I was born in 1990, when my favorite band, Nirvana, was at its peak, and acid-wash jeans filled the racks in clothing stores. Shortly thereafter, the Gulf War started and the desert was filled with smoke, flames, and hate. But in my hometown, Cupertino, none of this seemed to matter. Here, the air is always still and warm, and the flowers bloom all year round. Everybody treated me equally, not holding racial grudges or calling names. I honestly believed I was a little white girl until a boy in my preschool snidely called out “darkie” to me, and I realized that I was, in fact, brown. After that, I was confused as to what I was, culturally, religiously, and racially; all I knew was that I was a little brown girl in a sea of whites and blacks. I was a misfit.
It wasn’t until sixth grade that I learned that there was a name for me: Indo-American. I carried out Indian traditions like Rakhi and Divali, ate Indian food, and practiced Hinduism, but culturally, I was fully American. Finally, I felt accepted, normal, and almost common; there were other people like me, struggling in the same way. It seemed as though my identities were like two bright doors, shining in a hall of darkness, waiting for me to walk into them. Each “identity” door was spray-painted with a word: the left one titled “Indian,” the right one “American.” Unfortunately, the few steps I made towards either one determined the personal path I would follow for the rest of my life. I only wished that the decision-making process was easier.
My cultural battle seemed to resemble politics: the country torn between Democrats and Republicans, pro-war and anti-war. When the World Trade Center came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed as though my values and morals and all that I stood for were crumbling to pieces as well. Until then, I had believed that America was really leaving behind its history of oppression towards the rest of the world. I imagined our country climbing a mountain, striving to reach the top where racial acceptance existed. This attack was one of national, religious, and political hate, acting as an avalanche, pushing the American efforts back down to the base of the mountain. After President Bush declared another war on the country of Iraq, all hope vanished from my mind. I couldn’t help but feel that there would never be enough peace in the world to settle any racial differences.
When I was a naive 7-year-old, I believed that my ethnicity was an obstacle I could just brush aside; another piece of lint on my shirt that I could easily remove. Then, I didn’t realize that my efforts to ignore my heritage were futile. I thought that if by eating McNuggets instead of rice and tandoori chicken for dinner, and sitting out of traditional ceremonies because they were “so weird,” all the pigment from my skin and my past would be erased.
Now, as a wiser 13-year-old, I realize how impractical these attempts were. When I remember my belief that the Caucasian-American person was the right kind of person to be, I feel childish and ridiculous. I have begun to focus on how to accept myself as a dark-skinned, culturally colorful girl in an ocean of fair-skinned, ethnically bland youth.
Once, I confronted my mother as to where I stand in today’s American society. She only told me to stop trying to fit into a Caucasian-dominated country, and return to my Indian roots. These words changed my entire perspective on identity; they seemed to act as my flotation device, lifting me up to cloud nine. I was content with myself until my family’s annual trip to India. This vacation can do one of two things to me: it can boost my self-esteem and national (as in American) pride, or yet again, make me feel unwelcome in my Indian motherland.
During the first few weeks, I felt on top of the world as my relatives praised me, my young cousins listened curiously to my different accent, and I visited all my favorite places: my mother’s preferred bookstore in Mumbai, the ancient Devi temple in Kolhapur, and the comfortable seat at the fold-out dinner table in my grandmother’s home, in front of what seemed like miles of delicious comfort food. India is where my family is, where I can trace my ancestors farther back than I can even remember in history, and where I can hold my grandmother’s hand as I walk through a crowd full of psychotic beggars, strange men, and pickpockets, feeling perfectly safe.
Still, I stick out like a sore thumb. As the trip progressed, my differences transformed from positive to negative. While shopping, my cousin tells me not to open my mouth so that the natives won’t recognize my accent, think that we are tourists, and try to cheat us on our purchases. Although my natural, physical features match the standard in India, my accent, behavior, style, and opinions set me apart from the crowd. As much as I wore salwar-kameez and long kurtas in my attempt to follow the fashion scene, and spoke Marathi with a somewhat convincing accent, acting as if I belonged, I distinctly remember being stared at by every passerby as I walked down the street. My mother had told me to return to my Indian roots, but when I did, I felt even worse. I didn’t belong there, either.
I feel as if I am stuck in a rut I can’t seem to get out of. I can no longer ignore my heritage, yet I must be faithful to my American upbringing. Soon, I will turn 13, the beginning of my journey into the self-discovery of adulthood. There, I know I will experience many racial obstacles, but they are only small pebbles compared to the mountains of bliss I will receive from creating another “identity” door. Instead of being titled “American” or “Indian,” this one will be titled “Indo-American.”
Thirteen-year-old Neha Deshmukh goes to Harker School in San Jose.