It’s Sunday morning in a typical McMansion nestled in the upper-middle-class northside suburbs of Indianapolis. Ten-year-old me sits at the kitchen table, reading movie reviews in the Indy Star. My mom is at the counter, sipping tea, dressed in a salwar kameez, opposed to dress pants and blouses she wears to work the other six days of the week. She asks me if I’ll go to the grocery store with her. I whine a bit, but eventually relent, asking when she wants to go. She walks over to the wall across from the staircase, where our whole family’s shoes are lined up neatly, and grabs a pair of sensible sneakers. She sits down on the bottom stair and starts putting her shoes on. “We can go now,” she says. I look at her clothes and balk. As if her skin and her nose and her accent, and her tendency to switch languages mid-sentence when she spoke to me, weren’t enough to make her stand out as an other, she had to go and make even more of a spectacle of herself. To make a spectacle out of me. “You’re gonna wear that?” I say in a tone that ends up haunting me in adulthood.
I don’t remember what my mother did in this instance, or in the hundreds of similar ones I’m sure occurred throughout her time raising American kids as an immigrant. She’s an understanding woman; and if there’s one thing Indian culture understands it’s the importance of maintaining appearances. So I suspect she went to great lengths to subdue the culture that lived inside of her in effort to appease my incessant, all-consuming need to appear normal.
And so my brown bag lunches had grape jelly sandwiches and little baggies of Doritos and, occasionally, a cosmic brownie. I indulged in greasy, rectangular pizza on Fridays. My parents still tried to get me to be an “Indian princess” for Halloween, since it meant not having to spend money on a costume, but after I refused that one time, they never tried again. What my parents didn’t know about this era of my childhood is that while I refused to wear my culture as a costume, I was also sometimes sneaking into the bathroom to rub baby powder into my skin, imagining myself as white and beautiful and American. Actually American. Which in my childish thought process meant white. Some years later, I remember watching my older sister get ready for the Homecoming dance. She was wearing the top of a chaniya choli with a long, fluffy tulle skirt she bought at Von Maur. I don’t know if she was embarrassed. But I was embarrassed enough for her. I vowed to never let something like that happen to me.
In a lot of ways I lived my life doing whatever I could to avoid outing myself. As if my dark skin and the fact that I had the kind of name that made teachers pause, look up for a foreign face, and then mark me present without even an attempt at pronouncing it didn’t already act like a neon sign identifying me as different. I did manage to fall into friendships with Indian kids, other second generation kids like me, and some new to the U.S., but I always put a barrier up between them. I didn’t want to be labeled as just one of the brown kids. The only label I wanted was normal. Hanging out with people who looked like me took that option off the table.
By the time I got to high school, I didn’t even think about how I demanded of myself, and by extension my parents, an adherence to white normalcy. I started going to local punk shows, in retrospect the most suburban white thing I could have possibly done. It wasn’t me making a statement though. At some point, I forgot that I was embarrassed about being Indian. Mostly because I could almost forget I was Indian at all. Simultaneously, I couldn’t help but notice just how white the crowds were that surrounded me while I waited for the next band to start. My sister and I would play a game, trying to find any other person of color in the crowd. At one of these shows, a stranger winked and make Kama Sutra references to my sister’s white boyfriend, while both she and I stood within earshot. It was far from the first time I felt uncomfortable due to a stranger’s comment, but this time my discomfort briefly flashed to anger Without realizing it, I was starting to notice something about the world and about myself. What was the point of blending in if I was always going to stand out?
There is no magic switch that flipped to start me on my journey to self-acceptance. I think it’s just a part of growing up to some extent. But it’s slow. There’s a lot of self-hatred to work through. And there are always setbacks.
It’s spring semester of my sophomore year at Indiana University. I’m waiting in line at Taco Bell with a group of girls from my dorm. There’s an older man in line in front of me. He looks at me and asks me where I’m from. I fumble through the responses I’m tired of giving. He asks me to say something in a different language. I decline. He yells. I leave.
It’s 2012. I’ve been out of college for a year and I’m living in Austin, Texas, doing a year of AmeriCorps. I’m touring a charter elementary school associated with the University of Texas with my fellow AmeriCorps members. As I’m walking by the cafeteria, two young brown girls run up to me. “Are you Indian?” they ask with a level of excitement only children under the age of nine can muster. I’m surprised and put off by the comment. Borderline irritated. “Yes, I am,” I respond. They briefly bop up and down, delighted by my answer, and sprint away. I mention the interaction to my friends, recounting how weird it was, only for none of them to think it was weird. “They were probably just excited to see someone who’s like them,” one responds. I don’t have a convincing comeback to this. Instinctively, I just know I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being noticed. I feel like there’s no reason for these children to be interested in me. My appearance should mean nothing to them. Our shared phenotype is no guarantee that we are similar. And I’m necessarily not wrong. But I am callus. It doesn’t hit me until years later that growing up, I had never met an American-born Desi who was more than a few years older than me. I never grew up with the concept of a role model who was like me. I never understood the concept of representation. These girls had that chance I never had; and I failed to grasp the significance in that moment. They weren’t the weird ones. I was.
My sister comments from time to time how different we are. We talk about how uncomfortable we feel when others put on Indian accents, mocking their parents, because it doesn’t feel like our culture to mock.
I’m at a birthday party the next year. The music’s bumping, alcohol flowing, and it’s the kind of party that stops existing at some point towards your late 20s, either because people can’t handle the hangover anymore or their apartments are too nice to risk the mess. A song that I don’t recognize comes on, but I look around and it seems every Latinx person in the room does. They sing along together and I’m seeing the relics of a shared cultural experience that I wasn’t a part of. I can’t help but feel the tiniest pull of a feeling that could be described as sadness as I tried to imagine being up there with a group of second-generation Desi kids singing along to some song we remember from the half-understood Bollywood movies that we’d watch with our parents. It feels impossible.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America and something snapped inside of me. I cannot deny that the shift in political climate is responsible for putting my urge to accept myself into overdrive. There is a growing desire inside of me, it sometimes feels like a fire filling my chest, to embrace my Indian culture. It’s normal for kids to want to fit in; but there was a layer of fear in my desire to fit in. If I could just be invisible, I would be safe. But it turns out that separating myself from my otherness didn’t actually protect me from being harassed. And it actually hurts when people imply that I don’t count, I’m not like the people their complaining about. Because what about my parents? My grandparents? Is that who they’re complaining about? Are they the terrible foreigners taking jobs, poorly assimilating, and ruining the fabric of America? I’d rather be associated with them, than whatever palatable model minority notion that exists to flatten my existence. And things are different today. Instagram and Twitter weren’t around when I was a teen. Now I see people like me stand up for themselves in a way I never contemplated. Hashtags like #UnfairAndLovely, #CurryScentedBitch, #PraisinTheAsian and #DecolonizeYourWardrobe are just the beginning. And it’s inspiring and I want to be a part of it. But I’m guilty of all I did to separate myself for so long. I’m ashamed of my shame. I feel sick about what I put my parents through, and all the things I forced out of my life because of some misplaced idea of being accepted by people who didn’t give a damn about me anyway. And diverging from the norm doesn’t make me any less American. The rage in me makes me want to go back in time and shove my otherness in everyone’s face.
Consciously, I know that things are better than they were. We’ve seen the popularity of shows like The Mindy Project, New Girl, Master of None, and The Good Place that feature characters of South Asian descent who are just normal people. They aren’t the butt of a joke. They don’t have to act as representatives. These shows also don’t put on the cheap veil of not seeing color, respecting that it’s OK to recognize people’s backgrounds and that it doesn’t make them any less relatable. These shows manage to make it clear that people of color don’t just exist when something about their ethnicity is happening. They can be fully valuable just as they are. It reminds me of a Vulture interview with Sandra Oh about her BBC America show Killing Eve. Oh, who is Korean-Canadian, explains how she initially didn’t understand that she was reading for the leading role. It feels ingrained in us that we’ll never be enough unless we shed everything that makes us different. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. I don’t want to feel that way. And maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to fight against. But I don’t need to anymore. I don’t need to be any different than I am to be valuable, to be accepted as American. It also means that I don’t suddenly need to get good at bhangra or learn how to speak Kutchi or read Marathi to be truer to myself. My Indian-American experience is valid just the way it is.
I’m learning that it’s a process. Identity is complicated and it’s fluid. I certainly regret a lot about how I behaved growing up. But I also know how hard it was to only exist as an embodiment of my ethnicity. And the way I relate to my heritage, my skin color, my immigrant parents is still a tangled mess of confusing and sometimes contradictory ideas, but I’m trying in a way I never have before. I’ve had my nose pierced since college. Mostly a relic of those teen years dabbling in the punk scene. But recently the thought of my mother and my grandmothers before her, and great grandmothers before them all adorning their nostrils with rings, just like me is beautiful in a way I have difficulty explaining. The only time I’ve ever had any issue with wearing my nose ring at work was, ironically, when I worked at a job where I showed up in ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors every shift. The manager asked me if it was “religious” and my mouth went dry as I searched for the right answer and ended up stuttering out that it was cultural.
It’s that time again! I’m not big into holidays, but I love Halloween and partaking in Spooky October things. I’ve frequently spent Octobers watching only horror flicks, but this year I’m also focusing on reading equally scary books. On my list:
We Were Liars (completed): This was a huge hit in the YA world when it came out in 2014. Although it’s not necessarily the kind of book that’ll give you nightmares, it did leave me thinking about it’s final twist for days after. It’s a quick, light read (I actually read it a day while in the middle of As I Lay Dying because I needed a break), but it’s lovely for it’s gloomy, atmospheric quality.
The Secret History (so close to finished!): By Donna Tartt of The Goldfinch fame, The Secret History is described by wikipedia as a “whydunit.” We know from the get-go who gets murdered and by whom, but the next 500 pages gets into the depths of why supposedly normal college kids can so cavalierly turn to murder to solve their problems. Tartt does an incredible job making the main characters as insufferable and terrifying as they are believable, anchoring us in a particularly relatable narrator who falls into traps that we bemoan while inwardly thinking that we might do the very same.
Killers of the Flower Moon: A nonfiction book about a grisly string of murders of wealthy Osage people in the 1920s all tied to oil money that eventually led to the creation of the FBI, this one is harrowing by itself, but then you remember it actually happened. A truly upsetting look at the terrible violence imbedded in the history of the US.
Bird Box: To be honest, I’m staying away from finding out very much about this once before I start reading it. I’ve heard it being called “the best horror book I’ve ever read” and so to preserve the possibilities, all I can say is that I have high expectations of a much more traditional sleep-with-the-lights on experience compared to the other books listed above.
Just kidding, I just wanted to try my hand at a clickbait title.
I haven’t really written for myself in over a year. First, I got busy with writing for other sites (shameless plug: check my TV reviews out at TVGoodness.com!), and then I found out I was moving to Switzerland, and then I actually did the moving thing and it turns out there’s a major transition process to relocating internationally! Who would have guessed. I could and probably should devote multiple posts to that whole transition process, but that’s for a different day.
Right now, I’m coming back from a vacation in Portugal that feels like it shook me out of a rut I didn’t know I was in. I had a lot of feelings from the trip and I just had to spill them somewhere while they were still fresh. So bear with the earnestness that’s to come.
I started in Porto, which was as touristy as any place I’ve ever visited. After a few days overwhelmed with how much this city existed just to serve visitors, I was feeling soured to the entire concept of traveling. Like every other basic bitch, I’ve always wanted to travel and see new places. But what I’ve realized is that the idea that you must travel, that it is a necessity being cultured or worldly, or else you are small-minded or stupid or disinterested in the world, is absurd. You don’t have to travel. Not everyone can travel. It is a huge privilege to be able to afford to go to new cities, let alone new countries. When I talked to my grandma on my birthday, which coincided with the second day of my trip, I was telling her about our plans for the rest of the trip and she didn’t say “Oh, that’s so cool!” or “Wow, have fun!” The phrase she used was “You are so lucky.” And she’s right. How goddamn lucky am I?
My time in Porto left me wondering if I wanted to go anywhere else. It had me thinking about what affect my existence had in a city that wasn’t my own. What about the housing situation? What about traffic? What about livability for the locals? And with my background working in the public sector, it was a natural thought process, but that means I felt even guiltier for not thinking about it earlier.
But then we moved on to the beach town of Cascais, 40 minutes outside of Lisbon. This was touristy too, but in the way that virtually all cities with beautiful beaches are. It already felt more “real” than Porto. But still finding food that wasn’t overpriced was a nightmare. I couldn’t help but think about how the population of the city must plummet in the winter. Still, you can’t help but feel soothed when lying on the beach, wading into the frigid waters of the north Atlantic, or staring out into the rocky fog-covered landscape that makes up much of the Portuguese coast. Nature has it’s way of placating.
While in Cascais, I was convinced to rent a bike and ride along the coast from Boca do Inferno to the hazy surfing haven of Guincho Beach seven kilometers away. I haven’t ridden a bike in about a decade, mostly because I’m terrified of riding around cars or people or other cyclists. But I did it. I fell once. I panicked and jumped off another dozen times, usually when pedestrians or other bike riders got near me. I felt like I was going to die the entire seven kilometers. It felt a lot like swimming (which I don’t really know how to do!), where basically my only thought is “When will this be over?” But on the way back, it wasn’t so bad. It went a lot faster. I didn’t have to brake and jump off in a panic much. It’s dumb, but I even was able to slow down when a man on a bike and his little kid on a scooter were taking up the whole lane and needed extra time to move over. My point is that I did something scary as hell and had me on the verge of a panic attack and it turned out OK. I’m a better bike rider than I was before. I’m still terrified, but I least I know I can sort of do it. And I’m not sure if it was a sort of life affirming thing (I wish it was!) but it was a minor victory, and it was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. They say as you approach 30 years old, you stop making memories because you fall into the monotony of routine. The only way to snap out of it is to do new things. So I did a new thing.
Next was Sintra, a truly godforsaken city in terms of the resident to tourist ratio, but damn if the sites weren’t worth it. Portugal is strangely unknown in the states it seems; everything seemed so novel, from the language to the food and definitely the incredible architecture and design of it’s palaces, which I was completely obsessed with. Tours of palaces are mostly boring to me (I’m looking at your palaces, Vienna), since it’s just rich people houses. Like, who the hell cares about that? But my god, the places in Portugal really felt like art. The detail is insane. Seeing all the beautiful tile across the country culminated into me to going to the National Tile Museum in Lisbon at the end of my trip. I guess I love tiles.
By the end of our time in Sintra, we were exhausted. Physically, it had been a lot of walking, biking, and hiking (all this time I thought Zurich was super hilly and full of steep streets! ha ha ha). We were probably short on sleep. Food was tiring to find, so we ended up not eating at all sometimes. Mentally, I was fatigued due to a combination of just all the navigating you have to do when in a new country and, honestly, I was in dire need of some social interaction. I tend to shirk the validity of the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, but after a week of only really talking to one person, I was feeling drained. So we decided to stay in a hostel for a few nights in Lisbon, in effort to cut costs and maybe to get our fill of socializing.
And it worked. I’ve stayed in hostels before, but I’ve never had an experience like this one. We made friends! We went out to meals with them! We played drinking games with them! We talked about Kawhi Leonard with them! We clubbed until 5AM with them! It was an absolute delight. I felt invigorated after being ready to go back home in Sintra (I jokingly suggested just leaving early because we couldn’t find a good hotel in Lisbon. I was maybe not completely joking.) And Lisbon was fun. It’s a loose, languid city, warm and loud, relaxed and friendly. Touristy? Sure. Is there a guy obnoxiously asking you if you want to buy marijuana-cocaine-hash ever ten meters? Yup. But there was a ease to it, and an ease to experiencing it through the lens of staying with other travelers. And it made me want to travel this way more. Porto had me never wanting to travel again—Lisbon had me planning my next trip.
And making friends with a bunch of strangers and hanging out with them nonstop for a few days, only for all of us to go our separate ways without even a last name or an Instagram handle to follow is wild. Temporary companions. It was briefly sad, but mostly enlightening.
What I really got out of this was realizing how lonely I am.
I realized how isolating it can be living in a new country. How isolating it can be as your twenties start to bleed into your thirties. People get busy. They move. You move. People have kids. They buy houses in the suburbs. People start living by “no new friends.” We stop letting our guards down. We stop trying. And in the brief experience in Lisbon, I got to see how it used to be like back in school, when everyone wanted to be friends, everyone wanted someone to hang out with. I get why people keep traveling once they start. It’s dopamine hit after dopamine hit. New people, new places. And they don’t really care about your past or what you do. The first thing people ask me in Zurich is what I do. I have to sheepishly tell them I’m unemployed, or I tell them some bullshit about how I write or how I’m in the process of applying for grad school or how I’m taking German lessons full time or whatever seems least embarrassing. But no one cares when you travel. The first thing they ask is where are you from. Then they ask where you’ve been. Then where you’re going. And how freeing to be able to answer those questions.