EP.19: Growing up Indian and American

When Would You Want to Know
Posted by: Pierre Gallant

How does culture influence a person’s perspective on life? Simply put, everything we do and believe is culturally constructed. So, what does that mean for a high school student with roots in two entirely different countries? Indian-American, Paavnee Chauhan, joins When Would You Want to Know to share how a fusion of cultures affects her answers to life’s deepest philosophical questions.

What’s it like being second generation American?

[Paavnee 3:09] For me, I notice a lot of differences between Indian and American culture. But I know my parents, they consider me only American really because their definition of Indian is really different from mine. It was just really beneficial for me having two cultures and visiting India every year to really get the best of both countries. 

But I do remember a few experiences where I tried to hide my Indian culture…I would never want to bring Indian food to school because I thought it would make me different. Now I feel like having a really good Indian community and being in a more diverse area, especially in Seattle. It’s really helped me embraced that and be more proud of it rather than when I was younger.

What activities do you enjoy?

[Paavnee 7:47] I’m Vice President for the Indian Association of Western Washington Youth Board and I’ve been part of the program since freshman year. We basically organize a camp in the summer for hundreds of Indian Americans. That’s one important activity for me, especially because it helps me really connect to my roots and connect with other Indian Americans like me. And then I also volunteer for the Indian American Education Foundation, which also connects me to my roots and also allows me to travel back to India and kind of have a purpose when I’m there.

Tell us a little bit about that purpose. What do you typically do when you return to India?

[Paavnee 8:44] When I go there [to India], it’s really different from my experience in America, because in America I’m a minority where I kind of feel this need to fit in. But there, I’m definitely really privileged and I’m in the majority. So, I feel that being part of that foundation…really helps me use my privilege in India to make a difference.

What does giving back mean to you?

[Paavnee 9:37] I think that really means us, acknowledging our privilege that we have and by giving back we want to provide opportunities for people who don’t have that privilege. That privilege was given to us because of our parents and their education and the education we have. So, having those years where we felt so empowered by our community of girls has helped us specify where we want to give back.

In what areas do you think most girls, in India specifically, need help in?

[Paavnee 10:33] Education because that can lead to just so many opportunities for them. So, that would be access to a really good school that’s not necessarily government run because there can be a lot of politics involved with government schools in India. So, having an opportunity to go to private schools where they feel empowered and like their education, can lead to a better life for them in their family.

How do you live up to your parents expectations?

[Paavnee 11:12] I think that’s something that I’ve always struggled with, expectations from my family. I think it’s less with the pressure that they put on me, but more that I put on myself because of all these amazing, strong, powerful women in my life. 

They have sacrificed so much, especially my parents coming to America and taking the risk of giving up their family in India to provide for their kids. So, I think giving back would be really the best way I can express my love and gratitude for them. 

You’ve grown up in a strong Hindu background and you’ve been exposed to Christian and Catholic doctrines and theology. This is a tough question for anybody at any age, but why are we put on Earth? 

[Paavnee 15:50] I think I can split that into two different kind of areas. I think just one goal personally that each person should have no matter their circumstances, is to be happy and just enjoy what you’re doing.

And then the other one would be that I feel that…everyone has a purpose. And that by experiencing things and interactions and relationships, that can help you find that purpose. Whether that’s maybe giving back, maybe it’s teaching, maybe it’s finding something that you really care about and putting all your energy into that.

There seems to be a lot of people focused on their happiness in America but they don’t seem to be very happy at all. Why is that? 

[Paavnee 17:23] I think in America there’s such a focus on materialism and that’s why my experience in India has really helped me, kind of, identify that. There is just so much comparison to other people. There is this need to be better, there’s this need to find material things and find happiness within things that I think in a lot of other countries is a lot less prominent.

If I wanted to find happiness in myself, how would I find it?

[Paavnee 18:33] I think it depends on the person, but it kind of goes back to the idea of a passion in what you enjoy. So, what is something that you really, really enjoy doing? To find that happiness, find that purpose.

What advice would you give high school girls in America?

[Paavnee19:34] I think I would give them the advice that I still really need to take for myself and I need to learn, and that would be to not compare yourself to others. I think that can really take away from your own achievements and your own happiness.

Listen to the full episode above or on iTunes here.