Dancing Between Cultures

First-generation immigrants are defined as the first generation of a family to become citizens of a country. According to the Pew Research center, there are over 45 million first-generation immigrants in the US currently, and while there has been much debate regarding the economic and political situation of these immigrants, too often those on the outside forget that they are also constantly balancing two cultures.

Vibha Kumar is one of these first-generation immigrants. Vibha is a student at Pullman High School where she is a member of Key Club and Knowledge Bowl, a photographer for the school newspaper, and a violinist in the Blue Orchestra. While she may seem like a typical student at PHS, both of Vibha’s parents are from Karnataka, a southwestern state in India, and she recently had a Bharatanatyam Rangapravesha. A Bharatanatyam Rangapravesha is a celebration where a dancer has their first full-length solo performance signifying that they can present the complete suite of traditional repertoire. Accompanied by a live orchestra, Vibha executed a series of dances filled with quick and precise movements, demonstrating the skills she had been practicing for six years. It was truly a beautiful night celebrating a culture so different than the one of the United States. Inspired by this, I decided to interview Vibha and ask her about what it was like having two different cultures to call her own.  

What did having a Bharatanatyam Rangapravesha mean to you and your family?

“Well, given our circumstances, being in a small town with not a lot of opportunity, we didn’t think that it would be possible to get this far in the learning process. So, when we got this chance, we were so excited. I still remember the day that I went for my verification in India. I think my mother was more stressed than I was. After a week of dancing for the instructor there, I was kind of shocked that she said yes to the Rangapravesha.”


What are some major differences between your parents’ culture and American culture?

“Ooh boy… there are so many differences. One distinct difference is to start the day early regardless of the day. It gives a sense of diligence. We also have a lot of respect for knowledge and the arts (and showing that a person has the commitment to do that).”


What is your home environment like since both you and your parents know English and Kannada (the official language of Karnataka)?

“I usually don’t speak that much English when I am home. It’s not that my parents don’t understand English. It’s just that we feel more comfortable talking in Kannada.”


Is it difficult to switch between the two?

“To be honest, sometimes I get mixed up between the two. Completely unintentional, but I guess when you’re so used to speaking certain languages…you just get fumbled up if you try too hard to differentiate. *shrugs* We often tend to speak ‘Kanglish’ I guess you could call it? It’s a mix of English and Kannada… a kind of a best of both worlds situation.”


Now, I know India has some pretty bomb food. What are some major differences when it comes to food in your life?

“Oh my goodness, food. The environment is so different when it comes to eating food in my mind. Food is simply a way to bring people together and to connect. In India, the one thing I love to do is go on walks; as you walk by each house, you smell a different dish coming from each house… everything is just so homely and wonderful. In regard to American food, I like how there is not really something called traditionally ‘American’ food if you know what I mean. Like you can go to LA and get some food, but if you go to the South, the style of food there is going to be different, same with New England, the Midwest, and the East and West coasts. It’s so diverse in its own way.”


What are the difficulties with having two cultures to call your own (if there are any)?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a difficulty… I love both cultures in their own way. Having my Indian heritage and culture helps preserve a really rich and old culture. Each culture helps provide me with a new perspective with which I can view the world. Each presents me with new opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have both of those cultures. I guess you could say that instead of difficulties, it actually provides me a solution in life.”

Vibha’s insight into what her life is like balancing two cultures was truly fascinating. But as it is with most people, Vibha is not alone. There are millions of stories detailing what it’s like being a first-generation immigrant and finding a spot for oneself among starkly contrasting cultures. Every one of these first-generation immigrants has a unique story about what they have had to endure, and they’re all around us. Even in PHS, a significant portion of the student body are first generation-immigrants or are balancing two sides of life. The stories these students tell are intriguing, just like Vibha’s. If you take the time to ask questions and listen, you’ll gain insight about how different, and similar, the world is around you.