A Sense of Belonging

By Shyama Parui

From Das to Parui. From Mumbai's 400062 to Charlotte's 28273.

When I embarked on my first journey from India to the United States as a newlywed, I was overcome with so many emotions that I had little energy to examine my sense of belonging. However, the past two decades have presented me with several opportunities to dwell on the subject. A key question that comes to mind is, when does an immigrant truly belong to his or her place of residence? Did I transition from Indian to American when my zip code changed or after spending the same number of years in this country as I did in the country of my birth? Or was it the day I formally received American citizenship?

By definition, I will always be a native of Mumbai since I am linked to that geographic area by birth. Besides, hometown is always home unless people are forced to flee their homes to seek safety. A touchy subject among Indian women are traditions such as changing their names, addresses and often relinquishing their rights to their family's assets. Even though daughters have a legal right to the parent's property, there is an underlying social pressure to give it up. Daughters were or perhaps still are referred to as “ paraya dhan" implying they represent wealth that belongs to someone else, as in their future “in-laws" family. It can be very isolating for a child to grow up with the message that they belong elsewhere.

Yearning for a sense of belonging is fairly universal and the oft quoted Abraham Maslow places this need right after physiological and safety needs. According to his Hierarchy of Needs, humans strive to satisfy this need before proceeding to seek accomplishment and achieving one's full potential. If we dig deep, we may recognize that it is not impossible to reach to higher level goals in the absence of a sense of belonging, but it compromises our level of satisfaction. No offense to Maslow, but innumerable women and minorities surmount this challenge to succeed in their field even though they get both subtle and obvious signs of not being wanted. From lack of women's bathrooms to being left off the invitation list to the boss's party, they hear the message loud and clear and that message is not welcoming.

Most people I know do not miss the mindless conversations amongst co-workers at happy hour, but it can be frustrating when difficult to pronounce names are conveniently forgotten when it is time for promotion. Imagine how much higher these talented and skilled individuals would soar if they felt more at home with avenues to share their perspective and participate in making decisions at work.

Universities have recognized the significance of adding catalysts to help students and employees experience a sense of belonging. For example, according to Cornell University, “A sense of belonging is what unlocks the power and value of diversity." If a sense of belonging is correlated with performance and retention in academic institutions and the workplace, it is also likely to be true of sports. Sports teams have historically been used to foster camaraderie, but when an individual is unable to affiliate with his or her team, it can lead to devastating results. An athlete may quit or change their sport before getting a chance to demonstrate their greatest level of athletic prowess. Implicit and explicit expectations from coach, audience, as well as their families play a critical role in this area.

Every milestone we reach presents us with change and challenges which often renew the need to reestablish a sense of belonging within the new setting. Fitting in may become a struggle although it is imperative to recognize that it is better to avoid membership in the wrong groups. We often band together over interests, hobbies, neighborhood chatter and those interactions evolve into the creation of a lifelong support system. Community ties also set the foundation of the Little Italys, Chinatowns or Desi Gullies in diverse metropolitan areas.

Culinary delights aside, strictly adhering to your “own" group may not be the best in the long run. I am a huge proponent of diversity of thought, so I believe that we may want to balance our experiences. Treading on new territories even if we feel lost at first could be worthwhile. With the help of a worthy mentor and partnership with a respectable ally we can open many doors. On the flip side, we can include new and diverse members to our tribes and provide them with the tools to navigate the internal environment. Following recommendations based on the work by McCullogh (1981) and Schlogroussberg (1985) who are experts in this field, we can communicate a feeling of appreciation and value. Each person wants to believe that they matter and by the same token we possess the ability to convey that powerful feeling of mattering. And while we are at it, can we please get rid of the concept of “ paraya dhan"?


Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com