So… What Are You? By Rishbha Bhagi

Originally published in Razorcake #83, (Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015), here is a printable PDF and full text of Rishbha Bhagi’s So… What Are You?

What’s the overlap between DIY hip hop and DIY punk rock? What makes these two scenes attractive to second generation immigrants? Rishbha tells her story of growing up in Canada as the child of Indian immigrants and her exposure to punk and hip hop. She interviews other second generation immigrants involved with both DIY hip hop and punk to learn about their experiences and relate them to her own.

The pages are sequential. We figured out how to do it on our end, but, man, printers are wildly different.
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So… What Are You?
By Rishbha Bhagi

“So… what are you?”

If I had a penny for every time I heard that question, I’d be a millionaire.

It’s one thing being an immigrant, but being a second-generation immigrant is a whole different beast. My parents came to Canada in the 1970s from India, and I will never ever understand the hardships, struggles, and blatant racism that they went through to build their life there. My parents worked their asses off to give me and my siblings an awesome life, and what’s even more impressive is that they actually succeeded. My dad would always go off on his, “I came to this country with three dollars in my pocket…” speeches and although I’d roll my eyes when he’d start, I know deep down how much respect I have for him and my mom. That takes a kind of strength and courage that few North American citizens will ever know. My father traveled to the other side of the planet, speaking a different language, walked into a completely different culture and country that he had never experienced, barely even heard of before, with literally three fucking dollars in his pocket, and against all odds and absolutely no support system, he successfully built a life and a family there. There is nothing more punk rock than that. My Dad embodied the punk rock ethos and he didn’t even know it. If he did know it, he didn’t care.

But, ultimately, his experiences are vastly different from mine and my siblings. My parents know what they are and where they’re from—they’re Indian citizens who are now Canadian citizens. But I was born in Canada. I’m Canadian. I’m Western. I’m North American. That crazy culture that my dad walked into from halfway around the world? That’s the culture that I’m made out of. There is literally a culture shock between me and my parents. This would explain why in high school, when I did all the stupid shit I did (let’s just say I really put the “high” in high school), my parents freaked out a lot more than my white friends’ parents did. I never understood why they’d freak out, and they didn’t understand why I didn’t just keep my head down and go to school. The clash between what I wanted and what was expected wasn’t just in a superficial sense—it was in a cultural sense. If I went against my parents, I wasn’t just disrespecting them, I was disrespecting my culture.

But which culture? Shit’s complicated.

I didn’t even have it that bad, to be honest. My parents are hella cool and non-traditional, so it’s not like they were telling me and my siblings that we had to be engineers or doctors or anything. But they still, as typical Asian parents do, held education in the highest regard. I flirted with getting expelled from high school, which shocked and disoriented my parents. My mom was a Ph.D. in Literature and Linguistics and her daughter could barely even finish high school—she obviously wasn’t very impressed with me.

What made things worse was that the discord I felt between me and my parents bled into my social life, my Western life. Being a second-generation immigrant and looking the way I do made me realize at a very young age that a majority of people in the world are a special kind of stupid. Ignorant in the original sense of the word. From a young age, I’ve been having random people come up to me and demand, “What are you?” I would be so caught off guard. I mean, excuse me? Who are you and why do I have to justify my existence to you? And, of course, no answer that I gave to their question would suffice. I would tell people I’m Canadian and hear, “No, where are you really from?”

Now how am I supposed to answer that?

I. Am. Canadian.

It says so on my passport, on my birth certificate, on all my legal documents. But, apparently, only white people live in Canada, so I’m not a “real” Canadian. People wanted to hear me say that I’m Indian, but I’m really not. You think people in India would consider me “Indian”? Hell no. They’d have a lot of names for me, but “Indian” would not be one of them. People from India are Indians. I’m from Canada, so I’m Canadian. How is this difficult to understand?

But people are so caught up in race and ethnicity, in stereotypes and categorizations, that they don’t even realize they’re being low-key racist. Coming at someone you don’t even know and asking “What are you?” is racist. Regardless of the fact that it’s a painfully stupid thing to ask generally, you’re basically saying, “Hey, you don’t fit in here so explain yourself to me. Explain what your ethnicity is because you don’t belong here.” Having to deal with that question, having to explain your ethnicity to people for literally your entire life gets really old, really fast.

I’d hear the most fucked up shit. “Do you have an easier name?”, “You’re vegetarian? Is it because of your religion?”, “Oh wow, you don’t look Indian at all!” That last comment especially does my head in. Anyone care to explain to me what a “typical” Indian looks like? There are over a billion people on the Indian subcontinent, which goes all the way up to the Himalayan Mountains and all the way down to near the equator. There are Indians that are blacker than black people and Indians that are whiter than white people. So just because your dumb ass knows everything you know about Indians through Apu from The Simpsons, you think that every single one of those billion people look the same?

I’ve always had an eccentric group of friends and acquaintances and in hanging out with so many different types of people, I began to notice similarities and patterns between how people behaved and how they self-identified, especially in a subcultural sense. It sounds obvious, no doubt, but what I didn’t realize until then was how deep this connection went.

Belonging to a subculture can influence beliefs held, clothes worn, styles sought after, behavioral tendencies, biases and opinions, political views, attractions to others, future paths and career choices, and much more. For example, all the punks I was familiar with were similar in their personalities—critical thinkers, consciously went against the mainstream, socially and politically aware, worked at jobs that didn’t bring in a lot of money, but were noble in their cause (activism, working with homeless people, working at women’s shelters, etc.).

My close friends all saved up to buy designer clothes, watched mainstream movies, went to the hottest clubs, bought the trendiest gadgets, and wanted to date people who had money (if they were girls) or big butts (if they were guys). Me? I’ve never even owned anything designer in my life or worked at a major corporation. I can’t even remember the last movie I saw and I’ve been to three clubs my entire life. I just recently entered the 21st century and got a proper smart phone. As for dating, I just wanted a pro-marijuana dude with a green mohawk—that was literally my only criteria. Even that—my taste in dudes—was influenced by punk. I was never attracted to a guy making tons of money, working for some big corporation. Corporations are evil and I don’t give a shit about money. Is that why I was drawn to punk? Or is punk why I think like that?

“Fuck It All, Just Do You.”

People’s obsession with ethnicity, categorizing people, and only thinking in stereotypes fascinates me. Identity is hard enough to find as it is, but when you’re literally told by every person around you that you’re not enough of this and not enough of that, that you’ll never be this and you’ll never be that, it’s a million times more difficult. I’m not Indian enough for my parents, but I’m not Western enough for North American society. No one will accept me calling myself Canadian, but on the other side of the world, no one will accept me calling myself Indian. Because of this exile from the mainstream society, I identified with punk, the subculture that says, “Fuck it all, just do you.” But even in that subculture, in Vancouver in the early 2000s, I wasn’t accepted by anyone other than the fellow brown chick I showed up with. I wasn’t white enough. I listen to other types of music (I love hip hop), so I wasn’t “punk” enough. So where am I supposed to go? How am I supposed to find my own identity? I’m lucky enough to be genuinely part of two cultures, but when neither of them accepts me, and when the culture I chose to integrate myself into doesn’t accept me, then what am I?

My identity was tied directly with my experience in subcultures. For growing up in a city that claims to be oh so multicultural, I experienced mind-boggling forms of racism. I’d go to punk shows and be the only non-white person there. I, of course, didn’t care about this, because I’m normal. What the hell do I care how much melanin you have in your body? But I learned that nobody there was about that life. At literally every punk show I went to, I would try to start conversations with the white kids, only to have them look me up and down like I was a freak show fugitive and walk away without saying a word. It didn’t take long to notice that the white kids only talked to the other white kids. They weren’t interested in me—and why would they be? They were “punks.” They wanted to stand out in specific ways, but I stood out more just by being non-white, and obviously that didn’t fly well with them.

Nobody was blatantly racist to me—it was way subtle. When I would talk to people of other ethnicities about punk bands, I would hear things like, “But you’re brown. Shouldn’t you like hip hop?” This confused the shit out of me. Ethnicity dictates the music you listen to? What in the neo-colonial hell?

Even though I was being ridiculously rejected from the punk community in my city, I still identified with punk. Why should I stop liking punk just because I’m being marginalized by its followers? I may not be Indian enough or Western enough or punk enough, but what punk rock told me was that all of that is okay because who gives a shit? That’s why I appreciate punk. Not because I found a community in it, necessarily, but because it taught me that I didn’t need one. That I can be me, be a part of so many differently types of cultural communities, and that I didn’t need to change a thing. Besides, I had hope that there were intelligent people beyond my lame city, and once I finished school, I went searching for them.

When I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I went to California and spent time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In San Francisco, I went to a punk show at some random warehouse. I was nervous because I was used to being a pariah at punk shows. Surprisingly, I felt a huge sense of relief because the venue was filled with Mexicans. As funny as it sounds, seeing Mexicans everywhere assured me I was in the right place because hey, they’re brown and I’m brown—albeit a different kind—so they must be cool. Sure enough, my experience at that show was different from what I was used to. People were nice, they smiled at me, they approached me, actually conversed with me. I was shocked. Not all punks were racist dicks—who knew?!

So what was different? Well, I was in a different country, in a big city. A real city. The show I went to was more ethnically diverse than the shows I was used to. People seemed more open and more mature, almost. That experience taught me that although subcultures like punk may be called the same thing and associated with the same beliefs all over the world, geography plays a huge part in how these subcultures actually manifest. Geography, ethnicity, population—these things continually change the makeup of a subculture and are constantly in a flux. So on top of that, where do second-generation immigrants like me fit in?

I decided to try and answer these questions when I came down to Los Angeles in 2012 to do my Master’s degree in Communications.

Since we live in a continent made up of some of the most multicultural societies in the world, it’s important to bring awareness to what some of our fellow citizens are going through and how racism can pervade so many aspects of our society.

Subcultures in the Tiniest Nutshell Ever

Love your subculture? You can thank Hades for that. In the sixteenth century, criminal underworlds meshed together to create a sub-society of sorts, made up of people who preferred to live on the edges of societal acceptance instead of conforming to what was seen to be “normal.” Because of this, the history and foundation of subcultures is directly tied to criminal behavior and social deviancy. Put it this way—if it wasn’t for some gangbanging bank robbers in the 1500s, we wouldn’t have the punk scene.

By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, these fringe sub-societies became synonymous with the concept of “youth.” Young people rebelling against their parents and what society expected from them became the face of subcultures in general. At this point, the underworld-inspired gang mentality that the concept of subcultures grew out of had transformed into a bona fide community structure. Subcultures became a means to create communities of people who shared similar beliefs in what they liked, what they aspired to be, what they wore, what they supported—everything.

Subcultures are fluid. They rebel against the mainstream, but “mainstream” is different everywhere. Even though a subculture may have one name that it’s recognized by worldwide, it’s practiced differently in different places, which resulted in my different experiences at punk shows in different cities. Subcultures are personifications of stereotypes, both the ones they are rebelling against and the ones that they’re creating in the process of revolt. They’re made up of like-minded people who share a particular set of beliefs, values, and preferences, and this is clearly seen in the case of music subcultures.

Subtle as it is, music is super important in providing the tools needed for creating an identity.

Eventually, music subcultures become co-opted into the mainstream. We’ve all seen this with virtually every genre of music. What this does is take away from the fundamental value system that the subculture came out of. This waters down the subculture’s opposition to the mainstream. It waters down the elements of identity, community, and beliefs the subculture originally grew from. The three main cruxes of punk were to be anti-conformity, anti-capitalist, anti-mainstream. But when the mainstream swallowed punk up, it shat out the most superficial aspects of punk. Punk became “punk.” The underlying, fucked up message: You don’t have a five-foot purple mohawk and aren’t wearing overpriced clothes from Hot Topic, while pretending to be a homeless squeegee kid? Well, you’re not a punk, then.

…And Out Come the Culture Vultures

What I wanted to do was see what, if any, kind of relationship there was between second-generation kids and subcultures. I wanted to see if other second-generation immigrants had the same experiences and beliefs as me, even though we’d be from different cultures. I talked to eight second-generation immigrants—four Latino/Hispanic people who all more or less identified with punk (Rene, Juan, Yvonne, and Claudia) and four African-American/black people (Che, Charles, Bernice, and Rachelle) who all more or less identified with hip hop. I chose these two cultures because they’re the largest minority groups in America.

Identity played a huge part in my discussions with everyone. I started off asking them how they identified on a nationalistic level. It seems like a simple question, yet I ended up getting into a full on discussion with every person I asked about this. Rene was the only one of the Latino/Hispanic group to refer to himself as just Mexican. “I don’t call myself Latino at all,” he said. “Why would I? My parents are from Mexico, so I’m Mexican.” Juan and Claudia called themselves Mexican-American. “It’s a little conflicting,” Juan said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re not really Mexican, but then sometimes you’re reminded that you’re not really American.”

The African-American group shared a similar sense of confusion in describing themselves, but, interestingly, they all clarified they weren’t—black American. “Even though a black American may face just as much racism as me, they have a completely different culture,” Rachelle said. “They don’t have that immigrant mentality that my parents brought with them from Haiti, so their values, their ideals, and their goals can be really different from mine.” Charles was the only person to identify with his parents’ country of origin. “I’m Nigerian-American,” he said. “I don’t call myself ‘African-American’ because first of all, that term is politically correct for all the wrong reasons, and secondly, I don’t have the same experiences as a black American.”

See how stupid that “What are you?” question is? We don’t even know, man.

Yvonne and I shared experiences about how annoying it was to be asked “What are you?” on a constant basis. “People have to put a label on everything and if you don’t fit that label, they get uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m labeled a Latina, but it’s always in a negative way, though ninety-nine percent of the time I’m proud of my culture. People can’t tell that I’m Latina and it annoyed me when I was younger. I’d hear, ‘You don’t look Mexican!’ and I’d say, ‘Oh I’m sorry, would it make you feel better about me being Mexican if I had a big sombrero and serape and had a donkey behind me?’ It’s annoying to have to make others feel comfortable about my ethnicity.”

Claudia grew up in Orange County, which she described as a “Republican county” with “a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment” and “pressure to be white.” “Because of where I grew up, I don’t have that stereotypical Mexican accent,” she explained. “I’m always asked by people: ‘Why do you talk like a white girl?’”

This issue of facing racism and being accused of talking or acting “white” from people of their own ethnic background was extremely common. “I would get a lot of crap from my own kind,” Bernice said. “My family is well-educated, but in school it’s not cool to be smart and get good grades or to not be like the other black kids. I spoke proper English, so other black kids would say, ‘You’re talking white. Go hang out with the white people.’ But then white people would be like, ‘You’re black. What are you doing here?’”

So how do you win in this situation? White people think we’re too brown, but we got brown people thinking we’re too white.

People seem to think racism is solely burning crosses and calling people derogatory names in public, but it goes deeper. It’s not always in your face—it’s systemic. You and “your kind” are set up in society to fail. It’s that simple and that complicated. “People like to be talking about how we live in a ‘post-racial’ society, whatever the hell that means,” Che said. “It’s a historical fact, no matter how much you want to sugarcoat it: the U.S. system is based on slavery and subjugation. This entire country was built on discrimination. It’s still that way today—it’s just not as overt.”

For the most part, racism has taken a much more subtle form nowadays. Rene defined racism as, “The nod you get from that white guy that you’ve seen at every punk show for fucking years, but he’ll never give you a handshake.” He went on to say that he found it “annoying” how racist people are towards Mexicans in Los Angeles because, “We were here first. Don’t you think if you invade China there’s going to be a lot of Chinese people? I mean, sorry bro, that’s how it goes!” Yvonne also felt indirect forms of ethnic discrimination at her workplace due to the fact that she worked in a Latin division at the company. “It’s frustrating because it’s like, I can do your job and my job, but you can only do your job.”

Che described racism simply. “It’s really just that—a fear,” he said. “Society has this perpetual fear of black men. I’m black, so that means I’m bad, I’m up to something. It’s a very stereotypical image that you’d think people would’ve grown out of by now, but it’s still there, even at places like universities. There’s just so much fear, and it’s all for what I’m capable of. And it’s funny, because I’m fearful of people fearing me. At times I can’t be as confident as I should, because that confidence can come across as aggression and then people won’t want to interact with me. That’s scary to me—I don’t want to make people fearful of me, because I’m not that person.” Due to all the stereotypes attached to black people, as he got older, Che saw other subtle forms of racism. “And because I drive a nice car, people always assume that I stole it, or I sell drugs, or I’m an athlete.”

Whether it’s something as seemingly innocuous as the kind of accent you have or where your parents hail from, people always have something to hate on if you mess with their conformed social bubble. We can deny it all we want, even all us punk rockers who think we’re so above it all. But the truth is, people want conformity, at least on some level. Whether it’s in popular culture or on the edges of society, we ultimately want like-minded people to create communities with, even if those communities are going against the mainstream. Punk is still often conformist—it’s just conforming to non-conformity in predictable patterns. Without conformity, a majority of people get put off and resort to marginalizing others who don’t fit their mold.

And when you’re an “other,” you find out quick that shit is bleak when it comes to assimilating, even when you try to. So to find an identity, all us second-generation immigrants gravitated towards music subcultures that seemed to be the most welcoming, coincidentally, in this case, punk and hip hop.

Gank Our Subculture, Gank Our Identity

Punk and hip hop have a lot in common. Every person I interviewed made a comment about how their subculture—either punk or hip hop—is universal because it’s the soundtrack to protest. Concerning hip hop, Che said, “There’s a lot of suffering that underlies all of hip hop—a lot of people can relate to that, all in their own unique ways.” Rachelle also felt this way. “Hip hop was all about fighting back against being oppressed by society, so anyone who had ever felt left out or marginalized in any way could come to a hip hop show and find some kindred spirits.”

It’s the same with punk. “The international language is music,” Rene said. “But punk challenges social divisions of things like wealth and class, which are found all over the world, and it speaks to people who want to break these divisions—that’s universal.” These divisions are found everywhere, not just in our society, and that’s why punk has the mass appeal it does. “Punk is all over the world because there’s no political peace anywhere,” Claudia said. “Fortunately for punk.”

It’s not just me who got told that I should like hip hop instead of punk because I’m brown. Juan had the same experience of people being confused about his love for punk. “They would come up to me and ask, ‘Why do you like white people music?’” Dumbass questions like that only solidified his love for it. Rene took it one step further, saying “I define ethnically as a punk. I think punk is something that you can choose to be that supersedes all other things, culturally.”

This idea of punk serving as a culture that’s open and accepting was a key point in why the people identified with it, because it helped bring them some sense of belonging and community in which they would always be accepted, no matter what.

Hip hop does the same thing. It came from the same struggles and injustices, embraced the DIY ethos, and was meant to uplift a community of marginalized people. “Hip hop started off as a subculture of protest,” Charles explained. “It was against the mainstream, oppressive views that people had about black people—that’s what it was born out of. But when a subculture becomes too threatening, mainstream society starts devaluing it. That’s exactly what happened with hip hop. All of the socially conscious messages and positivity in hip hop turned into sexual promiscuity, drugs, gangster life, being uneducated… all that watered down the subculture. That made it ready for the mainstream because it lost its original message and was now safe for consumption.”

Interestingly, though, the African-American group almost felt forced into hip hop. “Honestly, if I was white, I’d have more options,” Che said. “That’s simply because white subcultures are more exclusive. As a white person, I’d have more options to delve into other things and I’d be more accepted in more places. I could listen to anything I wanted to and ‘get away with it,’ so to speak. Recently, white subcultures are becoming a little more inclusive and I’m getting into different things now that I’m older, but, generally, my skin color determines the expectations people have for me, even down to what kind of music I listen to. So for me, it’s hip hop or die.”

Rachelle had a similar sentiment. “I do genuinely love hip hop, but sometimes I feel like I have to love it,” she said. “It’s weird, but sometimes people make me feel bad for not listening to it all the time. Not intentionally, of course, but they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re listening to indie rock? That’s… weird.’”

Both groups identified with subcultures that have been co-opted. Punk got co-opted back in the mid-‘90s, and now it’s hip hop’s turn. “Hip hop culture has and continues to influence so many aspects of everyday life,” Che said. “It’s transcended race, class, and economic barriers because one of the things that it’s based on is the concept of ‘cool.’ Basically, ‘cool’ plus ‘struggle’ equals hip hop. That’s why it’s perfect for getting co-opted—it’s the perfect culture for today’s consumerist society, because it’s always promoting the latest trend. Mainstream culture hasn’t embraced the economic disadvantages that hip hop came out of. They’ve embraced the results, but not what it took to get there.”

That cool factor is what makes hip hop so profitable nowadays. The same thing happened with punk—the powers that be realized that there was money to be made off of rebellion, that anti-conformity was a great capitalist venture.  “Corporate America will swallow up and sell anything,” Rene said. “The groundwork is done by the actual subculture and the finished product is stolen by ‘The Man,’ if you will. They made hip hop ‘rap,’ metal ‘hair-metal,’ punk ‘pop punk’—they don’t care what it is as long as they know that there’s a large enough misunderstanding about it that people won’t be able to tell real from fake.”

Hip hop has become so mainstream that the dress, speech, and behavior associated with it has also become mainstream, yet the stigma behind the actual culture that hip hop came out of, the actual treatment of black people, hasn’t changed a bit. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The mainstream has appropriated black culture, but still refuses to respect it. “When you think about it, hip hop culture has done a lot more for race relations than people like to give it credit for, yet people still love to talk smack about it,” Che said. “How can you do that with a straight face? You can’t be hating on black people when you’re dropping your kids off to their concerts.” But like I said, America is obsessive when it comes to race.

So… What Are You?

I’d started out thinking that second-generation immigrants had two filters of identity to go through—our parents’ native country’s filter and our Western native country’s filter. But I found that second-generation immigrants actually have three filters to go through: the sets of cultural norms from our parents’ culture, American culture, and our own ethnic group. Meaning, second-generation immigrants face the challenge of not only trying to assimilate to the expectations held by both our parents and American culture, but we also have to deal with expectations that outsiders from our ethnic group have of us.

Second-generation immigrants have to deal with the paradox of juggling the stereotypes and expectations of us from three differing sets of cultural norms, even though we’ll ultimately never truly fit in any one—if anything, the more we try to fit in to one particular set, the more we’ll lose touch with and distance ourselves from the other two cultures, because we’re being too much of something and not enough of something else.

Needless to say, I was stoked not just because I’m a closet nerd, but also because everything I had ever felt about my identity—all the confusion, frustration, and anger I had towards people who judged me for my ethnicity—all of that was vindicated. I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t overreacting. I was just a second-generation immigrant trying to find my way amongst a sea of stereotype- and race-obsessed people.

So the million dollar question, then: What am I? Well, I’m all of it. I’m Canadian, I’m Indian, I’m Western, I’m Eastern, I’m punk, I’m hip hop, I’m North American, I’m Asian… I’m everything.

I am me.

And you will fucking deal.