To become interesting
I always felt out of place in my writing classes. Everyone in my Masters programme was significantly older. In fact, the next youngest person in my class was seven years older than I. In the world of “write what you know,” I often wondered, “what do I know?”
Whenever I confided in my classmates, they thought I was being ridiculous. “You grew up in India,” they said, as though that should be reason enough to prove that my life was somehow better, or more interesting than theirs, that I must have grown up around snake charmers so obviously, I have awesome stories to tell. While the obvious truth in that statement is indisputable, I always found it to be a very flimsy argument.
My parents belong to the first post-colonial generation of India. My father went to a catholic school established during the British Raj. I was raised speaking four languages (which I guess is a little unusual), but I am most fluent in English. I went to an English medium school, studied math, science, geography — basically the same things any other child of my social class was studying in the world. I went through the same lonely childhood as any shy, weird kid in Oklahoma and the same angst-filled teenage years as a rebellious teenager in England. I have yet to see a snake charmer — though I must admit that I have seen several rather talented dancing monkeys. I didn’t experience the horrors of living on the streets, divorce, foster care and more that several of my classmates did. There were no dangerous gangs in my neighbourhood, discounting the gossipy old ladies in the park. No one I knew owned a gun.
This is not to say that none of this happens in India. They are just intrinsic to the global human experience. There are homeless people on the streets in Seattle just as there are beggars in Calcutta.
I had a middle-class, comfortable upbringing that most people in the developed world experience. Sure, a lot of things normal for me aren’t so for Americans — intrusive grandparents, animal Gods (limited only to Indian Hindus), an aversion to Valentine’s Day (though that might be me) — but then again, a lot of things normal to Americans isn’t normal for the rest of the world (refer to: guns)!
There’s a great deal of pressure associated with being held up as a representative for an entire country. For most of my friends and colleagues who have never travelled outside the United States, I am the voice of my people, even though I couldn’t speak to the experience of over ninety percent of them. It’s like placing a twenty-ear-old from Utah in Bangladesh and expecting them to speak about the relevance of FRIENDS.
In the United States, race is the strongest identifier of an individual, no matter how much people try to deny it. My racial identity as an Indian is so strong that it overcomes every single other aspect of my person. It doesn’t matter if my family can afford a post-graduate degree without the need for loans. No one cares that the home I grew up in was in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in my suburb. It’s not important that I was one of the top scorers in the national examination, or that I moved out of my parents’ home at fifteen to pursue my own goals (all of which make me just like any other ambitious person from a good family). All of these things make me interesting. But the only thing that matters, is that I’m Indian.
Growing up, I was just another middle-class kid, going through life. It was only when I left and became, in the eyes of every single person I have ever met, Indian that interesting things started happening to me. My skin colour has remained the same since birth, but it’s only after I moved here, did I become Brown.