Gayatri Joshi, also known as Genny (pronounced Jenny), or GJ, stands on stage in a dark, cool recital hall at the University of Houston, reading the I Am From poem she penned:
I am from We had no hopes for you
and education is a must and
it's time to get serious
or all the good guys will be taken
The poem, an exercise for people grappling with multiple cultural identities, talks about her parents, her Indian heritage and being an American. Joshi was born in California but calls Texas home.
Joshi began the group South Asian Youth in Houston Unite (SAYHU) with four other women early last year. Although SAYHU bills itself as a feminist collective and is open to women and men, its goal is to create a network of South Asians who, like her, want to explore their cultural heritage and other issues that are not always openly discussed in their community. Those topics include grappling with names that are not traditionally American.
"Recently I remembered I wrote a poem about it in third grade, and it was titled something like People in the Office Spell My Name Wrong; I Don't Know Why," Joshi told VOA.
Joshi recalls that one day in high school, after being asked countless times whether she "went by" something easier to pronounce, she came up with the name "Genny" as a substitute for her given first name.
"Somehow I was trying to keep it very close to my real name, so I just switched the letters," she said, referring to the first letter of the common spelling of her easily pronounced "American" name. Using a "G" instead of a "J" made her feel as if she could keep a little bit of her real name and heritage, she said.
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This kind of code-switching — or changing speech depending on whom you are with — is a topic that participants at a recent SAYHU summer institute discussed. They said they had always engaged in code-switching, but did not quite know how to define it.
"So, for example, I would talk in one way to my friend and another way to an elder," said Sameera Nath, 22, a college student and participant in the program. "If I'm talking to a South Asian person, I might use different desi terms as opposed to talking to one of my American friends." Desi refers to people from India or the diaspora.
Grappling with dual identities — being born and reared as Americans within traditional South Asian households — is a common topic among this group, which takes comfort in and draws inspiration from fellow South Asian Americans. Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research notes that Houston is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the United States, with the Asian population growing the fastest. Asians make up 8 percent of the greater Houston population, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.
Discussions on diversity
In addition to dealing with their complicated identities, South Asian-Americans were also challenged at the weeklong institute to talk about diversity within their communities.
"We learned not to judge anyone, even other South Asians, for anything, because we all come from different backgrounds," Nath said. "We learned about colorism, for example, about skin color: Some people have lighter skin, some people have darker skin, but that shouldn't be something that you judge someone for."
Within the South Asian community in Houston, Nath said, there is a broad range of people who are either native Texans or were brought up in another state, or who immigrated to the United States as children.
Her compatriot, Nisarg Mistry, moved to Texas as a teenager from Toronto, Ontario. He noted it was a challenge to adjust to a new community.
"Moving here was a huge, huge culture shock for me," he said, citing "all the taco trucks and barbecue stalls" from various minority groups he had not encountered in Toronto.
Mistry, who studies chemical engineering at the University of Houston, said he feels that discussions about identity and social justice are lacking in his academic circles. So when he heard about SAYHU's summer institute, he felt it was the perfect opportunity to learn more about how he could engage his community in discussions about difficult topics.
"I know a lot about social justice issues, but I've never found an avenue to make a change or do something about it," he said. "So this was the perfect thing for me to do."
Both these participants said they left the institute with practical takeaways, not just tips on how to handle conversations with friends and family about taboo subjects such as domestic violence and LGBTQ issues, but also ideas for projects they plan to begin.
Nath, for example, plans to push for more vegetarian and halal options in the cafeteria at the University of Texas.
"Eating cheese pizza every day is not fun," she said, noting that even in a diverse city like San Antonio, a three-hour drive from her hometown, dining facilities do not always cater to Muslims and Hindus with specific dietary constraints.
Nisarg said that in the coming weeks, he will start a podcast, engaging people he met at the institute to make their conversations more widely available to South Asians both in and out of Houston.
And he doesn't plan to shy away from discussions about feminism and women's rights, which are a big focus of female-led SAYHU.
"I think it's important for men to be aware of all of the issues as well. It can't just be women," Nisarg said. "We have to work together to solve these issues. SAYHU … they're doing their part to change the Houston community."
SAYHU members are now preparing for their first regional summit, scheduled for later this month, where they'll continue their discussions about a number of topics, but on a larger scale.