March 29, 2017: the inaugural night of the University’s unofficial Bollywood Club. Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students, among others, flocked to the Wilson Black Box Theater, dragging their roommates and friends along for a taste of samosas and Bollywood. The movie of the night was Karan Johar’s “Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani,” a two-and-a-half-hour romantic saga with all the typical ingredients: drama, romance, and (a lot of) dancing. To me, the loud, pulsing music, sequined costumes, and abundant tears elicited a strong sense of nostalgia, making me feel like I was sitting in my living room with my family in Delhi. The other South Asians probably felt the same, judging by the smiles on people’s faces as they explained the movie to friends.
But an unexpected side effect of the screening was a reinforced culture gap between the South Asian students and others. My roommate, who I had dragged along promising entertainment, left mid-movie — partially because the movie was too long and partially because I felt like she got the sense of being an outsider. And who can blame her? While the South Asian community is extremely tight, it is nothing other than a large clique on campus. The cultural bonds that the students share are so strong that they are sometimes isolating, making outsiders feel uncomfortable.
Based on my own experiences as an Indian at the University, hanging out with other Indians is like a chain reaction. Often, I have been sitting in Frist Campus Center with an Indian friend when another Indian passes by and sits on the sofas with us. Then another Indian walking through Frist spots us, comes to exchange small-talk, and gets sucked into the whirlpool. Soon, the sofas in Frist are covered with Indians, laughing at inside jokes and occasionally lapsing into Hindi. Arya Goel ’20, from Jaipur, India, acknowledges that having this kind of tight-knit group feels nice when he’s homesick. But it has also encouraged him to make a conscious effort to escape the whirlpool effect.
“As someone who's made an effort to befriend a diverse group of people, I believe that hanging out with only other Indians hampers making the best of the Princeton experience which requires one to step out of their comfort zone,“ he said.
Various groups on campus also facilitate this sense of exclusivity, of being a clique. In addition to the South Asian Students Association, there is also Pehchaan — a Pakistani students association — and the Princeton Bengal Tigers. There are also clubs that promote the cultural dances and sports of the countries, like Naacho (the South Asian dance company), Princeton Bhangra, and Princeton Cricket Club. These groups also celebrate cultural festivals like Holi and Diwali that that are well-attended by South Asian students missing the festive atmosphere back home.
“I found avenue after avenue that connected me to other South Asians. This community provided me with a support system when I needed it the most,” said Saad Malik ’20, who is from Lahore, Pakistan, and is an active member of Pehchaan, Princeton Cricket Club, and Naacho. He adds, “Princeton feels like a home away from home for South Asians.”
While none of these groups exclusively recruit South Asians, there often tends to be a small minority of non-South Asian members. This makes it easier for South Asian students to create closer bonds and form an even tighter clique, enforcing the sense of insularity. Jane Sul ’20, who is Korean-American, has first-hand experience being an outsider in the Indian clique.
Sul is a contributing reporter for the ‘Prince.’
“There is definitely a strong sense of community among South Asians on campus,” she said. “Everyone seems to know each other, and I sometimes feel at loss when I’m with them because I don’t speak their language or understand some of their references. I’m usually just silent when I’m around them.”
I do not know what I would do without my Indian friends on campus. Speaking with them in Hindi, sharing cultural references, and being with people that remind me of home makes the University a warmer, safer place. But sometimes, I notice that my other friends seem left out and unresponsive when I’m with my Indian friends, and that makes me break out of my bubble. At the next Bollywood movie screening, on March 9, I hope to see a transition from being an isolating clique to a welcoming community.