She, In the dark, Found light, Brighter than many ever see.
She, Within herself, Found loveliness, Through the soul’s own mastery
And now the world receives, From her dower;
The message of the strength, Of inner power
The above poem is by Langston Hughes, about Helen Keller, one of my heroines, it seemed to speak toward the inner strength that we all have within us, that shape, and mold our future and our present moments.
In 1982, when Richard Attenborough made the movie Gandhi, the world was in an interesting place. We were in the middle of the Cold War, we had just experienced the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the country was decidedly Republican – supply side economics, nuclear proliferation, and war were all on our minds in one way or another. As an Indian American, I did not feel represented. I went to a high school with almost 2000 students, and was decidedly white, Christian, and Republican. Now I did not know ALL of the 2000 or so students at that school, so my interpretation of events, is my own only (qualification). I do know that if I were to describe the way I felt throughout elementary, middle and high school using just one word, that word would be: Lonely.
“What?” said my friends when I saw them after 20 years in Lake Tahoe, “You had SO MANY friends, everyone liked you.” They did? All I remember is not having anyone to really sit by during lunch. Everyone was paired in twos or more, whether it was with their boyfriends or with their best friends. I didn’t have either for most of those 12 years. I remember always trying to smile, but feeling left out. I remember seeking out a best friend, another misfit like me, who just didn’t fit quite right. I did find that person, it ended up being a boy, but he too was inconsistent.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up in the United States as an Indian American, things were very different. My family was one of the only Indian families in my Elementary school, my Mom wore a sari every day, and it was noticed. “Why does your Mom wear a drape?” “What is that spot of blood on her forehead?” “I don’t want to go to your house because it smells bad.” It was constant.
The teasing and derision continued in High School – I remember when two girls decided to continually berate me about how “Indians decorate elephants, how weird.” I had no response for that one. They would just laugh and laugh, and I got it, this was supposed to hurt my feelings. Of course we decorated elephants, it was part of our culture. Why was that so hilarious? Funny how later, when I married the blond surfer boy from Santa Cruz in a Hindu ceremony, people were delighted by the tiny decorated elephant figurines we gave out as gifts for the guests. Irony?
It didn’t help that I wasn’t a completely “normal” American kid either, my Mom didn’t know how to use a curling iron so my hair never looked quite right. I always felt stuck between India and America – what was I? Who was I? When we would go to India I didn’t belong. People knew I wasn’t from there, just by the way I walked and talked. I would try and speak in Tamil as much as I could but many of my relatives would laugh at my accent. And they were always surprised that I could easily eat with my hands, and travel the country like a champ (aren’t American children supposed to be too spoiled to travel 2nd class on the trains and deal with the intensity of Indian-ness)? But I loved it there. I loved riding in the rickshaws to get places, and eating from the vendors (which got me sick every time!), and traveling on the trains across the countryside watching the fields and hills go by. We never stayed in hotels, always with families or friends, eating while seated on the floors or off banana leaves, going to the temples and worshipping, and walking the dusty streets filled with people.
During the time I lived with my parents (up to 17) we traveled to India every other summer or so, and spent 2-3 months embedded in the culture, I would return, inevitably confused about where I belonged. In fifth grade I decided to wear swaths of bangles on my wrists and a bindhi on my forehead to match every outfit. My school picture from that year is me in a green velour top, with a green bindhi on my forehead. Is it any wonder that I didn’t quite fit?
The summer after the 8th grade was the worst. We returned after my favorite Aunt died (that story to come later), only to face the suicide of a girl in my class. I had acquired malaria while I was in India and lost about 10 lbs from an already sickly thin frame, and was paler than a ghost. I didn’t know which side was up. And I didn’t know how to interact with anyone, especially people who had just spent their summer in tennis camp playing in the club pools.
The summer of my 14th year, I remember that everyone had somehow gotten their drivers license while we were away. I was a year younger than my group and only turning 15 that year, so I was relegated to passenger – if I was invited in the car. However, the first time I tried to get in one girls car, everyone yelled, “shotgun”. I had no idea what that meant. And after that, I was in the backseat every. single. time. You might think that isn’t a big deal, but it became a thing, “you always have to sit in the back Aparna.” I was so relieved when I finally got my license and could drive myself in the old yellow Volkswagon my Dad had saved for me. I know, “poor girl so unappreciated, yet given a car.” I get it, I was privileged in many ways.
I know that I was a very beautiful young girl. Tiny, with long, luscious, black hair, and big brown eyes. The girls around me spent a lot of time putting me down. When I tried out for cheerleader, they gleefully came up to me and said that they didn’t vote for me. When a sweet boy named Patrick asked me to the Homecoming dance in our junior year they said he looked like an alien and that no other boy would ever want to go out with me. I believed them, because I was only ever asked to 2 dances in the four years of high school. That one homecoming dance, and the senior prom. But I didn’t let it stop me from going – I just asked people to go with me instead of the other way around. But it always felt humiliating, and I was always not quite a part of it all.
The night before we graduated from high school, four different boys came and told me that they “always wanted to ask me out.” But because I was Indian, they just didn’t feel like it would be accepted, by their parents or their peers. Ouch. I remember in my Junior year of High School, meeting a boy named Daven who graduated from our high school and was a freshman at UC Berkeley – now I know that should have been a red flag, because why in the world would a Freshman at a huge college go trolling about for High School girls? Nonetheless, when he asked me out I was so excited, because he did used to be one of the star water polo players, until the evening when we were sitting on his couch and his Mother came in. Daven introduced me, and her response was, “Interesting name, what are you, a Pomeranian?” Later he shrugged and told me that she didn’t like his “ethnic taste.”
So those are a few tidbits of my social American experience up until age 17. I can go on, as many of us can, about the stories of kids calling me the “N” word, how in 1979 at the heart of the Iran hostage crisis, kids kept telling me to “go back home to Iran” (which they pronounced EYE-RAN), and the time when my Dad answered the door after his prayers wearing a dhoti, and said to the person at the door, “please forgive my dress,” but these are stories past, stories that I can use as lessons in tolerance, and stories that shape who I am today.