The first time I heard this, I had no idea what it meant, and I was almost offended. I asked the girl I was talking to, a student at the college where I was working, “What is an NRI?”
“Oh, it just means non-resident Indian.”
It took me a good minute to process that. I guess that is exactly what I am. I told my friend, “You know when I first heard you say that, I thought it had a bad connotation or something!”
She laughed and said, “Oh no, it’s literally just someone who is Indian but doesn’t live in India!” I nodded and laughed with her. I honestly can’t believe this is the first time I’ve ever heard this term – because that’s literally exactly what I am.
Doing MISTI in India is something I’ve wanted to do since I came to MIT. I’ve been to India at least once a year since I was born, and I grew up in an Indian household, meaning I speak Punjabi (the language of Punjab, the state I’m from), and we eat Indian food. But when I come to India, there is always the awareness that you’re not from there – it becomes immediately obvious once we start speaking. It’s different speaking Punjabi with my parents, or even my grandparents, compared to patients who are often speaking rapidly, are from all different parts of India and have different accents.
Sometimes, if someone is talking to me, they’ll say something, and I have no idea what they said. I’ll ask them to repeat it, but I still don’t know what they said. In settings like these, where the patients and doctors around me are speaking rapid-fire, mixing Punjabi and Hindi, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I have to really focus to understand what’s going on, and if I lose focus even for a second, I’ll lose track of the conversation. It’s in these moments when I really feel like an NRI. I feel like an American in India.
However, this doesn’t mean I’m not able to connect with the patients. In one of the hospitals I worked, the primary language is Hindi. I mainly speak Punjabi, and I was speaking to one of the patients, and he said this was the first time in a long time he had spoken Punjabi to someone because everyone speaks Hindi where he is from. He said he had always wanted to converse in Punjabi with someone else.
This reminded me that even if I wasn’t born in India, I could still connect with patients based on my identity. I’m Indian, but I’m also Punjabi and Sikh. Even if I live in a completely different country than this patient, he still feels a connection because we both speak Punjabi. We all have many different identities, and my identity as an American often isn’t common ground in India. But being Punjabi or Sikh is. And that allowed me to connect with this patient.
I made many friends at the hospital here, most of whom are nursing students around my age. I wasn’t really sure how my experience would be, but all the students were incredibly welcoming and made an effort to make me feel comfortable. I felt so grateful to have this experience, and in many ways, I felt very connected to all the students. Even though we may live in different parts of the world, we are similar in a lot of the ways that count. We all have values, dreams, and goals, and even if we’re working towards them in different parts of the world, it connects us. We’re all young Indian women working hard and finding our place.
Once they got to know me better, I got many questions about life in the United States and what it is like for an Indian girl. I was more than happy to answer any and all of their questions. Many of them expressed to me that they had never been outside India, but they did want to eventually study outside India. Being around my friends is some of the most comfortable I’ve felt since I’ve been in India, but at the same time, I was explaining my experience as an Indian-American.
One thing that I didn’t expect was that most people’s first impression of me isn’t that I’m from America. I often have to bring it up. I met a counselor at a hospital, and she asked me where I was from. I said, “I live in the U.S. I was born there.” And she replied, “When I look at you, you look Indian, even though you said you’re from the U.S. Whatever your roots are, you can’t hide them.” When she said that, I definitely felt it. America will always be my home because that’s where I was born and live. But India is my roots. And coming here to India, and spending time in places near and dear to my culture connects me to my roots in ways I haven’t before. Truly having the chance to spend time with my grandparents and hear their stories is a privilege that I simply wouldn’t have otherwise.
Not a tourist
There are some places here in India where I feel completely out of place, but some places where I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be. Amritsar, Punjab, is a special place because it’s not only where my grandparents live but also one of the most sacred cities for Sikhs. It’s also on the border of India and Pakistan, and I attended something called the “Wagah Border Ceremony,” where the military on each side of the border put on a ceremonial show of power. It happens every year, and hundreds of thousands of people attend. It is a very popular tourist attraction, and even though I was “visiting” India, I didn’t feel like a tourist in this environment. Moments like attending the Wagah Border Ceremony I feel completely Indian.
History to be remembered
I also went to Harminder Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the Sikh’s most sacred place of worship in Amritsar. I went there with my grandparents on the anniversary of Operation Blue Star in 1984. Operation Blue Star was a Sikh massacre orchestrated by the Indian government where thousands of Sikhs and civilians were killed, and the entire Golden Temple was destroyed. This resulted from decades of tension after the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. Then a campaign of misinformation by the Soviets declared that Pakistan was helping a Sikh separatist movement. This led to many subsequent years of Sikh oppression in Punjab and throughout India. When I went there with my grandpa on the 38th anniversary, he pointed out the scars on the building present to this day. He told me the story of how he and my grandma went to the Golden Temple on that same day and left 15 minutes before it was barricaded. Hearing stories like this resonates deeply with my roots, and I feel the pain of my family and what they went through.
The British colonization of India and the subsequent partition are still very fresh in India, especially in Amritsar. It’s the setting of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, where British soldiers killed hundreds of Indians peacefully protesting. There is a museum that tells the history of this massacre, how Indian soldiers (including many Sikhs) served in the British army during WWI and WWII, and their loyalty was rewarded with oppression in their home country and mistreatment on the battlefield.
I think it’s extremely important to remember these parts of history. As countries like the U.S. and U.K. have become more diverse with higher immigrant populations, their respective militaries are also becoming more diverse, with people like me (a Sikh, Indian-American) serving in U.S. armed forces. Both countries have mistreated minorities in their past, and for it to not happen again, it must be remembered. The U.S. military has definitely taken steps to become more inclusive – i.e., giving religious exemptions to Sikhs and other religions so they can serve and still follow their religion. However, it has taken some time, and there are still ways to go. My grandparents are incredibly proud of me for serving in the U.S. Air Force, and learning about my history reminds me to always carry it with me and ensure that representation is given to all communities.
Jupneet Singh (B.S. Chemistry ’23) is spending her summer in India and interning at Akal Drug De-Addiction and Rehabilitation Center.