds allow us to ask questions and come up with innovative solutions to many of the world’s problems.
Because of my upbringing, I feel that I have a big community in the world. I have family and friends in Tanzania and Kenya. I have a large network within the South Asian diaspora of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. I have a community in the U.S., both in the south and in the north. In all these countries, not only do I feel like I have a community within the local population, but also among the international communities. For example, I had a group of Tanzanian friends in Boston during my tenure there. Similarly, I had South Asian friends in Tanzania during my childhood. Whenever I have traveled to different parts of the world, I have always been able to find a community. I can move around in various circles because I speak multiple languages, including Swahili, Gujarati, Hindi, English, and conversational Haitian Creole. I have been able to form friendships with groups of people from diverse backgrounds and it’s made me feel like I belong to many different communities. I can blend in.
Lastly and most importantly, I know who I am. Today, I can say with confidence that I am a Tanzanian Indian American. I am diverse. I am unique. I am just as Swahili as I am Gujarati as I am South Carolinian. I am as comfortable in Tanzania as I am in India as I am in the U.S. Now when someone asks me where am I from, I simply respond with a big smile on my face, and say, “Everywhere!”
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager. She has degrees in microbiology and public health and serves as Executive Director of Konbit Sante, a public health organization that partners with healthcare facilities in Haiti to provide access to healthcare services. As a Tanzanian-Indian-American, with a strong work focus in Haiti, Rupal often finds herself living at the intersection of cultures and communities. She enjoys hot cups of spiced chai, listens to Taarab music from Zanzibar, and knows where to buy the best street food in Mirebalais, Haiti. In addition to Amjambo Africa, she writes for street newspapers that advocate for the rights of people who are homeless in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle.