I was born in Pune, a small city 3 hours on the outskirts of Bombay a long time ago. I do not remember much; everything that occurred early on in my childhood is vague and distant, but something tells me it was warm and full of light. When I first arrived in America, my father had $300 in his pocket and we carried two modest bags, one carrying our belongings and the other our dreams. Our family formed a close-knit group with other Indian immigrants who were trying to assimilate as seamlessly into American culture as they possibly could, and my parents wanted to offer nothing but the best to me- this meant an early private school education and a disciplined lifestyle.
Our first home was a small apartment nestled in between other buildings in the area, with a quiet and neighborly ambiance that could have been taken off any postcard from the Midwest. There was a common pond in the backyard and sometimes I would find myself staring at my reflection: a healthy body with large, almond-shaped brown eyes and a short mushroom bob encircling my head as I stared at the little fish darting by. This silence would break when my friend would skip stones and all the ripples muddled away my reflection, almost as if I dissipated into the murky pond water altogether. Almost as if I never existed to being with.
As my quiet and homely childhood passed, so did our struggle with assimilating. We became chameleons, camouflaging ourselves into whatever surrounding we happened to be in so as not to attract further attention. Our visits to the temple were sparse in number because like most other Indian families in our community, we had created a make-shift shrine with some statuettes and pictures of deities whom we prayed to. My mother felt more comfortable donning t-shirts and pants in public instead of her traditional salwar without the fear of seeming too immodest as her in-laws had once warned her of being. My father traveled a lot, so it was just my mother and me. After school we would sit on the couch, watching VHS Disney movies over and over again. It began with wonder and amazement as I would stare at the flitting Technicolor images go by on our small television screen, but that was soon replaced by longing to be like them. It was years later that I realized that while imitation can be the best form of flattery, it certainly did not turn you into them.
After a short move to a different suburb, more posh and becoming than the last, many aspects of my life changed for the better and for worse. I welcomed my hazel-eyed baby sister six and a half years later and gawked over her like any other little girl would cradle her porcelain China doll. While she grew in the atmosphere of other Americans, I was still trying to find my footing in the scariest niche in society: middle school. I would wrap rotis filled with different vegetables and eat it quickly and quietly with my head buried under the cover of my lunch box because I was afraid someone would notice and question the unfamiliar food I was eating.
One day in sixth grade, I was approached by a popular boy whom I had been crushing on and with every footstep he took towards me, my heart grew heavier in my mouth. When he came closer, his nose wrinkled up and after taking one look at my choley he said, “EW WHY ARE YOU EATING COW DUNG? IS THAT WHAT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE EAT?” and ran away. People at the tables all around me heard and I could hear his maniacal and disgusted voice as I replayed it inside my head a thousand times over. With my eyes welling up with tears and my face burning and turning a bright crimson, I snatched my lunch and threw it in the closest garbage can I could find and ran out of the cafeteria.
That day when I came home from school, I yelled at my mother and told her to give me sandwiches and other foods that “white people” eat because I couldn’t tolerate eating shamefully and being so different from other kids my age. My mother looked at me and nodded understandably, but I could see a flicker of disappointment in her eyes as she wiped my tears away and consoled me. The next morning she had a PB&J sandwich ready for me and a yellow Post-It note she had stuck to my lunchbox. “I make these lunches with love and because you like them; don’t change yourself for other people but help them change to understand you. Love, Mama”. I ate my sandwich that day at school but I couldn’t taste anything except guilt and a little too much jelly in my mouth, and with a newfound resignation, I decided I could eat whatever I wanted because ultimately it was my lunch and my life.
Now, the media has embraced Indian American culture more significantly and universities have different venues in which students can embrace their cultures with other students who share the same religion, or with those who just want to learn more. It is reassuring to me that I can understand and relate with other individuals who may share a similar love of music or style of dance or even food.
I began my journey in a foreign country with hesitant footsteps as I cautiously made my way through the first few years of my life, but over time, these steps have turned into a passionate sprint. I learned that crushes are called that because your infatuation with them only turns to heartbreak as you are appropriately “crushed” after disappointment; I learned that if ten people reject trying new things or embracing a part of whom you are, then you will find eleven that do and are worth being in your life; more importantly, I learned that no matter where you end up in life, you must never forget your origins. Your roots tie you in place and remind you that however much you may grow in life, you will always be anchored in where you came from.