When I sat down in the theater to watch the new Aladdin the other week, it’d been years since I thought about the movie. I was a huge fan as a 5-year-old in the suburbs of Dallas, but bits and pieces of the story faded from my memory as time passed. I didn’t even realize how much the story meant to me until I was driving home from the movies, listening to Naomi Scott as Jasmine sing “Speechless” on repeat.
Most people are surprised to hear my favorite Disney princess was actually Cinderella. I read the illustrated book over and over, marveling at how she made washing dishes and feeding chickens look like fun. But I also felt a strong connection to Jasmine. I think I found her so special because she had the same flowing black hair as my mother.
My elementary and middle school days, however, were scattered with other Disney princesses. I traded “Arabian Nights” for Mulan’s “Reflection.” When I started taking voice lessons in eighth grade, my voice teacher taught me Pocahontas’s “Colors of the Wind.”
Toward the end of eighth grade, a friend convinced me to join the school musical, which that year, instead of a single show, took shape as a medley composed of one song from every musical that had been performed throughout our retiring principal’s tenure. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from Annie and “We’re All In This Together” from High School Musical were in the program, along with Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.”
When it came time to cast that last song, no one even questioned who would be Jasmine. I was the Indian girl in an otherwise white class. I was the only option. It seemed strange, even comical, to choose anyone else.
I grew attached to the role of Jasmine quickly. Sure, I was cast as other characters—as Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, for which I spent an entire song whining, “Give me my pencil!”—but Jasmine was different. I threw on my red shirt for Lucy minutes before the performance started, but I spent half an hour carefully prepping my eyeliner for Jasmine. I went onstage for Charlie Brown without a care in the world; Aladdin had my legs shaking.
Years later, I still count Jasmine among my most memorable roles. The performance wasn’t spectacular by any means; midway through one matinee, the boy playing Aladdin announced into the mic that he’d forgotten the lyrics, and I just rolled my eyes and walked off the stage. “A Whole New World” was, however, the first time I’d performed a duet for a crowd, the first time I let others hear what my voice really sounded like.
Until recently, it never struck me as ironic that a song from Aladdin was the first song I ever performed. The dichotomy of cultures displayed in the movie—a Disneyfied take on my Eastern roots—set the stage for singing to become one of the many ways I felt fractured between my American and Indian identities.
It’s an internal conflict that followed me into high school, when I grew more serious about singing. But whenever my parents talked about my voice lessons to their Indian friends, I noticed they’d specify “Western classical voice lessons.” Other girls sang in Hindi or our native Tamil; I sang in German and Italian, languages I didn’t even understand. It didn’t matter that I preferred singing opera over Indian classical music—I still felt uncomfortable.
Then for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, we flew to India. They begged me to sing at their celebration, so I spent most of the day perfecting a Tamil song that had been in my mother’s family for generations. After the performance, an aunty approached me and said, “It’s so nice to hear a traditional family song with a Western twist.” There was nothing in her tone to suggest it was anything but a compliment, and yet I spent the rest of the day red-faced and embarrassed. Apparently, even when I was singing a Tamil song, I couldn’t escape my American-ness.
By the time I arrived at Rice last fall to study English, I knew I wanted to keep singing and auditioned for an a cappella group. There are five groups at Rice; four of them sing American music. The fifth, Basmati Beats, calls itself the “Asian fusion” a cappella group. Unfamiliar with the music they sang—and more interested in the pop stylings of the Low Keys—I decided not to audition for Basmati Beats.
Then came Acapellooza, a springtime tradition when all of the groups perform their own sets before joining forces for a final number. It was a blast, and all of the groups were amazing, especially Basmati Beats. Their set was filled with Pitch Perfect-like mashups of Indian classical and American pop songs—a perfect fusion of the two worlds I’d grown up within.
After the show, my roommate asked me a question I’d expect from my parent’s friends: Why hadn’t I auditioned for Basmati Beats? I told her that I love performing upbeat pop numbers and classic ballads, songs I’d only find with the Low Keys. And it’s true—going on retreats with the Low Keys and performing at the Women Who Mean Business Awards have been the highlights of my college experience. But later that night, I laid in bed wondering if I’d made a mistake.
It made me uncomfortable to think that in an area as important to me as music, I’ve consistently chosen the American way. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that choice, but choosing it nonetheless makes me feel like I’m leaving something behind. I realized what I felt was guilt—guilt for rejecting music that comes from my heritage.
Which brings us back to the movie theater, where me and my best friend had gathered to watch the live-action Aladdin remake that, inexplicably, cast Will Smith as the Genie. Being the Indian teenagers that we are, we squealed at anything and everything we could relate to—Aladdin offering Jasmine tea (or “chai” as my friend whispered to me), Jasmine’s iconic pink outfit (which matches a lehenga that’s already in my closet), even the spires on the sultan’s palace that resemble the Taj Mahal.
Then, as Naomi Scott’s Jasmine began to sing, I finally realized something: It doesn’t matter whether I perform Indian classical music or not. Scott sings in an American accent while wearing traditional Eastern clothes, and she doesn’t look torn between cultures! The question that I’ve been asking my whole life—am I Indian or am I American?—seemed fundamentally flawed. Really, there’s no need to choose; I’m both.
When “A Whole New World” finally came on in the dim theater, I felt a tug on my heart. Some part of me is still tied to that song, the song that pushed me into the world of singing that’s come to define part of me. Suddenly, I couldn’t resist the urge to belt along—so I did.
Ivanka Perez is a Houstonia editorial intern. The Broadway production of Aladdin runs at the Hobby Center through July 14.