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Home: The Toast

Every time I write about race I want it to be the last time I write about race. I’m sick of it, and I think I’m spent, and then weeks later I have more to say, or just different, maybe better ways to say it. I’m not sure if anyone wants to hear it though.

Every time I write about race it sounds like my opinions are really strong and final, which is just a byproduct of writing them down instead of saying them out loud in conversation. People respond to me agreeing or disagreeing, but all I can think is “Oh wow you took that really seriously.”

A few weeks ago Nicole Chung commiserated with me on Twitter, and spoke of “this impossible balance to strike between helping people see what hurts you, and making them see you as MORE than that.”

I feel like I’m whining when I talk about being mixed race, like I’m trying to score points or make myself more interesting by saying I’m not white. I’ve been accused of just that, and it keeps sinking in.

I watched Master of None, and that scene where Aziz and his friend take their parents to dinner and talk about being the children of immigrants. I related and didn’t. I am the child of an immigrant but that was not my life. My dad didn’t chase chickens around his backyard or come to this country to fight for a better life. His parents were the ones who did that. He came as a child and ate hamburgers and played rock music and barely speaks any of the languages his parents spoke.

Some of it was my life, though. My grandma talks about fighting a cobra out of my dad’s crib as a baby. My favorite snack as a child was Parle-G gluco-biscuits. But I am not a sum of those stories.

I ordered a couch from Macy’s and the customer service lady on the phone asked what kind of name “Saxena” was. I told her, and she said she already knew because she has Indian friends with the same last name. Does she do that with Smiths?

When Indian friends talk about being Indian I feel twice removed. There is slang I don’t know and experiences that are expected to be universal for someone with an Indian parent. They are not.

I worry that by talking and writing about this so much I am making it my whole self.

I have heirlooms, lots of them, silver and pearls and heavy wooden furniture from people who have been in America for ten generations. I am slightly horrified when people hold holiday dinners and use plastic flatware and plates. I have a hard time with many of my own Indian relatives’ names. I have drank beef broth with vodka and enjoyed it.

I sometimes say “chapal” instead of “sandal” and when I purse my lips around lip balm I hear my dad saying “omkara” even though I don’t know what that means.

I don’t know why all these experiences feel like contradictions. I am not a contradiction. My life does not fit into a narrative essay. Why do I need to prove that to you?

Can you appropriate religion? It feels like something that should be purer than that, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is the internal eye-roll when a white person shows me their Durga tattoo or says they worship Ganesh. But I’m an atheist so why should that matter?

I have friends of other backgrounds who know more about Indian culture than I do. They’ve lived in India for years, or watch Bollywood obsessively, or grew up eating Indian food. They can name all the playback singers and talk about politics and know the ins and outs of daily life in towns I’ll never visit. At first they looked to me for expertise, or confirmation of their knowledge, and now I worry they’ll just pity me. Or they’ll use my ignorance to bolster their own confidence. They know more than an Indian person about her own culture.

I am allowed to be into yoga and Indian food and Indian music without repercussion. I do not watch white people do it while I feel discriminated against. This is another contradiction that shouldn’t be.

I don’t want to see people like me in media. I want to see me. I realized this while watching Quantico, where Priyanka Chopra’s character has a white father and an Indian mother. Her family makeup is the closest I’ve ever seen to mine but no, she’s from California and lived in India and is darker and has better hair. That’s not me. Neither is Aziz, living in New York and eating sandwiches from Parm but dealing with racial stereotypes, or Gwen Stefani with her zippered pants and bindis but blonde hair, or anyone with whom I’ve partially identified over the years.

I never used to have a problem feeling left out of media, and it’s not really a problem so much as something I casually notice. As long as there’s a sassy brunette I’m good.

Why would I even expect to see my whole, exact self on TV?

I think everyone goes through those moments where you realize you are not like anybody else. None of us are. There are just some life experiences that make you realize it faster.

My theory is that being mixed race blows the whole thing open. I am allowed to identify in a number of different ways, and that shows how flimsy the whole notion of race is. Not that race is meaningless. Our actions and history have given it meaning. But it’s not hard to poke through.

When I was 17 I visited a liberal arts college in the midwest. It was grey and small. I introduced myself to other students and the conversation went as it normally does. I said my name is Jaya and they said that’s a pretty name/I haven’t heard that name/where is that from? I said it’s Hindi and they’d ask if I’m Indian. I said my dad is from India and that’s the last time I had control of my identity, if I even had it to begin with. All of a sudden I was Indian, and that was the most interesting thing about me, the only thing about me. They didn’t want to hear anything else, things that are not contradictory to being Indian, only the things that confirmed the image they already had. And when I asked about their backgrounds they said they were white and boring, white and boring, not like me.

I’m getting tired of this drive to prove that I am more than these things about me.

I want to be the one who dictates what gets associated with me.

I’m bored of talking about this.

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