To get away from all the hate being spewed online from the election, my friend and I decided to take a break and scroll through Netflix. As we came upon Sixteen Candles, my friend couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before, as it was “totally a part of growing up in the ‘80s.” After the movie was over, perhaps because of post-election tension, I couldn’t focus on Molly Ringwald and her teen love story. All I noticed in the movie was the unacceptable racist treatment the white characters showed toward the Asian character “Long Duk Dong.” Even his name was for comic relief, and he was constantly regarded as “weird” and “different,” foreign, and mostly un-American. Several memories I had repressed came shooting back, and I was instantly transported back to my youth as growing up brown, as an Indian-American, in the Bay Area.
My parents immigrated to California from India in 1980. I grew up in the East Bay, and although it was more diverse than other parts of the United States, it was still a predominantly white area. Other cultures were never represented in mainstream media, particularly Asian ones. For example, if someone happened to find out my ethnicity was Indian, the next question was often, “What tribe are you from?” There were a couple of tense moments too. One time in daycare there was a smell in the room, and a white kid said to me, “Oh it must be you since your skin is brown and it means you’re dirty.” Another time in 2nd grade my mom had lovingly packed some homemade Indian food in my lunch. After one whiff of the “weird” food all the kids were “grossed out” by what I was eating. From that day forward, I made my mom pack peanut butter and jelly on white bread for my lunch every single day for the rest of the year. I was that ashamed of my culture and did not know how to speak up for myself for being different.
One particular incident occurred in 7th grade after we got back from a trip to India. I had been to a wedding and had mehndi on my hands, which was fading rather unevenly. Two white girls in my class screamed out, “Ewww look at her hands! What is that? Is that a disease?” Everyone looked and laughed or was disgusted. I tried to explain what it was but no one really understood or had any concept of what mehndi was back then. These types of incidents and other “micro aggressions” weren’t necessarily bullying, or punishable by teachers, but were a constant reminder that I was different, not American, but an Indian-American, and always part of the “other”, never quite fitting in, no matter how hard I might try.
In high school, I started hanging out with more Indian and Middle Eastern kids. I am not sure if I did this purposely for fear of rejection from other groups, or because of pre-existing high school cliques. Although this did supply some comfort and community, upon reflection, I see that I never reached out to many different types of people. We all just stayed in our individual groups, not knowing anyone on the outside. Now as an adult, I also notice this happening with people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats – both have their own agendas, so adamant in their own beliefs, they will not see the other’s side. But to move forward and progress, both sides need to find some way to communicate while simultaneously rejecting racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.
I left California after college, and then left the country for 10 years after I got married. After my return to the Bay Area, I initially thought nothing had changed about perceptions of those who were Indian-American. But then as I was trying to sign up for a gym membership, the salesperson kept having the Where are you really from conversation, despite my American accent and California ID. But I didn’t dwell on that. I stepped back and immediately noticed the explosion of the Asian and Indian population everywhere, not only around town but in mainstream media and culture. There were many Indian items in grocery stores from instant Palak Paneer to Bollywood Popcorn. Indian-American people like Kamala Harris were running for, and winning, seats in Congress. Indian actress Priyanka Chopra was starring on an American prime time TV show. And thanks to my Facebook stalking, even the two girls who made fun of my mehndi had gotten “henna tattoos.”
I would have loved to have so many Indian-American, Indian, and Asian, people as role models when I was a kid. Now that I have two children of my own, I think it is extremely important for their confidence and development to see people who look like them and their families and to see them succeed. When they see people from their culture represented, it builds community and makes them feel like they can succeed too. It shows them we are all American regardless of one’s color, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
I got to experience this sense of community last month. Both my sons’ teachers let me come to their classes and talk to the kids about Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and do a craft with them. The kids enjoyed painting the diyas I brought, asked a lot of questions, and loved learning about a new culture. It also showed my sons that their culture is something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of or hide from. (It also helped that my son’s friends said, “Your mom is cool.”) The overall message was unity and learning through diversity and this showed my son that what he practices is “normal” and American, too.
This is America, the nation of immigrants, a country that constantly accepts changes and improves itself. I feel this is especially true in the Bay Area. The diversity of culture is one of the reasons I love living here. Although my experience with racism is mild compared to most, it is still part of my story and something that I still deal with today. With all the new racist and discriminatory rhetoric we are hearing on the news every day, we cannot take steps backward and decimate all the progress we have made. History can inspire us to do better, and we will.
We agreed that with hundreds of languages spoken in the Bay Area, that many things are lost in translation, what would help is a cultural dictionary.