I know this doesn’t apply to all desis (i.e. South Asians) but it most certainly does to me and many of my desi friends: 9-11 changed not only the way others looked at me and treated me, but how I looked at myself, the world, and my place in the world. I don’t think I quite grasped the extent of this event’s influence on my life until more recent years and months.
On January 20, 2009 I, with the rest of America, watched Obama deliver his Inaugural Address. And I cried. It seemed like the Bush years, 9-11, and war had scarred the America I lived in and I had yet to experience this wonderful America that my parents had believed in and left their homes for. The America that Obama spoke of. It was real. And for the first time in my more intelligible years, I felt like I was listening to an intelligent president who ALSO spoke from his heart. No once could possibly fake sincerity so well. And so eloquently. (And this long?) For the first time in my life, I genuinely felt like I belonged here. In Obama’s America.
And it was that day that I recognized how far I had allowed myself to be pushed–away from my American identity–by my classmates and even friends. I even had a teacher who was kind enough to “forgive my people” for what “we” did to America. At the age of 13, I didn’t quite know how to respond with more than just a blank stare.
By sophomore year of high school I was overflowing with opinions and caught in the middle of a hyper-Indian phase. Wearing bindis and eating my idlis and sambar at lunch–with a ready “fuck you” to anyone who had anything to say about my foreign foods. Scrunch your nose at my green chutney all you want. Sooo past giving a damn.
Except…for all my rebellion was worth, I still couldn’t wash away the cold, ugly feeling of alienation–a product of my own rebellion as well as the way other people treated me and talked to me. Somehow people managed to stuff an “unlike your people” comment snidely, or even a seemingly sincere “it’s too bad more Indians aren’t like you.” …Oh? Pray tell what more Indians are like. And was it really necessary for me to clarify that Indians were NOT behind 9-11?
As much as I tried to embrace my differences, and as many friends as I made who appreciated my quirks…I still wanted so bad for it to be easier to fit in. And not just as someone’s token Indian friend. As much as I didn’t want to be defined as being Indian, I was stuck with it, so I embraced it. And I exaggerated it. And even when it was more superficial than meaningful in the past, I genuinely characterized myself primarily as Hindu and Indian. In retrospect, I didn’t know the first thing about being Hindu and that if I told my family in India that I was Indian like them, I’d get a pat on the back and a “Don’t kid yourself, American.”