In the summer, we swam until we dimpled like the fruit in our mother’s cupboards and then we swam some more, our skin approaching our father’s in tone but never quite dark enough to match. I overheard folks refer to my father as black and wondered how they didn’t recognize shades of brown. Those were my primary years. I don’t remember my parents calling anyone by color.
The time arrives when it is considered cool to be just what you appear to be, this time is junior high and the rules are known to reverse at any given moment sending you from fringe/outcast to accepted or simply loner. Trust that there is always at least one teacher who will require you to give a presentation on another culture, to dissect its GNP, geography, religion, and values. It was easiest to choose Holland. Everyone loves a good myth about windmills and tulips. Forget the war that razed Rotterdam to the ground, a country infested with the English language, and a growing lack of understanding for diversity. Who doesn’t want a good square of chocolate and a picture of a young Dutch woman (blonde) dressed in clogs, slogging milk in wooden pails, over her shoulders like an ox?
The older I was, the more I began to morph, dropping baby fat (20 lbs. of it) overnight, getting rid of the bulges that my Indian family was so proud of (a fact later revealed when I traveled to Kerala and they complained that I was not as fat as I had been in the pictures), letting my hair grow long and straight, my teeth approaching normal orientation, so good and American. I didn’t swim anymore and my skin turned light despite the Virginia summers. I was half Dutch, something I backed up with our every two-four year trips to visit my Oma and Opa, Oom Hendrik in Holland.
We were the American family of four. My father, on his trips to India, bought me eye-lit skirts, bright pink and turquoise and the occasional miscall of a moo-moo the color of dhal. He left with a small leather suitcase packed with button-down shirts and perfume, and returned with sandalwood incense and none of his original clothing.
Back in his family home, chickens roamed in and out of the kitchen, parked themselves below the table. When he spoke in Malayalam, I swore he was screaming, my relatives always screaming over the phone at odd hours in the night.
Once, when our Indian grandmother came for a visit, my parents decided to leave us with her. We were around five and six years old and we had no way to communicate with this woman just a bit taller than ourselves—registering at less than five feet. I remember hiding behind the living room curtains crying, not really understanding who she was, why we were with her, and if our parents would ever be returning. The same scenario later occurred around the globe as we claimed our Dutch Oma was cursing us. We took to our station below the kitchen table, as any set of good chickens. Clearly, we didn’t fully grasp the idea of family.
It wasn’t until college that I began to vocalize my father’s culture as my own.
We had been holding regular meditation services in our house since I was five and I knew the last thing I was going to admit was that we had six gurus on our altar, one of whom was Christ—that we practiced meditation. I grew up in an area entitled Witch Duck and their history of ducking what looked like heresy was not foreign to me. This was also the area that laid claim to Pat Robertson as a local icon. You learned to shut your mouth.
Despite the time when a Christian missionary tried to recruit me under the guise of inviting me to a Super Bowl party, folks at college left you alone—encouraged you to celebrate your diversity. Who wasn’t reading Siddhartha, dreaming about traveling to Asia for some sort of enlightenment while he sucked on a bit of weed? I had escaped to New England.
By the time I finally visited India, in my early twenties, I recognized the paradise my father had spoken of as the plane made its descent into Trivandrum. I never knew I could love the sight of palm trees (I had never been drawn to tropical climes) or a beach (growing up in Virginia Beach, I thought I had exhausted my appreciation for anything sandy) a color different from anything I’d ever seen. Everyone on the plane spoke with the similar lilt of my father and I felt at peace.
Later my grandmother and I would sit, holding hands across the kitchen table—the same one with the chickens and a whole caravan (as we always traveled in caravans once we landed in India) would take a trip to an island that would no longer exist post-tsunami. I visited the Hanuman temple and loved those rhesus monkeys, watched them as they stole bread from my Uncle’s palms. I would meet Deepa, a friend of the family, with whom I would keep in touch for seven years straight after only having known each other for eight hours.
Decades later, I am shocked that I continue to hear, “You’re only ½ Indian” or “You don’t look it.” as though this judgment should define me. Instead of turning to photos where I appear darker, so that we can begin to play the ridiculous game where we allot points for ethnicity, I explain that it doesn’t really matter what you see. Thankfully, we may all choose to integrate our cultures, to be who we are—a sum of experiences that will always supersede what your visible eye will perceive—with or without the labeling.