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Omani? Indian? American? How to Navigate a Triple Identity

As told to October 27, 2020February 11th, 2022Arts & Culture, As Told To

This year’s census and election pushed Kartik Ramkumar to rethink how he describes his heritage and homeland.

Immigrant, Identity, FoodMichelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine
As told to October 27, 2020February 11th, 2022Arts & Culture, As Told To

This year’s census and election pushed Kartik Ramkumar to rethink how he describes his heritage and homeland.

Above: Kartik Ramkumar on Aug. 26, 2020 in his Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago, Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

Recently someone I had just met asked me, “What is your nationality?”

“It depends on how you define it,” I answered.

Is citizenship tied to your country of birth? The country where your parents are from? Or the country that you live in? If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then I am Omani Indian American. Let’s call it OIA for short.

Here is how my identity came to be: I was born in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. My parents were born in India. We moved to the United States in 2003, and I became an American citizen 12 years later.  Like countless others, I am a product of economic migration.

For years, I struggled to define myself. My parents and family friends don’t consider me “truly” Indian because I have lived in the United States for the majority of my life; my values and actions are, as they say, “too American.” My Middle Eastern friends don’t consider me “truly” Omani because my parents are immigrants and don’t practice Islam. To many Americans, I am not considered “truly” American because I was not born in this country, did not receive my citizenship until I was in my 20s, and still have considerable ties to my Indian heritage. I belong to so many different and varied communities; yet, I often feel like an outsider in all of them.

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I’ve long wondered, whether I need a new way of describing myself. Filling out the census this year, I realized I had an opportunity to create my own term to embrace all aspects of my identity. Thus, the label of OIA was born. 

Although in some ways reductive—as all labels inherently are—I thought it would be a term to quickly describe myself to others. I anticipated my friends, family members, and new acquaintances responding with support and interest. But the reality was much different. People were either confused that I was one person carrying three national identities, or they were simply ambivalent. Once, I met another person who shared my background, but they met my eagerness to discuss our experiences with indifference. They had not explored their Omani identity at all; they identify as simply American.

These interactions brought back questions I have had on the back burner: Should I try to represent all three cultures? Should I pay more heed to the forces—such as family, friends, and religion—that have conditioned me to feel like I have a greater claim to Indian and American identities? As I sought to understand myself, I realized I had  to fight these often-overpowering forces to fully understand and own my OIA identity. 

Quarantine has also given me time for self-reflection. Although challenging, these last few months have distanced me from the usual external pressures to fit others’ expectations. During this time, I’ve started to shape my own version of my identity that I alone want to express. 

To embrace my Omani identity, I began learning Arabic and briefly fasted for Ramadan. To embrace my Indian identity, I celebrated Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi, watched Bollywood movies on Netflix, and tried my hand at making traditional dishes from my ancestral home of South India. To embrace my American identity, I started campaigning with a South Asian American organization focused on outreach and education on filling out the census and registering to vote. 

While I have so far found somewhat superficial ways to explore and express each of my identities, I continue to struggle with understanding how they come together to form a whole. My goal was to combine these identities into one that I feel comfortable in and can call my own. In a way, I feel selfish about this longing. But “OIA” represents my individual journey around the world and my eventual settling in a nation made up of immigrants.

This year, as the United States places further restrictions on immigration and visa access, I am even more grateful for my citizenship status in this country and my freedom to express my complex identity. While many people or systems might not recognize or accept my chosen label, I am proud of being Omani Indian American. I am proud of the nations and cultures I represent and want to continue marrying these identities.  

On the census website, I checked the box for “Asian/Asian American.” I have reconciled with the necessity of broad categories to appropriately count the United States population, but that bureaucratic gesture ultimately fails to convey my full story. I hope for a future in which society rightfully acknowledges both our specific identities and our broader cultural groups.

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