Youth: Assimilation hurts… but is worth it
A youngster’s quest for fitting in.
I was born in a small town called The Village of Bartlett in Illinois. I was the only Indian kid in my class. In those days of my early childhood, I didn’t think of myself as being different; everyone treated me the same as they did anybody else. At that point, nothing really set me apart other than the color of my skin. I was brown, but unquestionably white.
[Left] Apurva’s childhood days were a constant quest for fitting in between two cultures.
There was one exception, though— my lunch. Most of my connection to my Indian culture was through food, but since none of my friends understood it, I had to come up with creative ways to make them understand. A roti was a type of tortilla. Dal was lentil soup. Shrikhand was just flavored yogurt. Sometimes they would try some of my food and make a face, “That tastes weird.” I would just shrug and continue eating.
My father had a list of things he believed we ought to know how to do in order to truly assimilate in American society. Some were classic pastimes of childhood all over the world—swimming, biking, and the like. Others were, well… let’s just say they weren’t from the right decade. These included rollerblading and hula hooping. So that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I became the only roller skater in all of my elementary school.
Assimilation for sure!
Sarcasm aside, my father meant well. He wanted to make our life easier by ensuring we could do things the quintessential American teenager could—just two decades late. Either way, rollerblading taught me a lot. I started on skates when I was four and moved to blades when I was six. I competed in tournaments and won medals. But there were also many wounds that were sustained in the process. I’ve had broken bones, split knees, blood all the way to my toes, and gotten wounds that still, five years later, have never fully healed. I guess that’s just the price you pay when you try to blend in with your peers on high-speed shoes with wheels.
Just when I thought I would never be white enough or American enough, there came a phase in my life when, suddenly, I found myself to be too Western and too American. When I was eight, we moved to India. My parents decided that they wanted to make sure that we spend time with our grandparents and connect with our roots and traditions. So, I started third grade in a school that I got last-minute admission in—in a place where I would spend the next two years of my education.
To say that the Indian school was a shock would be a vast understatement. It was a full-blown lightning bolt. I walked into school the first day speaking perfect English, with an American accent, while most of my peers were still learning to spell in English. I couldn’t speak Hindi, whereas that was the only language people around me spoke in. I couldn’t understand what my teachers were trying to tell me or what other people were saying behind my back. I was brown, but unquestionably white to them.
[Right] Apurva is now a confident young adult who appreciates her dual cultural heritage.
The only way to combat this was to learn Hindi, which I did. In four months. Gradually, I was more accepted, but people still knew where I came from. It’s hard to forget the only girl who speaks better English than the teacher. I was often teased by other kids chanting, “Britisher! Britisher!” While I wanted to tell them that a Britisher and an American are two different things, I invariably got the point. I was different; and no matter how perfect my Hindi was, I would always be.
I moved schools again when I was in fifth grade. It was a better school, where people knew the difference between Britishers and Americans. This time I was prepared to not be ostracized. To show people that I was Indian. That I was never American. That I was living the truth. I could speak Hindi like a pro, I could speak English with an Indian accent; and when I gave speeches in front of the school or at parades, I made sure to hide my American accent. My sister, on the other hand, loved to tell people that we had moved from America. But when people asked, my answer always was, “Haha, you believed that? You know my sister. She is fanciful, nothing else.” All in Hindi, of course. I knew I was denying my identity to fit in. To finally feel like I belonged. I wanted to be brown, and unquestionably brown. But was it worth the lies?
I have gotten wounds that still, five years later, have never fully healed. Assimilation hurts.
I can’t complain though. I made friends, learned about the culture, and became not just part of that culture but inseparable from it. I learned who I was, and developed a sense of identity and confidence that drove me through rough times. I spent time with my grandparents and family and had fun. I can make modaks and kaju katlis, and play sankli, ludo, and satti lavni. I can build a cooler and climb neighbors’ gates to retrieve lost shuttlecocks. I have played holi and burst firecrackers during Diwali. I’ve had the experiences of a lifetime.
Assimilation hurts. But sometimes, it’s worth it.
Apurva Pophali is a nationally-awarded poet whose work has appeared in literary magazines and showcases across the country. She is currently a freshman at Georgia Tech. In her free time, she still rollerblades, but can also be found playing the guitar, writing for her blog, experimenting with art, or on the political trail.
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