Skip to main content

Reclaiming My Identity Part 2: Embracing All of Me

Photo of the author, Zulekha Sayyed, an Indian-American woman wearing glasses, a headscarf, and a flower print dress.

For the second story in our “Reclaiming My Identity” series, Zulekha shares her experiences with microaggressions through anecdotes illustrating how others perceived her as a foreigner. Many AA and NHPI individuals feel like they are living between two cultures because of stereotyped and biased visions of their community. Learn how Zulekha was able to see beyond those perceptions to embrace all her identity.

Questioning what it means to be Asian in America

If you ask me about my identity, I might ask, “which one?” Each of my various identities has at one point challenged the other, and every so often, I feel the pang of loneliness that comes with the thought, “I don’t belong anywhere.”

The first time I had to grapple with my identity was after 9/11. A few months before, my family and I took a three-month trip to India where I was able to connect with my extended family for the first time. Just as I was connecting to my heritage, I found myself struggling with what it means to be American. This challenge has become a lifelong balancing act.

There was the army veteran who was amazed that I was not Middle Eastern and did not have an accent. “I was born here, in the United States,” I kept repeating.

There was the woman who asked me, “Do you miss it? Wherever it is you came from.”

There was the white meditation teacher who said I should understand the concepts better because I am “Eastern.”

Embracing my heritage was the way towards self-advocacy

I can see how people’s faces and tone change as I slowly work to dispel their assumptions and try to make them feel comfortable. I can sense their relief when they hear me speak without an accent. There is pressure within me to go above and beyond because of the ingrained expectation of perfection. I have had to learn that speaking up and talking about my successes does not have to be boastful, but a way to advocate for myself. I have learned to appreciate the depth of perspective that comes from being a part of two cultures.

Moving from balancing my multiculturalism to believing in my individuality

Because my identities inform one another, I can contribute in unique ways. The experiences and years have allowed me to not only say, “I belong,” but they have also allowed me to say, “and this is what an American looks like.” My journey is comprised of acceptance and pride in all my identities, and I am constantly redefining what each of those means for me. I remind myself that I can be each of those identities as well as all of them together. Through the struggle, I can say that the climb to the top of the mountain is lonely, but that is where you get the best view.

Ensuring everyone can bring their whole self to work

Did Zulekha inspire you to be your most authentic self? Read the third and final part of our blog trilogy, “Reclaiming My Identity,” to learn how another member of the NIH community found self-acceptance.

Do you have a story idea for us? Do you want to submit a guest blog? If it's about equity, diversity, or inclusion, please submit to

For news, updates, and videos, subscribe or follow EDI on: Twitter, Instagram, Blog, YouTube.