The day the airplanes hit the twin towers I was in my little room on Downey Street in San Francisco. I shouldn’t actually call it a room, it was a closet that I stuck my bed and dresser in so that my sister and I could rent out the larger room in the apartment – to afford the cost of living in the beautiful, renovated Victorian in Cole Valley. The boy that we rented it to, a law student at Hastings, ran to the television early in the morning. “Shit, shit, shit,” he cried, his hands in his hair, and his pajama bottoms sagging on the couch cushion. “What?” I asked, emerging out of my closet/room. We watched in awe as the footage played over and over again, the plane hitting the tower, the smoke, the flames, and the second plane hitting. As the story emerged – my stomach plummeted. It was going to be like 1979-1981 all over again in America.
I was nine years old in 1979 – not too familiar with the world – though I had already traveled to India four times. And the American hostages were in Iran. Let me state this clearly – I’m Indian, from India. Born in West Virginia I am an American citizen, just like every other person born in this country. My parents were citizens by this time as well, and working hard as an Engineer and Nutritionist/Child Development specialist. And I was in public school in Fair Oaks, California.
“N*&^%!, go back to IRAN,” yelled the boy at recess. I had no idea what that first word meant, having never heard it before, but I knew it was something bad. Everyone laughed. And most told me to go back. Go back? I had never even been there, and I was from INDIA. Same first letter, same side of the world, different place altogether. It didn’t really matter on the playground though. When I went home and told my parents about the words and the anger, their anger chilled me. My father called the boys father, who professed an equally racist response. My parents sat me down and told me to stay away from him – learned behavior they said. But what else could they do? This was the late 1970s – parents didn’t just run to the Principal every time there was a problem like they do now. Children just learned to cope, and deal with problems on their own.
That was a tough couple of years. People didn’t seem to care that we weren’t from the same country that the hostages were being kept in. And brown skin and black hair was a trademark of those far away lands – where terror lived. One person came to my birthday party in 1980. I didn’t have many friends. The reason wasn’t entirely because of the Iran Hostage crisis, but rather, my family’s inherent “indian-ness”. And part of it was my travels, I would go back and forth to India every other summer – returning as a 1/2 and 1/2 mix of Indian culture with an American twist. So I didn’t really fit in – not when I wore bindhis matching every outfit in the 5th grade. Who would understand that? I admit, I was a little on the “different” side.
Walking down the street in Cole Valley 22 years later, I felt the same uneasy feeling that I used to in the 5th grade. Were people looking at me, watching me, just because I had brown skin? I wanted to hide but I couldn’t – I had a postdoc to work on, research to do, contributions to make. Days later a Sikh store owner was beaten in the Bay Area – if that could happen in such a liberal place, what was happening elsewhere in America? It was a hard time to be brown again.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, it felt good. Though he is Black, and not Indian, his being there made me feel more represented somehow. And when he celebrated Deepavali at the White House, recognizing a Hindu holiday and the people, I finally felt like a part of it all – even as a minority. But now, there is scary rhetoric out there again – and it is being supported. By many.
As the movement toward one political candidate in the Republican party continues, it is again becoming a hard time to be brown – any shade of brown.
And though my brownness does not define me – I am a scientist, a writer, a runner, a mother, a wife, a daughter. To some people it does. And that is what scares me.