mani in a sari

We Belong

I’m carrying a weight for the past little while.

I’ve been sad, angry, and confused by all of the senseless acts of violence towards AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Every time I hear about another case of racially motivated violence, the weight gets heavier. I’m not even sure what to write, so I guess this is another brain dump of my thoughts/emotions, but I don’t want to be silent.

I grew up in a predominantly Asian community and I learned a lot from the friends I grew up with- from culture, food, language (I can count to 10 in Cantonese, with extremely poor pronunciation), and traditions. The majority of the friends I grew up with are of Chinese, Japanese, and Hong Kong Chinese background. At first, I used to feel so different from them – much like an outsider. After learning more about our experiences, families, and cultures I realized that though we may be of different ethnic backgrounds, we share many values and beliefs in common. We also learned to appreciate the differences we had. Our differences don’t exist to segregate or to discriminate – they are there so that we can learn and grow from one another. Our ethnic identities are not something we should shy away from, but to be celebrated and shared. This was my normal and I feel extremely lucky, but I also know not everyone has experiences remotely close to mine.

So seeing all of the violence towards AAPI communities hurts. Seeing all of the countless acts of hatred towards communities of color makes me sick. It doesn’t make sense to me to harm (let alone kill) another person because they look different or speak a different language (or don’t speak English at all). Is it fair for me to assume that we should all have the inherent understanding to be respectful of those who are different than us? I feel like that is a pretty low expectation to have.

If the United States/Canada is supposed to be this melting pot, where people from all over the world come to seek opportunities, then why does all of this hatred, discrimination, and violence exist? Why do so many people, who have made sacrifices to immigrate here in hopes of a better life, live in fear? Why are so many parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles harmed simply because of the color of their skin?

The recent events have been specifically targeted towards East Asian communities, and I stand in support of them. I can’t even imagine the pain, hurt and frustration they are experiencing. However, I empathize, as reflect of my experience as a South Asian. Specifically, as an Indian-American. Racism affects all races- and everyone has their individual experiences. I have also grown up hearing about racially-motivated violence towards South Asian communities. I’d get a pit in my stomach when I’d hear about it in the news. I get self-conscious when I’m in a predominantly white area and wonder if I’m welcome, and most importantly, safe.

While I have not been directly affected by extreme manifestations of racism, micro aggressions were definitely constant. Most annoyingly, I’ve had my fair share of “where are you really from?”

I’ve been asked many times, “where are you from?” and my response is always America or Canada (depending on the country I’m living in). And of course, I get the follow-up “but where are you really from?” I used to be conditioned to give them the answer they wanted: Indian. It was easier. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more snarky with my responses because I am legitimately giving them the correct response. Even now, I could just say Indian-American, but that’s still too easy. I am FROM the United States/Canada — I hold both nationalities. I was BORN in the United States. My ETHNICITY is Indian — that’s my background/heritage.

Many people mean well when they ask (and in some situations, I am a lot more forgiving about this) BUT, subtle wording changes in the way people ask these questions have a huge effect. Asking me where I’m from and not accepting the answer “American/Canadian” makes me feel like I don’t belong. It perpetuates the feeling of foreignness and makes me question my western identity. I don’t want to be called “exotic” or “unique.” I may “look” foreign, but that doesn’t mean I am. I want to feel like I belong because I rightfully do. I also know from my conversations with my other South and East Asian friends, they have shared similar experiences and feelings too.

I’ve often struggled to balance both my western and Indian identities. When I feel “too western”, I carry this guilt that I’m “not Indian enough”. But I also have this fear that I’m “not “American enough”.

Fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not belonging. Because, even in 2021, differences can cause harm.

And so I think about my immigrant parents, and specifically grandparents, and the fear I have for them. I think about how hard it must have been for them to transition to a new life in the United States. I can’t imagine the culture shock they must have faced, from clothing, food, school, and work. I think about how, although they have lived in the United States for decades and are citizens, they are perceived in this country. Underneath their western clothes, they are still Indian. Behind the English words, there’s the ability to fluently speak Punjabi and Hindi. Outside, they are “American”, but behind closed doors are our culture and traditions, vibrantly filling our home.

We all belong. I hope we can stand in solidarity and end this hate, with the hopes of a better, more unified tomorrow. My parents and grandparents came to the United States to live a better life – to chase opportunities and dreams. My dream is to make this a safer country for them, and for all of us.