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A Simple Gift From My Grandmother Reminded Me To Value My Heritage

The Hindu faith teaches us to take care of one another. Aaji wanted to remind me of this.

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“Aaji, let me show you my dolls!” I said to my grandma, who was visiting for the summer.

I particularly wanted her to see her my new American Girl doll. Having such a doll at the age of 7 was the epitome of cool, and I eagerly showed my grandma all the clothes and shoes I had bought for her. My doll's name was Josefina. She was Native American and I requested that my parents buy her for one reason: Out of all of the available American Girl dolls, she resembled me the most. But as my grandma sat with me in her traditional Indian kurta and pajama, I sensed she was not pleased.

My grandmother was concerned that I, a second-generation Indian-American, was seemingly abandoning my culture by not having an Indian doll. My grandparents live over 14 hours away in India, a place that Aaji has always badly wanted me to experience. Aaji immediately began taking measurements of my doll.

Two months later, a package arrived. My mom called me downstairs. I ran to the kitchen, where I saw tiny little clothes laid out along the counter. Once I saw the clothes on my dolls, I realized that my grandma cared about permanently instilling my culture in me. I was brought up in the Hindu faith, which teaches us to take care of one another, and Aaji wanted to help remind me of this.

It was a lesson I recalled years later in ninth grade, when I was given the opportunity to teach a group of six 9- and 10-year-olds at the Chinmaya Saraswati Enrichment Club, which is run by a nearby Hindu temple. My brother had always been fascinated by geography and history, and his interests influenced my decision to teach those subjects to this group of students, all of whom were first-generation Hindus.

From September to March, we met weekly. I used a combination of online resources and games I created to teach these students, and, as the months passed, I began to see my young students steadily awaken. It’s hard to say who had more fun -- the kids or me. But one thing became increasingly clear: They were ready to tackle something grander than the Enrichment Club.

In the spring of my junior year, my students took the qualifying test for the National History Bee. They passed it, went on to the regional finals in Darien, Connecticut, and eventually qualified for the National History Bee finals in Louisville, Kentucky. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend because the trip was too expensive, but this year we plan on raising the money needed — and going all the way to victory.

While reflecting on this grand adventure, I thought back to the doll clothes lying on the kitchen counter. It occurred to me that, in some ways, they had served as an invitation to learn about myself. My background influenced me to consider the welfare of others, as I did with those 9- and 10-year-olds. I also realized that I have been privileged to live in a country in which first-generation children can embrace a new culture while retaining the richness of their own heritage. I sometimes dig through my closet and find Josefina proudly wearing the sari my Aaji made and remember this — and that the adventure continues.