Back in 2013, my best friend and I recorded a YouTube video of the two of us wishing someone a happy birthday. Wide-eyed, we posted it and giggled at comments like “You are adorable!” and “I love this!” However, the next comment made my heart drop.
“Your friend is so hairy, why does she have a moustache? That’s gross.”
Thirteen-year-old me lifted her hand to her upper lip and brushed it softly; the tiny hairs I’d never noticed before suddenly felt like small needles poking at my self-confidence. Many years later, I learned that visible facial, arm, and leg hair is common among many Indian women. However, living in White America created an ever-climbing pressure to remove unwanted body hair. Every time I go out I use facial razors to meet Eurocentric beauty standards of a smooth, even complexion seen on White models. I see my friends with their naturally hairless arms and legs and my heart twinges in jealousy.
My discomfort doesn’t stem from Indian people being disliked in America. Yes, I can live here, eat here, speak here. It’s that I learned at a very young age that every facet of my Indian identity will never be perfect for White America. Putting in the daily effort to be included can be exhausting when the world is built for someone else.
My name is Sravya (SRUH-vyuh) Balasa. Since I live in a world of Kevins and Maries, being called in class, meeting a new colleague, or picking up my order at Starbucks is always something I dread. I brace myself for the constant repetition of just knowing my order’s ready when employees have a long pause before saying “Sorry, but how do you pronounce your name? It’s so hard!”. For the longest time, I hated my Indian name for the pain it caused me to constantly explain how to pronounce it. Many times, I almost succumbed to going by a nickname but stopped at the realization that I didn’t need to change my identity to make the lives of my White counterparts easier. When I meet Indian peers who go by nicknames, I ache to ask “What broke you?”
There’s a deep beauty etched in South Asian words. Sravya means “a melodious voice”, it’s a Telugu word with its roots in Sanskrit, which is the base of most languages spoken in India. However, in America, I find myself explaining the basics of it, like how Hindu is a religion but Hindi is a language, to the point that I feel no appreciation, only annoyance.
On the other hand, when I visit India or go to family gatherings, I’m mocked for my accent, incorrect pronunciation, and lack of Telugu vocabulary. To them, I’m cultureless and ineloquent as the complex thoughts rushing through my brain can’t seem to form sentences. If I thought being an outsider in America was hard, suppressing my culture here has hurt me more. Now I crawl away at the teasing that my relatives think I don’t understand when all I want is to be included in their beautiful world during conversations in our mother tongue. Yet, since I live in between two worlds, I feel as though I have no right.
That feeling has managed to crawl into every aspect of my life. When I was in kindergarten, my mom would spend hours on Sunday cooking large batches of multiple South Indian dishes for my lunches every day. It would be everything from Gutti vankaya (stuffed eggplant) and Mamidikaya pappu (mango dal) to Sambar. Despite how good it tasted at home, I wouldn’t take it to school to avoid explaining why people from Andhra Pradesh eat yogurt with rice, or chapati with their hands. My white friends eagerly claimed that they loved Indian food, naming North Indian dishes like Butter Chicken and Palak Paneer, but looked on in disdain at lunches I brought. I thought I was cooler for bringing burgers or mac and cheese, but honestly, I was the one who was at a loss.
Before I knew it, I graduated high school and was only left in the dorms with American food I used to so desperately crave. Not only was the vegetarian food my mom made filled with vegetables and nutrients, but it was also made with love. Today, I still get asked so many questions about what I eat as a vegetarian, which likely comes from a place of honest confusion, but is still quite hurtful. My answer? In most Indian food, random steamed vegetables aren’t just the side dish but are cooked artfully in a bath of spices, that they are, in fact, the main dish. Being vegetarian in America is difficult, from constantly explaining why, to only eating out with friends if there are vegetarian options. As a result, I try to replicate my mom’s meals in my college apartment as an alternative but the food always seems to be missing my mom’s technique and flavoring.
Standing in my new kitchen, I regret not spending more time watching my mom temper spices and knead dough every Sunday growing up. By wanting to fit in, all I did was miss out.
So much of what I’ve listed, you can’t see at first glance. But the one thing people see when they look at me every day is my long black hair. Growing up, I didn’t even realize my hair was curly. My mom brushed it out as soon as it was washed and pulled it back into a ponytail or tight braid, making me look stereotypically Indian when all I wanted to do was not be. I have long sideburns and crazy flyaways, which I could not manipulate into the trendy hairstyles I wanted. When I did try to do a half up-bun hairstyle (look it up) my sophomore year of high school, I was told that I look like the Hindu God Shiva.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I realized my hair dried naturally curly. I wouldn’t have to succumb to years of straightening and damaging it every day like my mom does, so people don’t comment on her “rough, frizzy” hair when she leaves it out. Now I’m trying to figure out a hair care routine that accentuates my curls, that will make me feel beautiful enough to wear them on a night out instead of pin-straight hair. I don’t have hair that beautifully dries sleek and straight, but slowly, I’m learning to love what I do have.
The list goes on and on. Never finding makeup in the right skin tone because nude is really more of a “light beige”. Always getting edited photos back with my skin all washed out. Seeing the “Color Run” happen without giving any respect to “Holi”, the Indian festival of colors.
Most of what I’ve mentioned still bothers me. I find it difficult to talk about my struggles to other Indian peers or ask if they have a similar lived experience. So, while I try to embrace my Indian identity, what I can ask from you is to be considerate before judging who others can’t help but be just because it’s not the norm.
White America tries to suppress or appropriate my culture where it makes them comfortable. As a result, I’ve wished day in and day out that I could blend in; it took me years to even begin realizing that uniqueness was beautiful. How lucky am I to be memorable?
Every part of me is Indian. And I’m done hiding it.
This article was originally written for TREND @ UCSD.