How Stereotypes Helped Me Understand Myself
Coming from an orthodox Indian family, I had several restrictions imposed over me. I was not allowed to leave my house for more than three hours, I could not travel in public transportation, I was to report every move of mine to my parents, and I was asked to get back to my house before 6:00 PM; If not I was grounded for weeks, until I convinced my father that I wouldn’t repeat my mistake. My father always referred to me as too young but old enough and compared me to my cousins that they were ‘good kids’ just because they were academically successful. We often ran into arguments that my cousins have never been involved in extracurricular such as: dance, volleyball and a community service as I was. I never understood what he wanted was expecting from me. All my friends did not have all the restrictions as I did, but I did not envy them because I felt my father gave me all the freedom I needed but checked on what I did just because he did not want me to run into a situation where he cannot help.
My path to shape my personal identity started when I got accepted to Boise State University in The United States. My dad was the only one who knew that I was planning to go to college. I ‘asked’ my mom as soon as I got the email from the university. My dad then called all his siblings and told them that—for the very first time in the family, there was someone going to college and that was his daughter. I could see tears of happiness in his eyes and pride in his tone of voice. For several days after then he spoke his sister about how much he would be missing me. I have seen him cry secretly although he tried hiding it from me.
When I told my mom that I was leaving her country, it was three weeks before my departure. She did not talk to me for a while and blamed my dad to be the culprit for supporting my idea. She asked me was to visit her siblings for one last time. My huge fat aunts came to our house with all my favorite sweets and pickles that were traditionally made with the most remote amenities available.
Suddenly one day, one my aunts (who I did not know existed) came to visit me from the countryside, hugged me in with overflowing joy and asked
‘Meri soni kudi kab itti badi ho gaye? Vidhesh jayegi, paisa kamayegi, vapas aayegee nah?’
(Are you leaving us all this early? Could you promise me that you’d come back to visit me once again?)
I looked back at her smiled awkwardly and assured her that I’d visit her again (just because that was all I could do). She then told me about my dad and how naughty he was when he was my age. She also told me that he was also accepted to a college back in his time but he did not go because it was at a farther city and his mom did not want him to leave her. I then realized why he cried for all that time and did not ask for me to not leave.
After my visa got approved, I got a lot of attention from my relatives. They called me and told me that it is a great step towards my success and I was a little too young to do what I was doing (although I felt 17 was old enough to be admitted to a college). I wasn’t used to all the attention I was receiving. Anything and everything I asked for was fulfilled. My grandmother came home to cook her ‘all time magical wonders’.
After all the preparation and packing came the ‘D-day’ (departure day I mean). All my cousins came over to my place. We tried to take a few group pictures, but it was hard for all of us to fit in the camera. My dad checked my passport, ticket, and baggage for a million times and stood by my side all along.
As I got to the airport I saw a fleet of my family members yell ‘SURPRISE!’ they expected me to be surprised, rather I was shocked. I was happy to see that so many people care for me. I waved a few goodbyes and hugged my dad a couple more times assuring him that I’d call him every now and then. I then reported to my terminal, went through the security check and finally sat in the airplane for the very first time. I then checked my backpack looked to check my next flight time, and saw a small box wrapped in gold. I opened it curiously, it was on behalf of my cousins and family. They gave me diamond earrings followed by a gift card that said that they love me and would miss my dance in the upcoming weddings. I smiled, put on those earrings and tried to take a nap.
As I closed my eyes the first memory that rolled in was—when I saw my cousin (Shree) smoke at the age of 15. It is a huge deal for me, neither could I see her spoil nor could I stop her because I was just one year elder to her. It was a normal day; I went to meet bunch of her friends. And suddenly my cousin, and two other friends of hers disappeared. I wondered where they were and pondered for some time. I saw them together and she was learning how to smoke, and one friend watching out for pedestrians.
Later in the day I asked, “Shree where were you today? You introduced me to your friends and then simply vanished.”
She asked me innocently, “I know you saw us, please promise me that you won’t tell Appa?”
We went back to her house. She showed her mom a pair of expensive stilettoes and said, “Look mom! Nitya gifted me these for my birthday”
Her mom looked at me in amazement. I looked at my cousin she widened her eyeballs and rolled brows indicating to act accordingly.
I agreed and said “I know there is a week to go for Shree’s Birthday but, she liked it at the mall so I just bought it for her.”
Two weeks later, when one of my cousins was getting engaged. Shree’s mom gave me obnoxious looks and did not want me to talk to her daughters. My sister came over and told me that she overheard all the aunties talk about me having a boyfriend who gets me imported presents, they then started to judge me for the shorts I wear and the guys I talk to. They even made assumptions that all the community service and volunteering is another reason I give to skip from my house and party.
I went back and then realized, just because my cousin’s mom saw me wearing shorts and talking to guys. I became the center for their gossip. I was quite a bit angry by the fact that people judged me as “spoilt” because of external appearances.
That very moment I opened my eyes and started laughing. The same people who spoke about me because I wore shorts, came today and hugged me saying, “I always knew you had great potential, all the best my child.”
My admission to college turned all the cards in my favor. It was funny because I saw their perceptions and their greetings. I didn’t take it too hard because it wasn’t going to matter to me after I reach my destination. I was happy to live in a different country, continent and time zone, free from all the expectations my extended family had over me.
My destination arrived after 32 sleepless hours. I spoke to my dad and informed him that I reached safely and the news just flowed to my ‘Big Fat Indian Family’.
America seemed just as I expected it to be. A few things unseen and a few things unknown. One of my uncles’ friends picked me up and dropped me at my dorm. I saw my room, white, with two beds, and no ventilation. I ran to Walmart gathered some colored sheets, crayons, some candles and a bright lamp. I came back painted my name and my dad’s name and hung it over the wall. I heard people from my common room whispering.
‘I think she is from Pakistan’ said one.
‘I think she is a part of the terrorists,’ said another.
‘But why would she come to Idaho? Is she hiding from the cops?’ said their friend.
My Resident Assistant came out and explained to them about how much trouble they could get into because of judging me based on my color.
As soon as knew that I could listen to them, sudden silence creeped into the room. I left my dorm looking for some dinner and I tried not to think what happened in the common area. My dad called me to ask how I was doing. I cut the call, so that I wouldn’t burst out in tears. I called my uncle’s friend and asked him to pick me up so that I could sleep at his place for the night.
That night a friend of mine spoke to me. I didn’t tell him all what happened (because I didn’t want to think about it). I felt life would be simpler if there would be another Indian along with me. I gave myself a slap and asked myself,
‘If I wanted Indians around, then why America?’
Then I realized it is all a part of the college experience, I was not ready to ruin it because of a bunch of stereotypes.
I then walked into my first class for the day, week, month, semester, year and college career. I was very excited. It was Physics, I thought it would be Greek for a business major. But, then I looked at the book, they were all the concepts I did in my 9th grade.
Over the semester, people frequently came to me to clarify their doubts and I felt proud to help Engineering majors. At the end, they shook their head in the most Indian manner they could and tried to imitate my accent saying, ‘The Indian knows it all’
I wanted to tell them that not all Indian’s are smart. But somewhere I was happy that they thought I was smart. So, I kept calm and let the dawn take care of itself.
When I went to my dorm and noticed my roommate moved in. Her mom was along with her, she asked me a whole bunch of questions. What interested me the most was when she asked me, “Do you wear fancy ropes as dresses in India?’
It took me a moment to understand that she meant a Saree. I answered all her questions patiently.
At the end my roommate’s mom asked me, ‘If you don’t mind me asking how old are you?’
I replied ‘Eighteen’
She shrunk her eyebrows and asked ‘how long have you been in the United States?’
I replied ‘one day’
She lifted her eyebrows and asked ‘Then when did you become so proficient with your speaking skills?’ I explained her that English was taught in my school and I’ve been learning it since my 3rd grade.
She couldn’t believe me and whispered something in her daughter’s ears and left.
My roommate then told me that her mom suggested her to ask me, if she had any problem with understanding the accent of any customer service person (as people from call centers generally come from India). Either she assumed that I knew all the 160 languages in India or she thought all of us speak the same.
That was the very first time I realized that I was Indian. My accent seemed as though I had come from a typical Indian family and my skin color determines how people want to communicate with me.
Another incident I recall from my freshman semester was when I met a Japanese guy. We spoke over dinner. At the end, we walked towards the library. One of my friends saw his dance video and suggested that I knew how to dance as well. He looked at me and started laughing. He showed me a video of fat aunties dancing at an Indian wedding and asked if that was the dance I was talking about. Little was I tempted to show all my certificates and stage shows I gave, rather I chose to laugh along and give him a five. By the end of the semester, we were giving a farewell party for a friend who was leaving our university. To cheer him up, we came up with a plan. One was beat boxing and that Japanese guy was dancing. He invited me along for a faceoff and I joined without bragging about it. At the end of the faceoff he came gave me a hug and said
‘Bro! You’re amazing! I did not expect this from you’
I smiled and felt happy that I danced after a long time that very day. I came down to a mission to start dancing again so that all the additions I made to my waistline with the help of freshman fifteen could be removed.
Stereotypes did not bother me as much. Neither did I chose to judge people the way they are nor did try to change what they feel about me. If I’d ever try to change what they feel, the cycle would be vicious and inevitable.
In my view, every quality we have is partly inherited and partly acquired. My cousin came up in an environment where smoking takes her into the ‘cool club’, my aunts and those Americans I mentioned before needed gossip, my roommate’s mom was curious and unaware, that Japanese guy only saw skinny people in his dance clan. I do not want to rage a war against stereotypes.
But, I would surely suggest everyone to not come down to conclusions before you know the whole story. If I thought that all Americans aren’t friendly I wouldn’t make friends as I did today. If I never spoke to the Japanese guy again, I would not have had the chance to dance in front of all my friends who did not know that I love dance. If you are being stereotyped I’d suggest please laugh it out. If they don’t want to talk to you they are missing out someone in their life. If you rebel you’ll miss a lot good, just for an attempt you’ll never succeed.
I would like to end by saying,
Change begins with you. Don’t expect love and don’t give hate either.