The One With the Identity Crisis 5/22/18

As a kid, I was obsessed with Pokémon. The idea of creatures evolving into new characters and changing their shapes and power was so incredible to me, that I thought that’s how people worked too. It’s appalling, actually, to reflect back and realize that for a chunk of my childhood, I genuinely believed that the color of my skin made me inferior to my friends. I thought one day I would “level-up,” and wake up without my melanin. I noticed how my friends all had American Girl dolls that looked like them, and how all the strong, powerful women I saw on TV, just didn’t look like me or the women in my life. Pop culture and the lack of representation had influenced me so much, that up until I hit the second grade– I had thought that the highest evolution of humanity was actually based on skin color. I had no idea how wrong I was until one day, when I asked my mom why I was brown, she told me it was because the Gods were baking cookies, and they felt like making a variety. That simple explanation seemed to be enough for me, until another question came up: What kind of brown am I? 

After figuring out that real life didn’t work like Pokémon, I began to question what being Indian meant. I was embarrassed by it for the longest time, because whenever my mom would pack me leftovers for lunch, some my classmates would make fun of me and tell me that my Indian food looked like fish food. I remember when one of my teachers held her nose as I opened my masala sandwich, and when my friends noticed her disgust, quickly following suit with their own towards me. When 9/11 happened and I was in first grade, I saw how people began to interact differently with my parents at Open House nights, because they didn’t know what we were, or where we were from. They didn’t know that my Dad came to America to serve in the Air Force and Navy, they just thought his mustache was like the guys we saw on the news. At first, I just thought they were gawking at us because my little sister was special needs, and since people at the temple stared at us for that reason– I didn’t immediately associate these new types of stares with our being brown. But I should’ve known. Even as as a kid I’d get asked if I was a terrorist, who I prayed to, if my parents would force me to marry an Indian boy, or even to explain why I didn’t wear a red dot on my forehead everyday—so as a defense I’d just reply, “I’m a different kind of Indian.” I’d force my mom to make me PB&J’s for lunch instead of masala sandwiches, and to stop putting the grey ash prayer mark on my forehead before we left for school. I wanted to be that Indian at home, where no one could laugh. Being someone different at school seemed to make the most sense to me, because by then I’d learned in class that America was full of all types of Indians: Red, Blue, Western, or Northern. I had my pick at a new identity, and I wanted to be anything other than the ones they were disgusted by. This deflection ended up just making me more confused though, because my eight-year-old self started to believe that my ancestors had Chiefs and Tribes, and that I was more like Disney’s Pocahontas than like their Jasmine. 

Up until I was nine, I began to believe that I was Native-American— because everyone called them Indians anyway. Labeling Native Americans as Indians was probably the most confusing concept to me, because I distinctly remember blending my idea of what an Indian was. On culture day, I could be the pretty Indian that wore sarees, but every other day, I wanted to be the pretty Indian that no one questioned. I remember once, when we were learning about the Navajo, one of my classmates asked our teacher how she should color them, and my teacher asked me to come up to the front of class and be the model for how they should color the Indians in our pictures. It never occurred to me to correct her, because I thought she was right. I didn’t even know what I was, to be honest— I just didn’t want to be the Indian that everyone laughed at. I remember being on the 91 one day with my mom, and asking her what tribe we were from. She told me, “East.” When I asked what color Indian we were, she responded, “Brown,” laughing, because she thought that I meant the color of our skin. I remember her face changing when I asked her to clarify if we were Red or Blue or Yellow like the ones we talked about in class. She was so shocked by my confusion that when we got home, she sat me down for hours trying to explain our family’s heritage— that I’m brown because my ancestors were from India, but then they went to East Africa, but then we came here to settle.

If anything, in learning that I wasn’t Native American, I only became more confused because, by then in school, we started learning about how the slaves had come to America on boats from Africa. Because my parents and grand parents and great-grandparents, etc. had all come from East Africa— I thought that meant that I was actually African-American. At home, my entire family conversed in mixes of Swahili and our other native languages, and they cooked mixes of Kenyan and Indian food too— so with that proof, I thought that I had finally gotten my identity right this time. I was so afraid of actually being Indian that I wanted to identify as anything other than the label that I was made fun of for. 

Of course, at some point during elementary school, I had to face the facts and accept the Indian that I am. Pretending and believing I was every other label was too hard to keep up with, and once my parents found out how truly confused I was, they took steps to make sure I wouldn’t be unsure of my identity again. They made me start watching Indian movies, spend more time listening to Indian songs, and start learning more about the Gods and Goddesses we worshipped at home. By the end of elementary school, I was finally aware of who I was, and even if I was still embarrassed by it (and I would be, regrettably, until my college years), I had to accept my identity as an American-born, Gujarati girl.