As the frigidity of November crystallizes in our wet hair and along the dormitory rooftops, we begin to layer upon our delicate bodies. The concealment normally begins with a thermal (I seriously have low blood circulation and don’t care if you’re making fun of me for wearing thermal onesies, whatever), an old sweatshirt from my high school volleyball team, a cookie-cutter black Northface jacket, and fuzzy earmuffs and gloves to cover the body’s extremities. Winter attire easily adds an extra five pounds; whilst my diet of ramen, peanut butter ice cream, and late-night pizza finally relaxes within the loosened seams of the dozens of sweaters cluttering my closet. In order to survive the array of winter temperaments, we mask our bodies, our identities, and the unique persons we have molded into.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, an experimental biography that flirts with modernity, forces readers to ask questions such as, “do our skin colors wear us, or do we wear them?” In an ideal reality, our differing colors all hold equal merit and relay similar undertones of confidence, power, and intellect. In our actual reality, the gallons of color splashed onto our skin have been seen as a method of racial branding. The dark and light pigments of dye stained so deeply that we are blinded to everything but the whites, browns, reds, oranges, blacks canvassed onto our bodies. Before continuing your read and interpretation of this post, please expel as much judgment as possible. There may be a couple of political inaccuracies throughout; however, it is the opposite of my intentions to offend any readers. My views do not necessarily reflect the views of every American-born Indian girl, nor do they hold more significance than anyone else’s beliefs.
Growing up near the nation’s capital allowed me to experience abask attitudes from citizens of every nationality. Race, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., subtly blended into the school systems, and it was rarely uncommon to graduate high school with 46 students who proudly boasted the last name “Nguyen”. Regardless of the diversity at Chantilly High School, I found comfort and commonality when I clothed myself with “white people” experiences. The group of 10 Caucasian girls and 1 Asian girl I spent virtually every minute with never—not even unintentionally—ostracized me because of my different background. Actually, they never ostracized me because of my different race. My background, like theirs, consisted of a supportive family, financial stability, and opportunities to enroll in college and after-school clubs alike, and an invested wealth in friendships. Being the only non-Christian in my closely-knit circle was never an issue; I diligently went to the temple when my mom pleaded and rather than deeming me an alien or a racial outlier, my friends were intrigued. They asked questions, which were mostly unanswered due to my ignorant attitude towards my parents’ religion; however, they were intrigued, and that made the difference. My race, until college, had never interfered with my biographical identity, an upper-middle class American-born female. To many Indians who also attended Chantilly High School, I was the “black sheep” of our kind. I refused to listen to Bollywood music, I strayed away from gold bangles and earrings, I never had the opportunity to flaunt my skill of speaking my mom’s native tongue. On extremely sporadic occasions, my “white person” life would acquaint itself with my “brown person” life, however the occurrence was rare and usually preceded with apprehension. I was unable to relate to the Indian students at Chantilly because I did not want to be mercilessly teased for smelling like curry powder by Caucasian students outside of my social circle. Along with constantly seeking the “superior” race’s approval, being incapable of finding enjoyment through relishing in the Indian culture distanced me from the “brown clique” in my high school. I would shudder at the thought of performing at International Night, I rolled my eyes when two Punjabi students conversed in their native tongue among non-Indian students, and I feared being permanently sucked into a sea of South Asian if I did eventually expose a slight interest in my culture. This disgusting dismissing of a rich, beautiful, intelligent culture was entirely my fault. My friends had already accepted the person I was, so there was no valid reason to turn my back against my own. Abandoning my cultural identity hurt my family, the few Indian friends who were also racial stragglers, and most importantly, myself. I ostracized myself from who I have been since birth.
The humid summer heralding my freshman year of college changed my view on my culture permanently. I unexpectedly fell in love with a curly-haired Indian boy and found myself creating an emotional connection as deeply rooted as the ones I shared with my family; him and I innately bonded over similar familial traditions, authentic Indian dishes we would willingly eat, and contextual teasing. His South Indian origins and my Gujarati family’s stereotypical careers were often brought up in lighthearted, joking conversation, and surprisingly I was thrilled to have an outlet for this sudden rush of Indian blood that swam through my veins. This new, unpredictable friendship eventually led to networking with several other Indians, many whose feelings towards a lack of cultural identity coincided with mine. This gang of “brown” people comprised of a few amazing people whom, over a short span of time, have become some of my closest friends. Unlike my hyperactive imagination led me to believe, we rarely discussed Bollywood actresses or what chaniya choli we would wear to the Diwali Garba-Raas. My mom’s eyes swelled with shorelines of happiness; her cheeks stained with only remnants of fear that I would forever shun her and my dad’s culture. I bought my first pair of gold earrings that summer.
Venturing to the Midwestern unknown didn’t seem horribly daunting until after I unpacked my (don’t hate, it was cool back then) Vera Bradley luggage set. Bloomington is said to be a “diverse” town, but the moment after cushioning my foot against Indiana soil, I realized I was in the middle of Race Conscious, Intimidated Citizens Town. The magnetic force emanating from my outwardly normal-teenage-girl outfit was shocking and almost embarrassing; the disgusting truth is, my black floor length skirt, black shoulder covering top, and accompanying scarf stuck over my hair clung on to me in the most wrong, and almost inappropriate sense. These sheltered mall-goers assumed me to be of Islamic faith because of the color and types of fabric I carefully outfitted together the night before. Their stares became lasers of judgment, and a lot of question. Scalding hot and burning right through my skin, their acidic looks of “you don’t belong here” made me regress almost immediately; I was extremely race conscious again. A pale, blonde high school student strutted past all of us as she sported a similar outfit, however these townies’ glances became relaxed, and almost sexual. Do I want their attention? No, but if they’re going to give me attention, they should not be allowed to make me feel out of place in my own home, The United States. Often times, cold stares from the local folk were accompany by condescending, slightly rhetorical questions such as, “ARE YOU LOST?” and “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” in a tastelessly loud tone; a sticky, false sense of superiority slowly dripping off of their every word. Does my natural tan dominate what I am made of in the eyes of my fellow citizens? I became isolated from both, the “white” and the “brown”. The other Indians, having been accommodated to their sheltered environment since young ages, were not able to empathize with me and my Caucasian friends awkwardly fidgeted with their split ends and pen-caps, they were technically the peoples I was attacking so their words of advice remained extremely limited. Who could blame them though? A year prior to being on the receiving side of ignorance and hurt, I maliciously scoffed at a younger girl wearing her traditional outfit in a popular promenade in Fairfax, Virginia. She looked too ethnic, I felt embarrassed for her. But that was long ago and I was young; that was my justification for so long. Why, at one point, did I think it so horrible to wear saris in a non-Indian population? Have I ever condemned a “white” person for pulling on a pair of jeans before going to school? It was so horrible because I let a deluded, insecure voice in my head say it is not okay to be anything other than “white” unless you want to feel lesser than the next person. I have never looked at my friends with facial features resembling criticality or judgment; to me, they were already cool for being able to pull off hoop earrings without someone shouting, “Muy caliente Latina!” I was so unfair to the young girl; what if her mother had dressed her up for a special religious function at their temple? She must have slaved over pinning the safety needles so precisely in order to maintain the styled creases in the garb, afterwards, she would have been so proud of her daughter for looking beautiful. I judged so quickly and in turn, the townies judged me right back. It was time to shed my layers of ignorant opinion, shallowness, and shame from my Indian heritage. It was time to tell the others around me to follow suit.
I’ve found solace in the wedge of cultural stability I’ve nourished to life since moving to the Midwest. The harmonious equilibriums I’ve reached by strategically balancing my American and my Indian weights are still perfecting themselves; however, I’ve already learned a lot. To stop judging others, we must stop judging ourselves. The only faults we find in people outwardly different from us are the faults we choose to bury deep within us. I feel vulnerable, low, and alone every time the creeping stares become overwhelmingly powerful and begin to provoke my defensive side. I caused that girl to feel vulnerable, low, and alone every time I viciously laughed at how odd she looked in the swarm of Anglo-Saxon middle schoolers. Basically, every time someone says they see everyone “as the same color” I am offended. Collectively, we are an oil painting of nude rainbows. Our streaks of color and individuality bring us together while simultaneously causing us to be distinct from one another. My streaks of caramel are beautiful just as my best friend’s streaks of honey and eggshell are beautiful. Whether I choose to embrace my culture or not, I am Indian and I want you to look at me like I am one; in return, I will treat you and your culture with unequivocal respect.