In beginning a journey that is relatively uncommon, I examine what allows me and motivates me to go.
I can say I am distinctly shaped by growing up with four brothers, no sisters, and Indian immigrant parents in a predominantly wealthy town with a huge racial divide.
I went to college in a town whose college students stayed in enclaves and seldom ventured past specific streets.
After college, I moved to DC–another town with a huge racial and cultural divide.
I recently moved to NYC.
I’m living near and working with black and brown folks in a way that I never have before and realizing that being surrounded by white people has warped my identity and sense of self. Instead of being able to reflect on the images of people who look like me, I have always been surrounded by images of people who are my opposite. Junot Diaz has said,
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?
But we do exist, and thrive. I now work in a hospital in a mostly Dominican neighborhood. On any given day, I’m working with Guyanese, Dominican, Philipina, black, Indian, and white nurses. I’m in an environment that celebrates my brownness. For the first time in my life, I can talk about my racial background in a work environment that is curious without fetishizing. I can talk about going back to India without people making jokes about the food, or how they couldn’t last the plane ride. I can talk about things that relate to my ethnic identity, about language, about culture, without worrying that the other person is going to decide that this is what all Indians are, or do, or say. I’ve always known I don’t speak for all Indians, but it’s the first time I’m in a place where the people of color I work with also make that clear. I can learn about the cultures of my coworkers and their unique experiences being people of color in the US. To me, our conversations are more refreshing, more honest, because we don’t have to hide what we actually want to say about our experience.
So I’m hesitant to leave.
I don’t want to live anywhere forever, but New York City is so tempting. This city has welcomed my brownness so thoroughly, made me feel like I can express myself in ways that I never have before, and in so many subtle ways allowed me to embrace the complexity of being a human being doin’ what I do.
Embarking on this bicycle driven journey is partially about experiencing new cities, exploring new spaces in ways that other forms of travel don’t allow. And I suspect that there are people of color out there, everywhere in the US, who are challenging norms, pushing boundaries, and expressing their complicated uniqueness in ways that I can only imagine. To find them and celebrate our differences, to celebrate our multiple identities, our unique upbringings that shape us, our ways of figuring ourselves out in the midst of a culture that would homogenize and stamp out our creativity…well that’s part of my journey.
When there are representations of people of color in the mainstream, they often oversimplify our existence by making individuals appear as though they are nothing but products of our identifiers. But each individual comes from a place that is uniquely situated. My parents are Indian immigrants who came from farming backgrounds in rural Kerala, where electricity was limited where it existed, where my mother was of the first graduating class of young women at her high school, and where my grandfather and his brothers traveled long distances to trade tea and spices. My parents worked extremely hard to become highly educated. They got their doctorates in India, moved to the US where they had almost no family at the time, and raised 5 kids in a primarily upper middle class, white town. So I am simultaneously a woman, a daughter of immigrant parents, and a person with class privilege, with access to knowledge that those who did not grow up surrounded by the upper middle class would not have, and therefore access to opportunities that wealth can offer.
I am a product of my class and race and gender, my ability and my sexual orientation. These attributes are fundamental to my existence as a person. I am simultaneously fighting oppression on the basis of race and gender, while benefiting from class privilege and presenting as a cis-gender, able-bodied, straight woman. I am trying to learn how to intentionally undermine the privileges that I do have, push back against class, raise others up in spaces that I have been advantaged without reason, and support struggles that may not be my own.
I’m going on a bike trip. That fact alone reflects my privilege. I have choices with how I interact with the world during this bike trip. I know that I want my interactions to reflect certain intentions. In this moment, I hope that my interactions can reflect my desire to listen to nuanced stories, to not box people into their identifiers, and to celebrate the differences between us. I know other people of color are fighting to make lives for themselves, fighting to find comfort in their multiplicity, and I’m hoping that I can hear and share these stories.