Himani Jadeja is a 24 year old American-Indian with a background in public health. She currently runs Hint of Desi, an instagram account where she showcases her desi and American cultures through stunning photography and outfits.
Kaneeka (our founder) had the opportunity to have an in depth conversation with her about social justice, having uncomfortable conversations with our families, and coming to terms with identity in the diaspora (our favourite topic).
Hi Himani! Tell us what you do outside of instagram - who really is Himani Jadeja?
I'm actually in healthcare – I have a Masters in public health from Boston University. Collective experiences from living in India for 11 years and having uninsured parents who struggle with their doctors’ appointments and not speaking English, just ignited this passion to go into healthcare. I've always been like a social justice healthcare person and so I felt like this was it for me because it would allow me to do public health work along with addressing social inequality within healthcare. I also did a lot of photography work in high school but adjusting to college life, I felt like I kind of let go of that creative side of me. It led to a lot of mental health issues – I actually had depression when I was in undergrad because it, I just was not able to handle it, and I didn't have any support. It felt like it was the right time to start up my creative juices again [through my Instagram] and is something I wanted to do for years – I always loved playing with clothes and always loved to take pictures, or get my pictures taken. It’s all been a part of my healthy process of mental recovery – realising that I can be career driven and analytical but also creative.
"How incredible would it be to see the older generation of South Asian Americans supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, because the younger generation like us decided to be uncomfortable, make them feel uncomfortable, and just kept pushing on that issue instead of fighting for it just for a month and then dropping it."
The university experience can be so overwhelming that you let go of everything beyond your academia and your career focus so it's really good that you could have come back towards like doing other stuff beyond just that.
Yeah and it's also I feel like it was even more difficult because it's kind of hard to convince your South Asian family to let you go full time into a creative career – they want you to be in healthcare or a lawyer. I had even applied to photography school and I got in but then at the last moment, I didn't get the support from my family and so didn’t end up pursuing it. I am a little bit angry at myself that I let myself down and I didn’t push to follow my dream harder.
That's really interesting you say that you feel this way, because I feel like I used to have this that we should you know really fight for what we want but the thing is that we generally as females in this larger community of South Asians have been told from birth that we are expected to do certain things and act a certain way. Our parameters have been defined for us from birth, so how can we be expected to suddenly turn around assert our wants and needs. It isn’t possible to assert yourself if you weren't raised in the right environment for that kind of expression.
I think even in that there's a lot of factors you have to consider. One is financials – when you're an immigrant family you don't necessarily come with lots of money, and one of the main things that your parents are thinking about is yourfinancials – are you going to be able to sustain yourself as a photographer? If not, then it reflects as a failure on them and they don't really want that, so their take is that you should have a good Plan A, and then have your creative as a Plan B that you just do on the side. I think it's hard to just rebel against it without considering all the external factors that they're coming from, because this is that's how they were raised and I feel like there's a difference between just like fighting and going against something and respecting and understanding and therefore creating your own path to satisfy your both sides.
So, what made you decide to celebrate your heritage on your platform?
When I first came here, I was 11 years old and very cultured. I had a few cousins here who I had hoped to rely on to help me assimilate into the Westernised culture, but they did not give me the support I wanted, because they thought I just wasn’t ‘americanised’ at all. It caused a lot of confusion in myself that maybe I need to disconnect from my culture in order to be connected to my environment and just actually just even survive and make friends.
When I went to my undergraduate university, I was the only Indian on that campus out of 7000 students. I in my mind I knew I couldn't survive like that – my identity crisis came to heads with me struggling the first year of like undergrad, and not feeling like I fit I like fit and I was letting go of my creative side. At that point I began to question why I let go of my heritage – why did I try to be so “westernised” or “whitewashed”? I did it all to fit in, but I realised that this is just who I am, and if people can’t accept that I have two cultures and two sides to me, then they could leave.
I was embarrassed internally of changing myself and letting go of my culture just to fit in, and I think asking those questions to myself of like “why did I do this?” “why was it so important to me to do that at that moment in time?”. The answer was that as an 11 year old, I did not want to be bullied for the oil in my hair, or taking roti to school, but as an 18 year old I was better able to understand myself and have a conversation with myself on what I need to do to just start embracing my culture a little more. I even organised an Indian Culture Club on campus and I was honestly surprised at the reception it got. It was around March time when I had first started it, and when I hosted holi on campus, I made sure people understood the festival and the meaning behind it, rather than just being about colour. This helped me put into perspective that it is possible if you really just talk to people about your culture and heritage, they are willing to listen and understand. You do not just have to fit into their model of what an American “looks” like.
Having these conversations makes the idea of social justice “stick” and opens up space for conversation about even more issues
I love talking to people about their stories. I'm 20 years old and maybe until I turned 19, I didn't realise that it's okay to have two cultures and be both at the same time. I was born and brought up in the UK so I spent 17 years of my life running away from being Indian outside of my home and then I spent 17 to 19 running away from being British and it was only recently that I realised that you know what, I can be both, and that its okay to be both! So, I love that on your platform you have combined indo-western fashion styles – like how you incorporate jhumkhas and dupattas. Is that a genuine reflection of how you dress or just like is it just like a part of your content
It’s funny you say that because I had a date night last week and we were arguing about what I was going to wear, and I feel like I'm sometimes dressing up way too much because I will add a heavy pair of jhumkhas to a simple outfit. I do try to incorporate both into my wardrobe, but obviously sometimes I like sitting in my sweats, and sometimes it is actually just jeans and T shirt where I have nothing desi about me other than my skin tone.
A lot of your captions touch on very important social issues like social justice, colourism and body positivity. Are these captions reflective of your own experiences, and if not, then why do you use your platform to also showcase social issues?
The other big one I realised that I also touch on is mental health, just because of my own struggles with depression and like not being able to fit into a perfect society. It has had a lot of effect on me, having survived suicidal ideations and I think it's just ignited me to be honest and open about my story so that people don’t feel alone.
In terms of body positivity, I've always been skinny, and I hate that is really hard for me to gain weight. I know we talk about body positivity with the other way, but I also want to preach positivity for girls who are super skinny like me. Being like a 24-year-old who can’t even fit into petite size clothing and has to get them custom stitched makes me feel self-conscious sometimes because I don’t fit into the ideation of what is “perfect”.
Body hair is another thing! When I first moved here, I was actually made fun of for having a lot of arm hair. When I first started at elementary school here, I was made fun of for that in class and I didn't really speak English that well at that time I didn't really know how to speak up for myself, so I just took in the bullying. Then one day I got so fed up I just shaved it all off – and I still majorly regret this! But I don’t understand where this stemmed from – why was it okay for men to walk around with arm hair and not women?
Colourism is something I don’t personally experience but is something I’ve seen happen in my family and within my own relationship. My boyfriend is South Indian, and comments are always made about how dark his complexion is and it’s not okay, even if it is in a joking way. One of my uncles is also significantly darker than the others and he is always labelled “the darker one” – why do people not refer to him by his name or the fact that he is the youngest? My mum also hates it when I sit outside in the sun. I hate that! There is nothing wrong with what shade of brown you are.
I have experiences in my life that have shaped my mindset of what I know that I need to always fight for, but then also the current social justice movements at hand like Black lives matter and #MeToo are always in my mind.
We need to keep having uncomfortable conversations, because eventually they will stop being uncomfortable. How incredible would it be to see the older generation of South Asian Americans supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, because the younger generation like us decided to be uncomfortable, make them feel uncomfortable, and just kept pushing on that issue instead of fighting for it just for a month and then dropping it.
That’s something we as a platform are so passionate about – having uncomfortable conversations. If you keep pushing the boundaries, eventually the goal post will just move. It's about moving the goal post a foot each time you talk to somebody and moving it another foot another foot and another foot and then eventually the amount of space you've created, you look at and would never have imagined 20 years ago having that much space in the community to talk about these issues.
Having these conversations makes the idea of social justice “stick” and opens up space for conversation about even more issues, like colourism and LGBTQ rights. A majority of people do not understand the LGBTQ community and why we need to support them, so using these conversations to push one issue allows us to push another too and really opens up their mindset into understanding the injustices which are happening.
We have three more light-hearted questions to ask you just to round out this conversation. What makes you feel connected to your roots?
One big thing is cooking! My soul feels so much more satisfied the day I eat a Gujarati meal. Knowing I have a masala cabinet in itself makes me feel Indian! Also speaking in Gujarati with my family is important to me, because I want to be able to pass this skill to my children. Knowing that we are talking Gujarati in the household makes me feel connected. Connecting the Hindu side of me, the language, the food and the clothes (my biggest weakness) – all these things makes me feel through and through Indian. Though I am an American citizen, these little things make me feel Indian American.
Who are your desi icons?
I am a huge fan of Jay Shetty and his wife Radhi Devlukia-Shetty! I relate to Radhi so much – she is so bubbly, so positive and I love listening to her IGTV videos on greater life understanding and it really helps calm me down. When I need spiritual awakening, it is so common for me to scroll through their feeds and watch their content. They’re my couple goals, personality goals and mindset goals!
Yes! I am personally a huge fan of Radhi too! I love how she connects Hinduism to modern life and the Western experience – it makes me feel more connected to my religion.
I agree! I love that she talks about the interconnectivity of religion and culture and that you can belong to any religion and any culture and still feel like you belong.
So for our last question, here is something a little bit more left-field – what is something on your bucket list?
This may be shooting for the stars but I would LOVE to be invited to a fashion week and go watch a fashion show live. It is something I’ve always wanted to do! Whether it is Delhi Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week – I would love to go and hang out with my idols and learn about their process and their inspiration.
Thank you so much Himani for talking to us today!
You can find Himani at her instagram account here