I’ll give you one guess to figure out which one I am.
Yes, I’m the sole little brown girl in this sea of white kids.
I grew up in a small, rural town in Michigan where year after year, I was one of the few colored kids that stuck out in a sea of white faces. As a kid, I figured it was just one of those things you dealt with living in America. I had never lived in a place where my skintone didn’t immediately put me in a box. I didn’t truly understand that this wasn’t as common in other parts of the country.
I grew up striving to fit into a white world as a colored person. I didn’t think any other option existed. This notion is something that has and will continue to follow me around for the rest of my life.
My parents better saw what I couldn’t always as a child.
When I left for college, my parents were absolutely convinced that I would find community in other South Asian American peers. I think some part of them felt guilty that I had grown up in such a rural part of the country, where I was forced to be one of the few colored kids in my school. They felt sure that college would help me better understand my identity. Though I was skeptical, I went through all the motions of attempting to do so.
. . .
My first semester, I joined the University’s Indian American Student Association (IASA) and signed up to participate in the annual cultural dance show. I was one of the lucky ones selected through the yearly lottery process to be part of the show and was placed in one of a dozen dances that would perform. Alongside the rigorous dance practices, I forced myself to go to the various parties that members threw, tried to make friends with my South Asian peers, and participated in the various events they organized.
But I struggled every time I walked into an IASA trivia night, comedy show, or attended a party filled with only brown faces.
I didn’t seem to know the answers to the Indian trivia questions that were asked. I didn’t understand many of the “brown” jokes they made. I would quietly nod as they talked about the latest Bollywood movie they had watched. I tried to dance along when Bollywood music came on at parties, but couldn’t help but cringe when everyone broke out into synchronized Bollywood dance moves. I longed for someone to make a Mean Girls reference so I could finally understand a joke. Or throw on Nicki’s latest album, something I actually knew how to dance to.
Instead of better understanding my identity as my parents had hoped, I began to question it.
. . .
I grew up eating dal and chawal, just like these other brown kids. My parents often spoke in their native tongue at home, to the point where I’m proud to be fluent in Hindi. I attended monthly religious gatherings and we celebrated culturally significant holidays, like Diwali or Holi. My mother had a closet full of gorgeous kurtas, lenghas, and saris that we wore for special occasions.
This made me South Asian American, didn’t it? But for some reason I felt that I didn’t fit in with these other South Asian Americans. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Those brown kids didn’t want to be friends with me either–I was just too “white” for them.
The girls mocked my “white people” clothes and the way I talked like a “white person.” They didn’t quite understand my average levels of enthusiasm when it came to partying, drinking, or throwing back nasty shots of vodka. This was largely due to the fact that I’d already been drinking for a few years before I hit college (sorry Mom and Dad), so I lacked the fascination of excessively drinking at all times. I also didn’t lie to my parents about my college shenanigans. This severely shocked my brown peers.
I especially didn’t lie about boys and dating. My brown peers couldn’t understand how I dated white boys, black boys, and every shade in between. Those were the people they dated in secret. Many would comment on how disappointed their parents would be if their life partner ended up being anything but brown. This made me uncomfortable. My parents had always emphasized the quality of a life partner and having shared values, versus caring about uncontrollable characteristics like race, looks, or religion.
Instead of better understanding my identity as my parents had hoped, I began to question it
The more time I spent with the South Asian American community, the more my frustration and confusion grew. I wanted both the girls and guys alike to stop acting shocked by my preference for crop tops, over-the-top jewelry, and excessive use of black leather apparel. I hated the bored looks I received anytime I passionately spoke about empowering women or people of color. It was exhausting hearing repeated remarks about how I didn’t look Indian or them wondering if I was adopted (implying that I was perhaps raised by white parents). One girl even demanding to see a picture of my parents to confirm.
I just couldn’t relate to them, nor them to me.
Then there were the white kids.
I didn’t grow up eating meat-centric meals, going to church on Sunday’s, or learning how to shoot a gun. Instead, I spent most Sunday’s ripping dark hairs off places many folks don’t even realize hair can grow. I didn’t have parents who threw barbecues every July 4th, who grabbed a few beers at happy hour, or partook in group hunting trips. Whenever they had saved up enough money, my parents took my sister and I to India to visit our extended family, whereas other kids went on vacations to Europe or took group trips with other families. I found movies like “Slumdog Millionaire” offense and overrated, as opposed to cultured. I hadn’t seen classic American movies like Star Wars and couldn’t recognize old school rap songs.
I wasn’t “American” enough, which in this country is typically associated with being white or doing stereotypically “white” things.
My white peers were quick to lump me in with the other brown kids that I so painfully could not relate to. Most judged this book by its cover and wrote me off.
I was too “white” for the brown kids and too “brown” for the white kids.
So where did that leave me?
. . .
I eventually removed myself from all interactions with the South Asian community at college. Soon after, I joined a sorority in my journey to find community on campus.
Even in my sorority, there were plenty of white women who minimally interacted with the colored women in our sorority. The women I eventually became close with ranged a variety of skin tones, cultural upbringings, socioeconomic statuses, and religious backgrounds. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized my parents were partially correct in their hopes that I would find community with individuals of a similar background.
I looked around at my closest friends and realized that many were like me: first generation Americans who had grown up having a significant identity crisis. These other women had quietly gone through struggles similar to mine, constantly being caught between two cultures, not fully accepted by either, and not knowing where that landed them.
We all had parents who made the sacrifice of uprooting their lives and leaving their home countries behind, to hopefully find a better future. We had all seen the hardships they went through, forever being seen as an outsider in this country. They spoke English with an accent, lovingly cooked us their traditional foods, and fitted us with cultural garments that we only wore for special occasions. Perhaps all that while struggling themselves to raise a child who looked like them, but they couldn’t culturally related to.
It didn’t matter that my parents were Indian and my friend’s parents were Nigerian or Chinese. We shared experiences defined by the fact that we were first generation Americans. We all grew up bridging two cultures, never quite feeling 100% here nor there.
For me, this commonality of us being first generation Americans proved more powerful than simply sharing a cultural background.
. . .
I know that there are many moments yet to come in my life, where I will continue to feel caught between two cultures.
What kind of wedding will I have one day, something elaborately Indian or will I be dressed in white? Why do I feel guilty reminding that one coworker I’m American and not Indian? What kind of names will I one day give my future children?
Unlike growing up a colored kid in a white town, it’s nice to now have a community of other first generation Americans by my side. My constantly conflicted identity is something I no longer have to experience alone.