Growing up as an Indian in America, I experienced a early-life crisis similar to Hank in the book Panama, conflicted by the two cultures that were part of his life. I was born in America but possessed the skin color and complexion of a person considered foreign. Like Hank, I had an incessant conflict with trying to fit into a culture that didn’t accept me and a culture I represented and carried with me everywhere I went. As an Indian American, I was part of what is considered a microculture: a “subgroup” of individuals marked by their own distinct language, practices, and expectations. Microcultures also often possess a distinct image from the majority represented in their respective country. As an Indian in the United States, I often felt like a fly in milk carton, distinct in a crowd, and uncomfortable in my identity. Interestingly, traveling throughout Panama has showed me how sharing cultures and mixed heritage can be common and comfortable. I find myself smiling in the crowd, channeling my individualism, and feeling comfortable with who I am and who I represent.
In the last month, I have had the pleasure of acquainting myself with a student at the University of Louisville who shared both Panamanian and Indian culture and was a native to Panama City. Moving to the United States, he faced many of the same struggles I had growing up in Kentucky, trying to fit in, but standing out because of what he looked like. We bonded over our culture but I came to realize I was hardly aware of the other aspect of his culture that made his biracial. He was partially Panamanian, and I was completely ignorant of the fact that there could be an Indian community in Panama. As I did more research into the topic, I was surprised to find that there are around 15,000 Indians in Panama comprising their community. Interestingly, the Colon Free Zone region of the Panama Canal was mostly founded by Indian immigrants in Panama. Their independent communities exist in Panama City and Colon and even though their culture is small, it is continuously distinct and imperative to the diversity of Panama.
As I continue to travel in Panama City and its neighboring cities, my intercultural experiences and conversations continually play a role in my knowledge of the culture and the diverse people that make up its own heritage. If Panama has taught me one thing about culture, it’s that no matter where microcultures are working within the larger macroculture. They are fighting to preserve their individuality and heritage as I have done in my own life. My friend from Panama ad myself not only share a part of our own Indian culture, but we also share an obligation to preserve who we are and express our identities.