It wasn’t that the idea of being biracial frustrated me, it was just that I didn’t think I was it.
Yes, I finally learned to write “Jaya Saxena,” but to a blank-slate of a five-year-old that combination of letters was just as random as any of my friends’ names. “Judith” looked weird too, right? “Denisa”? “Fiona”? I figured it was all arbitrary.
My family did not act like other immigrant or biracial families. Those kids had parents who spoke of siblings and childhoods in foreign countries with thick accents. They always seemed to be returning to those countries, or filling their households with decorations and music to make it feel like they had never left. They had kids who actually knew something about a “home country.” My house never felt like Talia’s house, where she’d switch between speaking to her dad in Hebrew, her mom in English, and then playing Aladdin on Sega Genesis with me.
My dad, who moved to Newark when he was 8, had long ago adopted a Jersey accent and demeanor, his actions indistinguishable from those of his Italian and Jewish neighbors. He cooked pork chops and pasta with meat sauce, and played country fiddle. He lit incense sometimes but so did lots of hippie parents. He hadn’t been back to India since before I was born.
My mom, with her freckles and red hair, was often mistaken for my Irish nanny. We can trace our first ancestor’s arrival to 1635, and by about 1740 everyone on her side had officially come over. She grew up on a farm and wasn’t afraid of killing the roaches that sometimes skittered around our apartment, and the only time she was called “exotic” was when she went to Scotland. Together, they were just my parents.
So I wasn’t biracial. I was a New Yorker, as if being both weren’t an option. I ate bagels and played handball and wore pants. My dad taught me how to play guitar and played me songs by Danny Kaye or The Muppets. Yes, sometimes my “dress up” outfits contained brightly colored silk and bangles, but those were just decorations. Yes, my grandma would make potatoes that came out yellow and were flecked with seeds, but she’d save a plate of spaghetti and slices of American cheese for me. They were Indian, not me, and that was normal.
When I was eight I sat crying on the stairs of my dad’s parents house. It was steamy and smelled like cumin, and Indian pop music that sounded like they got the same high-pitched woman to sing every song scratched out of the radio. The week before, I visited my mom’s parents at their farm, which was always like something out of a fable. I rode horses, groomed them, fed them hay. I made red currant jelly with my grandma and roasted marshmallows in their fireplace while my grandpa blasted Benny Goodman and quizzed my mom on the band members. Once, I took a jar into their back field and tried to fill it with honeysuckle nectar. I mean, you can’t get any more cloyingly picturesque than that. I have never read Anne of Green Gables and yet I assume there are at least two chapters devoted to that activity. Anyway, that week, I had been admiring the objects they displayed on their mantle, including an old print block of the letter J. “J, like Jaya,” I said. “Yes, J for Jaya, and J for Johnson,” said my grandma.
My dad’s parents were nothing like that. Despite being here for over 30 years at that point, I had a hard time understanding their accents. At night we would watch the news and my grandma would massage mustard oil into my grandpa’s scalp, as they spoke to each other in a language I couldn’t decipher. They were short with waiters. On holidays my grandma would make a flour paste and paint ornate decorations on the patio in front of the house, but I never learned what they meant. On that visit we most likely went to Pizza Hut, because we always ate pizza when I was there, though I was starting to get the impression that it was only for me.
And yet here was this name — Jaya Saxena. By that point I knew it was different, from all the questions about it meaning Mother Earth (“like the lady in Captain Planet?”), or the times I would say it aloud and it would come back spelled “Gia.” Any diversity celebrations at school would end in me bringing samosas, even though I never ate them, or wearing a sari, which I had to get my mom to attempt to wrap. None of the other kids had to deal with that. Carlos brought in empanadas and knew what they were. Everyone knew how to spell Molly’s name. No one expected Kelly to know how to speak Gaelic.
So I cried as I put on my shoes, ready to walk to catch the bus back into the city. “What’s the matter?” my dad asked. I sobbed, “I’m not a Johnson.”
In 1995 I was obsessed with Gwen Stefani. All 4th graders were. But I had a special connection that no one else could claim — I could wear that bindi Gwen was wearing. I mean, if I couldn’t actually feel like the Indian I was told I was, I could at least fake it, right?
This coincided with more and more people expecting me to know more and more about “my culture.” So I gave them the schpiel about the bindi, or some line about Ganesh and offerings. I smiled politely when my friends or family grabbed my hair, taking my ponytail between their thumb and forefinger and laughing at the circumference in comparison to their own. “It’s just the Indian side!” I’d laugh. I brought my friends to my Indian grandparents’ house and had my grandma make them poori bread with hot milk and sugar, to this day the only Indian dessert I can stand. I knew I was not Indian, but I knew I was supposed to be.
Something about this felt wrong. I don’t necessarily look Indian. I’m often mistaken for something vaguely “ethnic” (a recent example: “I know you’re Jewish, but I’m getting a real Dominican vibe from you”), but no one has ever guessed that I was part Indian on the first try. If I walk down the street sporting a bindi and bangles, I do not look like the poster child of the modern Indian-American. I look like someone appropriating Indian culture. Interpret this as you will. Maybe I should have been more aware of my privilege. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others if they don’t fit a profile we have in our heads. It didn’t make my identity any less of a mystery to me.
My first moment of real understanding that Indian culture was not my culture should have been my first trip to India. I was 13, and it was my first trip out of the country, a monthlong tour of the subcontinent with just my grandparents. There was embarrassment, sure. A relative picked us up when we landed, and I went for a handshake instead of the traditional touch-your-elder’s-feet-then-
I continued showing off my Indian jewelry and making grand, historic claims about Hinduism as if the culture were my own. I think it even got worse after the trip, given that now I had been to the “homeland” and convinced my friends I could speak with even more authority. But that summer I went to a new camp, and met a girl whose father was vaguely Buddhist and who named his baby son Jai, the male version of my name. She was so excited to find me, and insisted that after camp she would bring her dad into New York and we’d all go get Indian food.
I assumed this wouldn’t happen, but a few months later I found myself in one of the basement Indian restaurants on 6th Street, trying to make recommendations off the menu. The restaurant was one I chose, at random, but asserted was the best. I knew samosas, and naan, but the curries all seemed the same to me. My friend, airy blonde curls popping out of her ponytail, said I would definitely know what was best. I looked up at her dad, who leaned down to me and whispered “try the korma, I think you’d like it.” The jig was up.
Over the next year, I attempted to clean my act up, mainly by ignoring the very idea of heritage. I was a teenager after all, and was far more interested in listening to my Walkman in the hallways and hoping my classmates didn’t notice I existed. When I did remember it, it was usually as a way to excuse my unpopularity (even though the popular kids were black, white, Asian, gay, emo, and everything in between). This is it, this is the actual struggle, I thought. And then it was September 11, 2001.
Compared to most New Yorkers my experience was pretty tame. I was let out of English class early, and saw the smoke rising over 3rd Avenue when my mom came to pick me up. I went to my uncle’s house, where my dad met up with me and we walked home together.
In the following days I noticed my dad sporting a Yankees cap I had never seen him wear before, and a small American flag pin. A sticker of an American flag showed up on our apartment door. He never acknowledged it, but I guessed it came out of a mixed place of pride in our country and fear that he had to show that pride or else. My skin was not dark enough to be questioned. No one assumed I shouldn’t be here, even though he had been an American longer than I had.
Ok, so it was unfair of me to randomly incorporate Indian things into my life without learning anything about the culture or my family, and unfair of me to assume I knew what it was like to experience the actual hardships of being a minority. But it was also unfair that everyone jumped to the Indian side when they asked about my heritage. There was a whole other side of the family, too; a side that celebrated Christmas around a fireplace and had Easter egg hunts at their farm, the warmest, happiest place I’ve ever known. I was determined to show that this side could be as interesting as India, and was as much a part of my identity. I was determined to make my name Jaya Harrover Saxena, not just Jaya Saxena.
In some ways, I was successful in my research. One ancestor was a regicide to King Charles I. Others founded towns like Farmington, CT and Warner, OH. The original Harrover was an indentured servant sent over from the Shetland Islands. I found minor evidence for witches in my bloodline and nearly started screaming with joy. I believe I am eligible for both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy, though I’m not sure the latter would want me, given that ultimately I am a half-Indian northerner who is marrying a Jew.
It was all quite fascinating to me, and I clung to it, waving it around whenever anyone had the audacity to call me “exotic,” or ask me how it felt to be a child of two cultures. There was nothing wrong with being biracial, I told myself, but the word still doesn’t describe me. I am not a child of two cultures–I am a child of one with a name from another. I felt as distant from India as if you had me pick a country from out of a hat and told me to embody the culture. I felt as connected to it as I did to Sweden or Tunisia. Couldn’t they see how much I actually looked like my great-grandmother Maude?
When no one accepted the identity I was trying to put forth, what I argued was my “real” identity, the anger started to bubble up. I snapped at my fiance’s grandpa (an old Jew from the Bronx) when he tried to tell me what a “nosh” was. “I know, I’m from New York!” I almost screamed, wanting to explain how my dad regularly uses “schlep” and “oy” and “schmuck” in everyday conversation. I jumped up and down when I saw the Aziz Ansari bit about being asked about Slumdog Millionaire, because for a good six months that’s all anyone asked me when they found out I was half-Indian. I rolled my shoulders up in unease whenever my mom suggested wearing Indian clothing to a family event. “But this isn’t what I’d normally wear,” I’d insist. “It feels like playing dress up.” I’d be reminded that it wasn’t dress up, because my name was Jaya Saxena.
6. Acceptance, Basically
This piece should end with complete acceptance, but it doesn’t.
In between the anger and the confusion, I learned how to make shrimp curry from my mom. Yes, the white one. One Thanksgiving I shelled 20 pounds of shrimp to make the dish for the whole family, and to this day all our dish towels are stained with turmeric. A few years later, I returned to India. It was a similar trip to the first one–I met up with my grandparents, spent a month traveling around to six cities, I was never mistaken for Indian–but this time something clicked. The country began to make sense. My family’s habits began to make sense. I couldn’t stop eating.
I started remembering all these “Indian” things about my life that I love. I love my dad and my grandma, wrapping saris for my friends, making halwa for breakfast on the weekends. I love reading Hindu texts, and brainstorming about the re-telling of the Durga myth that I’m going to write any day now. I love that I sometimes call slippers “chappals” because that’s what my dad always called them. I love wearing a salwar kameez around the house because there is nothing more comfy than pajamas made of silk. But every once in a while, I recognize that I am able to focus my love and ignore the parts of my culture that others can’t ignore.
I wrote that these were stages but if I look hard enough, or sometimes not hard at all, they’re all still there. I still get mad at people who make assumptions about my dominant identity, and I’m conflicted over marking “other” on questionnaires about my race. I’ll flat-out forget what people are talking about when they say they’re surprised my dad doesn’t have an accent. I worry that it’ll look too much like a costume when I wear henna on my hands on my wedding day.
Last weekend, I was talking about my ideas for this essay with a Polish woman who moved to America as a young child. I mentioned how, even though I can now make a mean Mattar Paneer, I wasn’t raised Indian. “But your parents gave you an Indian name,” she said, confused. If I were in a bad mood, I would have argued that my name has nothing to do with my life experiences (and grumbled later to my fiance about how annoying it is to be told I’m something I’m not). If I were in a great mood, I would have smiled and warmly thought about all the people in my lineage, witches and non-witches, Indian and everything else, that had to meet for a Jaya Harrover Saxena to even exist. I think I’m in a pretty good mood these days.
Images by Matt Lubchansky, who makes comics and occasionally leaves his apartment in New York. His work includes Please Listen to Me and New Amsterdam Mystery Company. He’s on Twitter, and doesn’t expect you to get his name right.