I’ve been a New Yorker for 14 years and for 10 of them, I’ve also been a Brooklynite. The only borough in which I haven’t worked, lived or attended school is Staten Island, and I’ve ridden every single train at
least once — including the G train.
New York is less new to me than it was
when I first came to the city on my own 15
years ago, but I continue to be invigorated
by the pulse and rhythm of the city, the culture, the intellect, and, of course, the food.
But what I love most about New York, what
everything else depends on, are its people.
New Yorkers are unfairly — and at times,
fairly — depicted as hard-edged, self-serv-ing and cynical. But beneath all of that, we
are as warm and charitable as we are gritty.
That is what makes this place more than a
jungle of concrete, sprouting affordable
rents, over run with aggressive drivers, and
less than reliable subways.
I moved to New York in September 2000,
but it wasn’t until September 2001 that I
New Yorkers really did band together in
the last three weeks of September 2001 and
the months that came afterward. For a
while at least, we weren’t just riders on the
subway or faces on a street, we were sons,
daughters, sisters, brothers, parents and
children who had all felt, sometimes with
more depth than anyone should have to
bear, the same thing.
As a sophomore at New York University,
the strangers I had seen as freshmen suddenly seemed a little less strange.
The kindness I thought I had to leave
somewhere under the Hudson was coming
to the surface in random moments between
strangers. The 30-foot stares were broken
by eye contact.
The carefully roughened exteriors peeled
back; among friends and neighbors I saw
startling expressions of compassion and
community. The city revealed that incredi-
ble vulnerability and undeniable resilience.
It revealed that New Yorkers were deeply
I was a psychology major, and a few
months later I discussed the possibility of
graduate study with my academic advisor.
I told her my 9/11 story and she listened
patiently. Then she said, ‘That’s great. But
why don’t you work the cultural angle?’
I was aghast. ‘ The cultural angle’ was the
very last thing I was interested in ‘working,’
Before I went to NYU, I had felt confined
by the insularity of suburban New Jersey
and by the tight knit Indian-American community. Like many children slapped with
the label ‘first generation’, I struggled to
define an identity that wasn’t just a hyphenated version of ‘American’ and the country
of my parent’s birth.
I felt simultaneously out of place with
‘American-Americans’, whose families had
long histories in the area — or at least
seemed like they did — and what I thought
were typical New Jersey desis, many of
whom seemed to have few friends or interests outside of the Indian community.
I had a sense that my struggle was not
unique, but I wasn’t sure what to do about
it. I ended up with an ambivalent relationship with my roots: I spoke highly of my
background (my parents were from
Chennai) when I was with my new friends
in college, but on an unconscious level I was
trying to escape it.
I didn’t make a single Indian friend in
four years at NYU, which is remarkable
given the school’s diversity, and the number
of desis who probably felt just like I did. I
yearned to explore and develop other
aspects of myself, unfettered by ethnicity,
the way I assumed that ‘Americans’ were
able to do.
So in what passes for wisdom among 19
year olds and college students at expensive
universities, I made it quite clear to my aca-
demic advisor that I had come to New York
to pursue new interests and to engage with
what the city had to offer. I explained that I
was absolutely-not-interested-in ‘me-
search’, a derisive term that refers to self-
referential research interests.
I had a very compelling experience of intimacy and connectedness after September
2001 and I wanted to build my academic
career from that perspective. She shrugged
and responded matter-of-factly, ‘Listen,
what New York has to offer is a whole lot of
people who are not from here. And nowadays, psychologists need to develop a genuine understanding of cultural differences.
All I’m saying is that you might be one step
ahead of the game.’
I was skeptical of ‘the cultural angle.’ But
a lead from my brother pushed me to take
an internship with the National Alliance for
the Mentally Ill of New Jersey, working to
combat stigma against mental illness and
increase mental health literacy in the South
While I spent two years following college
doing what I thought was compelling clini-
cal research regarding substance abuse,
Professors told me that the increasing
diversity of the city was creating a need for
more culturally competent practitioners.
Cross-cultural psychology was mainstreaming and I could have an edge.
I chose Fordham University for my doctoral study, which included the opportunity
to work at the Program for Survivors of
Torture at Bellevue Hospital. Clients of the
program were refugees and survivors of
political violence from all over the world,
many seeking asylum in the United States.
The program clients always greeted me
with smiles, particularly those from Tibet
and Nepal. When I mentioned this to a
supervisor, she suggested that because the
Dalai Lama was in exile in India, these
Buddhist clients saw me as an ally; my dark
skin and deep brown eyes were familiar and
friendly to them.
I realized my undergraduate academic
advisor had been right. My interests in
trauma and resilience and my own identity
struggles came together in an exhilarating
I live in New York City, one of the most
diverse cities in this diverse country. It is no
exaggeration to say that millions could ben-
efit from mental health services in this city.
But due to cultural barriers and differ-
ences, many are unable to do so. Given my
background, I got that, and I came to
understand that my ‘otherness’ could be a
huge asset for an underserved population.
Of course, cultural competency in mental
health is far more complex than having eth-
nic ‘street cred,’ and many highly competent
Caucasian American therapists and
researchers respect and understand this —
it turns out, many Caucasian Americans
have more experience with their own kinds
of ‘otherness’ than I would have thought.
But as I interact with diverse populations,
my personal journey to find my footing here
has informed my work in ways I never
Throughout graduate school I strengthened my understanding of the cross-cultural aspects of mental health, while pursuing
a deeper understanding of my own ethnicity. My studies culminated in a year-long
internship at Elmhurst Hospital, located in
the Elmhurst-Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens.
Each day I stepped off the F train into
that diverse, largely South Asian neighbor-
hood and was greeted by the smiling face of
Shah Rukh Khan wearing a Tag Heuer
watch. I smiled back: Could there be any
clearer message than sending me into the
heart of Little India to wrap up my studies?
Now that I’ve earned my doctorate, I’m a
member of the faculty at The College of
Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. Most of
my students share my label of ‘first genera-
tion American’ with parents from Latin
America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
I bring discussions about culture into my
lectures, and encourage them to draw on
their own experiences in discussing every-
thing from cultural variations in concep-
tions of beauty to stigma in mental health.
I am also involved in research with an
organization called SAPNA-NYC, a com-
munity-based nonprofit that provides cul-
turally appropriate mental health and med-
ical services to low income South Asian
immigrants in New York City.
None of these opportunities for personal
and professional development would have
existed if not for the unique complexion of
the Big Apple. The increasing importance
of its diverse immigrant population spurred
the need for more cross-cultural research
and treatment just as I was entering the
On a deeper level, I realized I would not
— nor did I need to — reconcile the contradictions of my own bicultural upbringing. I
merely needed to appreciate it, and that
would free me to connect with and serve
my fellow New Yorkers. n
Sumi Raghavan is an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Bronx.
DESI VIEW M12 THE MAGAZINE
In the aftermath of 9/11, New York revealed incredible vulnerability and undeniable resilience, says Sumi Raghavan.
The city of my soul The city of my soul
Sumi Raghavan on how New York’s pulse and rhythm keep her going