The next two posts will document how I grew to love India, after being indifferent/embarassed of my heritage. It’s interesting to note I was never ashamed of being adopted in and of itself, just being Indian.
Madison, Wisconsin has a vibrant and growing Indian-American community due to the large number of graduate students attending the university. When I lived there during the early 1980’s there were numerous traditional exhibitions (dances, plays, bazaars) which showcased India and allowed for personal interaction with Indian people and food. As a youngster, my parents took me to many of these events, exposing me to Indian culture. Since I’ve grown older, I’m glad they recognized the importance of keeping me in touch with my birth culture and never wanted that connection to fade away and be completely lost. But that was not always the case.
Growing up in predominantly white Wisconsin was not easy. As a young child I was actutely aware of my small stature in comparison to the Midwestern farm boys who were my classmates, and hailed from Swedish, German and other European ancestry. I was very thin, weighed less than 100 pounds (I finally broke the century mark in high school) and was shorter than everyone, including most of the girls. This was not a combination of body characteristics which led to high self esteem. Not to mention I had brown skin, while everyone around me, save for my own brother and sister, were Caucasian. I felt out of place and different, more than I’d like to admit.
During primary school I was subject to more than a few instances of being mocked for having brown skin. But it’s difficult to say if that was just because kids tease ruthlessly or the mocking was racially motivated. I looked different than the kids around me, there’s no denying that. They didn’t know how to react to diversity; and I just wanted to be accepted. Teasing is natural for boys that age. I don’t condone it, but I understand it.
I endured what I believe were actual racial slurs, but mostly refused to acknowledge, or become confrontational towards those saying such hurtful things. One time I do remember being mocked mercilessly by a guy and responding to him kicking him in the jaw. Luckily for me, given my age and the fact that parents are super involved in their children’s lives, I was never caught for my transgression. For the most part I tried to stick by the childhood mantra, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I didn’t realize until much later, just how wrong that pithy saying is.
As an elementary school student, we brought in desserts for our classmates when we had birthdays. I think this is standard practice in US schools. Typically we’d feast on cupcakes, brownies or something similarly sweet, while congratulating our classmate and taking a “break” from our studies. Having a birthday in late June meant school was never in session on my actual birthday. But I brought in my treats for my schoolmates near the end of the school year.
I offered my favorite Indian dessert, Halwa (a cakelike mixture of semolina, milk, sugar and nuts) and kids loved it. But there was a weird paradox in my choosing halwa. On one hand, I was proud to bring a unique international food from India to share with the class. But, I didn’t identify as Indian and wanted to be as American as possible. I didn’t realize the inherent contradiction at the time.
Over the years, a few of my classmates’ parents contacted my mother requesting the recipe to make the dessert themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if for a number of them my birthday snack was their first exposure to Indian food. And I’d like to think that in scattered houses in our Madison neighborhood, American mothers were experimenting in making halwa for their children, because their children asked for it.
While living in Wisconsin, we were members of a group called Namaste, which was made up of other families who had adopted children from India. I still stay in touch with some of the children, nearly 30 years later. My mother still corresponds with some of their families as well. We formed beautiful connections which last to this day and are meaningful to each of us. Among the activities of the Namaste group was an annual Christmas party, complete with an Indian Santa Claus. We also had picnics, met at restaurants for dinners and enjoyed each other’s company through meals around member’s dining room tables. I was happy to be with other Indian kids, and at least feel comfortable because they had brown skin like me. But we were alike, the severe minority, surrounded by the majority.
Growing older I was no longer interested in attending Nameste gatherings or the cultural offerings downtown. I considered myself fully American, despite my brown skin. Additionally, my family moved away from Madison, to New Jersey when I was 13, in thes summer before sixth grade. My mom still made Indian food on special occasions like my adoption anniversary. When we moved to New Jersey we discovered a vast Indian diaspora population. Our next door neighbors were Indian. I had a number of Indian classmates. Less than 20 minutes away from us was a town called Edison, known affectionately as “Little India.” One can’t walk more than ten feet there without running into an Indian restaurant, jewelry store, clothing shop or grocery store in Edison. It’s an amazing place.
However, I didn’t identify with being Indian very much during my junior high to high school years. There were a few reasons for this. One, India was not discussed during the time. Today it’s an anomaly to watch television, read a newspaper, or surf the Web without reading/ hearing/seeing news about India. Whether it’s her rising world prominence, economy, poor or her personalities. India is seemingly everywhere these days.
In the mid to late 1990’s that was not the case. I felt like the only Indians that people knew were “Apu,” the stereotyped convenience store clerk on the Simpsons, Gandhi and random proprietors of 7-11 and gas stations. With the exception of Gandhi, not exactly people I enjoyed being associated with. India’s economy was not growing like it was today and the world was not going through globalization as it is now either. India was relatively unknown outside of its borders.
The last reason was that the Indians I did know, seemed really geeky to me. To be sure, they were extremely bright, phenomenally educated, but had thick accents, horrible fashion sense and an overriding feeling of being lost in popular culture and within their new homeland. Again, I didn’t want to be linked with them either. Even my Indian classmates, were extremely studious, very Indian in their mannerisms and made fun of all the time for their awkwardness. I refused to be connected to them. If I had my wish, I wouldn’t even be thought of as Indian at all, my skin color be damned.
That last sentiment would soon change, radically.
Coming soon: Part Two
Thanks for sharing your story, AJ – I’m looking forward to part II!
This blog is golden. Thanks so much for sharing this with me. A photo-story in the works. No doubt.
You’re a great and talented man AJ. Although I’m not adopted, I can relate to a lot of what you’ve dealt with, having never known my father AND being a “red headed” step-child, among “other” things…