How I embraced my Goan Culture

February 22, 2021


Melissa Vital ('23)

From the sacrifice and hard work of her parents, Nicole gains their support and motivation.

Growing up as a first-generation student, I had great difficulty recognizing that embracing my culture is essential to learning about my identity. Without truly understanding my identity, I felt lost and detached because I did not know if I belonged more to my foreign roots or the place I grew up in.

Born and raised in India, my parents traveled to the United States for new opportunities in their professions as my father is an engineer and my mother, a pediatrician. First settling in Dallas, Texas, my parents began to learn American culture through colleagues and even sitcoms, like Silicon Valley, to attempt to understand American humor.

After moving to New Jersey, where I grew up, my parents tried to help me adapt to this new school environment by ensuring that my first language was English instead of Hindi, Portuguese, or Konkani, which are the languages my parents grew up speaking. However, there were unchangeable aspects of my life that made me feel disconnected from other children my age. Both of my parents grew up in Goa, a state in India that was a former Portuguese colony, so they had a different experience than other foreign Indian parents, which then reflected onto me. My family is Catholic, so we did not celebrate Hindu holidays, like Diwali, that are traditionally celebrated in India, simply because they were based on religious values. As a family from Goa, we respect the Hindu traditions by dressing up for the holidays and honoring them with friends, but it is not inherent to our culture. Because of this, I noticed that I did not understand holidays and traditions associated with Indian culture just because I did not hold the same religious values. This caused me to feel detached from my own Indian culture because, in school, the other children of Indian origin celebrated these holidays.

On the other hand, I did not feel accepted on a religious basis either. I went to Catholic teaching after school only to realize that the classes were predominantly white, and throughout elementary and middle school, my family was one of the only colored people in the local church. We stood out, which is not always the best way to assimilate into a new environment.

Nicole Vital (’22) participates in a Goan “teatro,” a play where she plays an American secretary handling affairs with a woman from Goa. (Nicole Vital (’22))

But then, in middle school, my cousins and family here in New Jersey provided me with a real connection to my culture. Ever since my family moved to New Jersey, we had joined this organization called the Goan Association of New Jersey, which is a group of people here in America who are from Goa. I had never thought much of this organization until my cousins and aunt asked me to participate in a play entirely in Konkani, one of our native languages, to perform for the group. After this event, I then participated in a Portuguese dance with my cousins at another cultural event. I began to embrace my culture more as I attended more cultural events.

As part of the Goan community in New Jersey, I celebrate the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, which takes place in December and is widely celebrated in Goa because the body of St. Xavier is presently in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India. At these types of events with other Goans here in New Jersey, we eat cultural and authentic food like steamed rice cakes called sannas, ‘poee,’ which is a Goan bread that has an incredibly fluffy interior, and bebinca, a multi-layered coconut cake for dessert.

Although I initially did not know where I belonged, my journey as a first-generation student changed me and allowed me to identify with my own culture as an American-Goan who enjoys my native traditions and food. In school and my career life, I will continue to embrace and explore my culture, knowing that understanding my roots will lead me to fulfill my own potential better.

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