Prelude to India
Disclaimer: I should stress that it wasn't like this for everyone. Some kids did just become friends based on similar interests. This "finding people who were like me" struggle was specific to myself, after all I can only speak for me.
I grew up in New York during the 90’s. My family and I made annual visits to Trinidad, but the majority of my life was spent abroad. My parents would ask me if I wanted to go Disneyland or Trinidad, and without a doubt I would always choose Trinidad. It was pain in the ass being a 2nd generation Trinidadian immigrant in a predominately Hispanic and African American community. At the time, we just called dem Spanish and Black people—we didn’t know how to be politically correct and ting nah.
Nobody knew where or what Trinidad was and when asked, I would tell people that I was from “an island located in the Caribbean Sea.” Totally disregarding the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Paria, but honestly, I didn’t even know meh damn self that we are situated more in the Atlantic Ocean than any other body of water. I knew nothing about the history of the Caribbean or of Trinidad. But saying the Caribbean Sea was probably the wisest thing to do. It made the place sound exotic. How delightfully impressive! At such a young age, I knew to appeal to Orientalist senses and fantasies about far away exotic lands. It was better to claim lineage to a sensualized Caribbean island than to be from India.
I was one of the few ‘brown’ girls in my class in Jr. High School and I got harassed for it. They would call me “Indian” and “Hindu,” which in retrospect that doesn’t seem like an insult at all. But in a place and time where fitting in meant survival, being ‘the Other’ was the worst thing, especially when the words were being spat at you with such disgust and contempt. My father was Hindu, but my mother was Christian, so to me, I wasn’t ‘fully Hindu.’ I had a Bligh and I attempted to use said Bligh to ease the blow, but it didn’t really make much of a difference.
One time on the school bus, I got into a heated verbal argument with this Nigerian boy who using racial slurs to try to cut me down. And he spoke with a Nigerian accent, so I couldn’t understand what gave him the right to bully me, when he hadn’t even mastered the English language himself. And that’s the thing about all of my bullies. They were all immigrants like myself, but were focusing on our differences rather than our sameness. Hate is after all a learned thing. It’s a cycle. I’m sure all the hate he was harnessing towards me had already been thrown at him and this was his way of redeeming his self-worth…or something.
And there was this other Trini girl who I was friends with; we were in the same class. She sat behind me on the bus the entire ride from Ridgewood to Elmhurst and did nothing. When I say “did,” I mean she quietly murmured a few comebacks to help me, but she didn’t stand with me. Of course, it wasn’t her battle, but part of me felt like…where is the fellowship? Shouldn’t we band together, especially considering she was Indo-Trinidadian Hindu? The things this boy was saying was equally as insulting to me as it was to her, if not more so, because she was a practicing Hindu.
Looking back, I think I was the only brown kid spicy enough to actively engage in altercations with these bullies. It never got physical, it was always wordage, but for the shy girl that I was in elementary school, those bullies helped me to come out of my shell. The blood that boiled underneath my skin fueled this fury and forced me to open my mouth and fight back. And to date, I have never faced a devastation that didn’t bear a blessing. And this entire experience was one of those defining moments in my life, the majority of which has been one BIG identity crisis.
In Elementary School, my best friends were these two Polish girls. One time we went to the beach and one of the girls saw money floating in the water. She tried to catch it, but she couldn't. Of course the Trini was able. Is money, eh! She get vex and storm off and started talking to her mom in Polish and the other friend could understand everything that was going on and I was just lost in the sauce. And this was a frequent happening. Not the hissy fits, but them speaking to each other in their native tongue and heir families got close and I just felt like I didn't belong.
Then when Jr. High School rolled around, I latched on to the East Asian community—closer to India, right?—and pretended like that whole “Got Rice Bitch?” Azn Pride movement applied to me. But realistically, East Asia’s customs, culture, and traditions are very different from that of South Asia. And those ‘friends’ of mine made sure I was aware of that Otherness.
Skin colour was a big differentiating factor. I wasn’t fair and I wasn’t ‘yellow.’ I would expose bits of my untanned skin to prove that I was really lighter than I appeared. I even researched India’s racial demographic and when I realized that a small percentage of Mongolians were a part of that demographic, I lied and said my great grandfather was Mongolian, all in an effort to be accepted.
Me and a few of those same South Asian friends went to meet some friend of a friend, this Chinese guy that one of them was interested in. And I told her that I thought he was cute, only to later be told by another girl from the group, who tasted no bitterness in her mouth when she nonchalantly spoke the following words to me: “He asked us who the ugly Indian girl was.” I tried to ignore her, but she made it her business to get my attention and repeat herself, which struck the attention of her cousin, who joined in, “Yea, he said you were really ugly.” I mean, really? What kind of response did they expect to get from me? What did they expect to gain from hurting my feelings?
All I could do was laugh it off. But it goes to show how very little we know of true friendship at that age, when we’re so busy trying to find a space to belong. In my mind, East Asia and South Asia shared the same land, so why wouldn’t we be friends? And I continued to hang out with these people. Not all of them were as crude, but I subjected myself daily to the constant reminders of my Otherness. And as a result, I disassociated myself from being anything ‘too Indian,’ until that summer I spent in Trinidad.
I never used to take on Bollywood movies, but one day my cousin, who was already bitten by the Bollywood bug, was watching Dil to Pagal Hai. I remember intermittently coming in and out from the front gallery to the living room, where the movie was playing and taking in the music and dancing. I read the subtitles and followed the story and on that day, I fell in love with love and I fell in love with India. This is a part of who I am. This is where I belong.
In high school, I tried to continue my East Asian trend, seeking them out and trying to show them that I knew things about their food and music and clothes, but my Otherness was just too much. I found myself, instead, grooving in with the Desi community. Here were these people who looked like me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but physical likeness was just about the only thing that we shared. And again I was considered too dark to be beautiful. My first boyfriend did nothing show me how unworthy I was of his attentions. I wasn’t skinny enough, I was too hairy, and I ate with my left hand, which his mother said was the hand that Satan eats with.
I sat in the cafeteria one morning and this Bukharian guy asked my boyfriend (in front of me like I wasn’t sitting there) in this sarcastic, nasty kind of way if he really thought I was pretty. And my boyfriend looked at me, appraising my face, as I sat in his lap with my arms around his shoulder and shrugged giving a half assed sign of agreement, like “Yea, I guess, why not?” And I just sat there with this confused, embarrassed, but contemptuous look on my face. But I still sat there.
The first day of school, this Bangladeshi girl introduced herself to me; she thought I was Bangladeshi too. I excitingly asked her if she was Hindu with this anticipation of finally finding someone I can relate to. It was my oasis. Finally! Hallelujah! I found people like me. She rolled her eyes, laughed and practically scoffed and said “I don’t believe in monkey gods. I’m a Muslim.” She asked ‘what’ I was (a human being, bitch. Duh.) and I used my mother’s Christian-ness to buffer my whole truth, “well, my dad is Hindu, but my mom is Christian, so I’m just kind of in between.” This same girl later self-appointed herself my best friend. She by no means fulfilled the qualifications of such a title, but I was just glad to have a best friend, even if it was just by name.
Again, my Otherness was made glaring. The Desis often spoke to each other in their own respective languages and shared cultural sameness that I never could. Here were these chaste Muslims who turned their nose down at the vulgarity that was the West Indies. Naked and parading the streets for Carnival? What is that? And when they found out we are called ‘coolies’ back home, they guffawed, because coolies meant ‘bag carrier’ in Hindi and was more or less a servant.
Pop Psych Time! I think being an only child with no close family in New York contributed majorly to my search for community. My mother and father were the only other Trinidadians I really knew. And because of that lack of belonging, I allowed myself to be malleable in order to fit in to the communities that I thought were closest to my background. And that’s really how most teenagers cliqued up in high school back then. It wasn’t so much about relating on taste of music and hobbies and what not; it was about finding home away from home. Most of us were 2nd generation immigrants, so that sense of the motherland was very strong via our parents and we often sought it out in our own social spheres.
And there was a small West Indian crew in my high school, but I never fit in with them. Most of them were from Liberty Avenue and everybody knew everybody and someone’s cousin was dating someone’s brother. And they were all on they “gangsta shit” and I was on my “good Indian girl shit” and I just didn’t mesh.
So this voyage down the dark recesses of my childhood brings me back to today. I now (Now, eh! After all these years) have a better sense of self and that’s only because I spent these last few years living in Trinidad. It’s one thing to visit a place for a limited amount of time, which is what I always did. I was always connected somehow, but it’s another thing to live there and be immersed in it.
And when I realized that UWI was taking a trip to India, it couldn’t have come at a better time. My boyfriend had just broken up with me. I read Eat, Pray, Love—yes, cliché I know, but that book was my bible. And I thought to myself, “What the hell am I waiting for? Instead of saying one day, why not this day? Why not now?”
I mustered the courage to ask my parents, stressing that if they couldn’t afford it, I would completely understand. And they were just happy to scrap together the money and send me to a place that they themselves would like to visit one day. Their daughter was going back to the homeland to discover more pieces of her lost self.
I had spent 3 months in New York, prior to my India trip and I ate my belly full of just… everything. I figured, I ate in New York, I will pray in India, and I will come back to Trinidad and fall in love with myself. It didn’t exactly happen as planned, things rarely do, but what happened has happened for my greater good and I wouldn’t have done anything, any other way.
LET'S PLAY: WHERE'S D TRINI?
Marsha Merissa Sancharia