I grew up in a community that had a lot of Indians, I think I was lucky that way; I never had to worry about being completely separated from my culture. And I had other people around me who understood what it was like to be an Indian in America.
That doesn’t mean things were perfect, I still felt the sting of stereotypes and racism.
I also grew up around a lot of East Asians, especially in school. We had a food day in one of my Social Studies classes and every year our white teacher would pick a different region of the world. She said all the Asians could bring in Asian food. My friend and I went up to her to ask if we could bring in food, she said no, only Asians could do that. I was constantly told that India wasn’t part of Asia, that I wasn’t Asian enough to be Asian. A fragment of the colonialism and imperialism that continued on, to further white supremacy, to break us apart so we couldn’t work together.
I had a white girl once ask me, “Isn’t India in Africa?” literally days after we had finished studying South Asia in class.
One of my Hindu religion class teachers told me that when she grew up, in Canada, she would wear a bindi to school. She wore it because she wanted to, because it made her feel more comfortable, more in tune with her religion, with her spirituality, with her home in India. She told me that kids would throw rocks at her. She would cry, she would feel alone and different, but she didn’t give up wearing it because sometimes you have to be true to yourself.
I had a white boy once ask me, “Do you smoke pot for your religion?” despite the fact that I did not smoke pot, nor did I know anyone of my religion who did.
One time my best friend and I went out to eat with our families. Her dad ordered some food, asking for something slightly different than what was on the menu due to dietary restrictions. Nothing difficult, just replace one thing with another. The manager told him that he could not come into their restaurant and order food that wasn’t on their menu with his “unintelligible foreign accent.”
I had a white girl once ask my friend, “Isn’t your race extinct?” because 4 billion Asian people on this planet and white people still don’t care that extinction means we would all be dead. (We would be if the colonizers had their way.)
Some girls in my elementary school would ask me about why I didn’t eat meat. They would call themselves my friends and then say things like “I can’t believe you’ve never eaten meat. We’re going to sneak some into your food one day, you’ll love it. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
I had a white woman once ask me, “You speak English really well, where are you from?” as though it were not possible for me to be an American with my brown skin.
My mom told me that she was too afraid to speak when she came to America. She was so afraid of people making fun of her for her accent. She wouldn’t wear a sari to the grocery store for fear of people staring at her and calling her a “dothead.” She wouldn’t bring her lunch to work because people would say she smelled funny, but going to the restaurant meant she had to eat nothing but lettuce for a meal. She let herself go hungry out of fear.
I had a white boy once ask me, “Do you speak Indian? No wait, Hindu?” He couldn’t even remember one of the names of one of the languages that Indians speak.
My friend told me that her grandmother asked her to buy Fair and Lovely because she was too tan, too dark. The commercials in India tell us that our skin will look more beautiful if it’s lighter. My grandmother sometimes tells me about how my mom was so beautiful when she was younger because, “she used to be so pale.”
I had a white boy once tell me, “I’m Asian on the inside” because he was smart.
One time someone who called herself my friend told me that my complaining about the cold didn’t count because, “technically you’re from India, so you’re used to hot weather.” Right, because clearly being Indian counteracts the weather in America.
I had a white woman tell me once, “You’re not Indian, you were born in America, you can’t call yourself an Indian.”
That’s why you white people can’t wear bindis. That’s why we beg you not to wear saris when you’re not invited. That’s why you can’t get the Om symbol tattooed to your body, that’s why you can’t put a third eye on your forehead. You took our culture away from us by mocking us. You forced us to look like you, to act like you, by telling us who we are supposed to be. Because we no longer feel comfortable wearing our culture. Because mehndi and bindis on our beautiful brown skin means we get slurs thrown at us, but when the white girl does it, it’s a fashion trend. Because we have felt the pain for far too long to let you take our culture away from us when you already corrupted our country and our history.