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It started with a white paper. Oh, how I loved this plain and pure paper. I cherished the feel, the look, the smell. A fresh piece of paper was my canvas – I could write anything or draw anything and it would be seen. This was impossible for me to do, say on a piece of colored construction paper. The colors would be distorted, the page would crumple, and the corners were dull. Through my five-year-old ebony eyes, a white piece of paper was a sea of possibilities, simply waiting for me to catch a fish.

And so when it came time for the Project, I could not wait to use my fresh stack of white paper I always kept in my room. I sat down at my table with a single sheet and a box of crayons. For the entire Saturday I worked furiously, taking my time to draw the tiny details and choosing the perfect color. Before dinner, I finished my masterpiece and I felt like an artist. I ran downstairs and presented my drawing to my parents. My father’s brow furrow so that two lines appear on his forehead. My mother tore the paper from my hands and spat out, “What is this?” I could hear her tone of anxiety and I was a puzzled. The thing was, I had colored my face white.

My childhood was a dark forest to me – I was confused about where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do, and how I should do it. Was I American? Indian? American-born Indian? Or Indian born American? There was even a time in second grade when a blonde girl would ask us if we were Christian or Jewish. When she confronted me, I started panicking and I blurted out “Uhhh Christian?” She gave me only two choices, and Hinduism was not one of them. It was all so complicated, and at times it still is. I was like a starving child – I yearned for a single cohesive identity. The green monster fed on my heart as my friends ate their hamburgers at pool parties, while I had to embarrassingly request a veggie burger before the party. Or sometimes I would envy the perfect blonde or brunette hair many girls had in my class. My soul could not tell me where I was going and I was constantly in search of myself, if that even existed.

I attended a predominantly upper class white elementary school in Potomac that made me stand out physically and emotionally. Though I had amazing friends in elementary school that I still communicate with today, I found that many school children would be the cruelest people I would ever meet. They would stare at me and whisper if I did not eat a peanut-butter jelly sandwich for lunch, ignore me if I did not wear a pair of UGG boots, and even jeer at my name. When my two identities clashed, I was a small animal trying to find a hiding place. My parents would make me do Indian dance for my elementary school’s multi-cultural festivals, which automatically marked me as an outsider. This was elementary school in one of the wealthiest school districts in the country – a jungle of animals with a specific order in the food chain. The environment was not like racism of the fifties of course. It was intolerance of another kind, a subtle kind that was like finding a needle in a haystack – hard to pinpoint exactly and thus difficult to exterminate. If you disrupted the order, you were sent to the bottom. The “popular” kids fed off of me like leeches. I was losing my security while they were simply becoming more confident.

Outside of school was a different life. I was a different creature with a different mind. I wasn’t a necessarily more comfortable creature. Just different. Parts of this second life were just a confirmation of my insecurity. I felt uncomfortable doing Bharatanatyam, a type of Indian dance, because I felt less American. Unlike most Indian families in America, my parents did not teach me any Indian languages. When I was with my parents in school, I had a guilty pride that my parents had American accents and spoke to me in English. But when I went to the Hindu temple, attended an Indian party, or visited India, I was lost. Everyone would speak Hindi, Kannada, or Telugu and I was essentially in no man’s land – I felt too Indian at my school and too American everywhere else. I would look in my mirror, probably more than most children of my age, and depending on the day, I would see a different Ankita, or want to be a different Ankita. After school I would look at my face and try to make my skin look lighter, or try to tie my hair up into a high ponytail, which of course is impossible for my heavy, thick mass of Indian hair. But other days I would look at myself try on different bindis or braid my hair Indian-style. Could I ever find a balance in this unconventional lifestyle?

It was only until teen years, as with so many people, when my mindset was drastically altered. I met people that were actually interested in my Hindu Indian culture. They didn’t cringe when they saw me eat saag paneer or tandoori chicken, but instead asked to try it, and I was delighted to finally share a piece of my culture. When people inquired about my culture rather than isolating it, I started realizing that my heritage is something to be valued. I did my projects about India, made Indian food for my friends, and invited them to some of my dance performances. In my Indian community, thought the language barrier was still a problem, I started learning more bits about my culture, wearing different saris, trying new Indian foods, and meeting more relatives. I was becoming a tree, connecting to my deep roots, getting stronger with every inch.

I now look at the mirror with new eyes. I ask myself who I am, but the truth is I am still finding her. The creature inside of me is slowly coming out of hiding, and finally taking chances. I am lucky to have an experience of two cultures – I am exposed to different perspectives and introduced to new experiences. I will always be American, but I cannot lose sight of the Indian girl inside. I am constantly trying to find equilibrium between the two lives, like a fish swimming in the ocean depths without sinking or floating, and that is ultimately what makes my life beautiful.



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