I will never forget my first day of preschool. It was the first room I had ever been in where I was the only Indian. Swimming around me was a sea of white almost as pale as the lights on the ceiling. On that very first day, I didn’t think much of it, until they started saying things to me I had never heard before in my life. “What’s that red dot on your mother’s face?” they would demand. “Does your mom know she’s bleeding from her forehead?” Each time I regarded their questions with confusion. How do they not know it’s a bindi? Still, I answered the questions with grace, and told myself it wouldn’t be like this forever, that it was just these few kids (and teachers) who didn’t know better. Not long after the constant badgering for answers, I noticed the bindi had disappeared from my mother’s forehead, and her face no longer held that Indian pride I had known my whole life.
My school decided to have a heritage day when I was eight. My mom was more excited than anyone else to dress me and my brother up in traditional Indian wear and send us off to school. Mortification consumed me when I realized what heritage meant in a small town public school full of white kids; I was dressed in my two piece golden and pink sparkly choli. A kid next to me wore a green sweater because she was Irish. I came home that day upset, but not nearly as upset as my brother, who had faced the “Why are you wearing a dress?” comments we instantly grew to hate.
When I reached 8th grade, I had gotten into the habit of bringing homemade Indian food for lunch. I can still remember the joy I felt opening my lunchbox to a container of dal, rice, and ghee, a dish my mom used to make for me whenever my brother and I got sick. Though I was filled with joy, those around me didn’t feel the same, and more questions and comments were stirred up. “Why is your food yellow?”, “That looks disgusting”, “It smells so bad,” they would say. By the end of the school year, I had begged my mom to stop giving me Indian food for lunch, and traded in my favorite dishes full of spices and flavors for dry breads with slices of processed meat and cheese stuffed in between.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school when my view of my identity started to shift. That year, everyone in my grade was trying to get into Asian Studies, an elective class offered to sophomores and upperclassmen. I was lucky enough to have gotten into it, and on the first day, I walked into a classroom covered in pictures of Indian temples and deities. The smell of incense filled the air, which instantly took me back to my childhood when my mom used to hold me in her lap as she sang her Sanskrit mantras during her daily puja. The first semester of the course was dedicated solely to learning about Indian history and culture. My teacher often brought up popular Bollywood films, songs, and Indian comedians, and would ask if anyone knew them; it was the first time in my life where I felt proud to acknowledge aspects of my culture, and to be in a room full of people who were genuinely interested in that part of my life. One day we took a field trip that would immerse us further into the culture. I felt honored to be walking around the same temple that I had grown up going to with a class of white students, all of us dressed in the same traditional Indian attire I had once felt embarrassed to wear. My knowledge of spices, desserts, and jewelry was admired and called upon as we strolled the aisles of an Indian grocery store I went to every week. For once, the attention I was getting elicited a sense of pride rather than shame. I was regarded not by wide eyes full of judgment and disgust, but of curiosity and a hunger for cultural enlightenment. It was like stepping into a warm pair of fuzzy slippers after a lifetime of dancing in high heeled stilettos; being Indian finally felt more like a blessing rather than a curse.
In my senior year, I worked up the nerve to wear a traditional red and gold Indian choli for my senior prom. I knew I would be the only one in such a dress, and I knew that heads would turn in my direction, but unlike my eight-year-old self, I didn’t care anymore. I was finally comfortable in my own skin, and proud of my cultural identity.