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My Immigrant American Dream MY IMMIGRANT AMERICAN DREAM Sandhya Menon
My first night in America was a sleepless one spent wide-eyed in the dark, listening to the crushing silence. This is going to be great, I promised my fifteen-year-old self. You’re going to love it here.
My family and I had just moved to Charleston, South Carolina, from Mumbai (Bombay), India. We’d moved periodically between India and the United Arab Emirates before, but I’d always lived an insulated life in the Middle East, studying at Indian schools and engaging mainly with the very large Indian community there. This, being plunged into a brand-new culture in a brand-new country where the population of Indians wasn’t nearly as numerous, was completely novel. The lack of noisy, bustling rickshaws and street vendors hawking glass bangles and multicolored saris would take some getting used to. But the thing I had to get used to the most was being an outsider in a country of outsiders.
I’d heard from excited friends and relatives that America was the land of immigrants. “Even the white people who are the majority there are actually immigrants, if you look at their ancestors!” people told me. “Plus, Americans love people who are different. Just look at San Francisco.” We knew many friends who had immigrated to America, whose children were born there, and the stories that trickled home were dotted with details that made me salivate: convertible cars and spotless beaches, people who dressed like Westerners in short-shorts and tank tops. Besides, America was famous for its equal treatment of women. India still had huge strides to make in that arena when I lived there, and I was eager for a change. I was so ready to be welcomed with open arms, to make exotic American friends who might grow to love Bollywood movies and Hindi songs like I did.
What happened was a little less idyllic. I had a thick Indian accent when I first moved to the States, and people—including some teachers at my small magnet school—immediately thought that meant I couldn’t speak English, period. By then I’d already had short stories (written in English) published in international magazines, so that wasn’t the case at all. There were also other micro- and macroaggressions to get used to, ones I wasn’t expecting from the land of immigrants.
I distinctly remember my father speaking to store clerks who would sigh and roll their eyes because they couldn’t understand him. They spoke slowly and loudly, as if he—a highly educated engineer who’d lived all over the world—were having trouble understanding them. Occasionally I was stopped in my neighborhood by the police and asked what I was doing there, whether I was in the country legally, and where I lived. As far as I could tell, the only reason I was stopped was because of the color of my skin. My friend who’d emigrated from Russia the same year as me reported never having experienced that particular form of harassment. One boy insisted on sneeringly calling me Ganesh in class because of the religion my parents practiced, and the teacher never stepped in. At the post office someone yelled at me and my mom to go back to our country because, apparently, we were standing in line wrong. I got used to the question, asked seemingly casually but with a gimlet eye: “Are you here legally?” whenever I said I didn’t have a social security number, since I was here as a dependent on my dad’s work visa. It made my cheeks burn at first. My parents had paid a lot of money to come to the States; we’d gone through all the proper channels and jumped through all the hoops (and of those there were many). What right did they have to ask me that when they didn’t even know how visas worked, when many of them had never even been out of this country? And anyway, what did they think? That I swam all the way from India?
Not all experiences were negative, however. I did enjoy greater gender equality in the United States than I had in India. Egalitarian messages pervaded my high school: we were told we could do anything a boy could do, be anything a boy could be. Still, these messages were implicitly and explicitly targeted at white girls and women. The role models and those they spoke to looked nothing like me.
For the longest time I thought there must be something wrong with me for people—even people I respected or considered my friends—to say the things I was hearing. Once I realized I was accepted as a woman, just not as an immigrant, I figured I needed to acculturate better. The other Indian kids around me, the ones who seemed to be accepted, at least to my eye, seemed indistinguishable in accent and dress from the American kids. (At the time I didn’t get the concept of Indian-Americanness.) So I began to speak with an American accent. I tried to blend in so much that I would actively decry Indian things. When people asked me about arranged marriage I would announce that I didn’t believe in it. When people asked if I spoke Hindi, I automatically said, “Yes, but I speak English better and it was my first language.” I began to shop at Old Navy whenever my parents would let me, and I relegated all my Indian clothes to the back of my closet.
One of the biggest losses, though, was my art. Although I still wrote in a private journal, my stories and drawings began to go by the wayside. I refused to let people peek into my imagination. I didn’t know what was “acceptable” anymore, so I simply stopped creating. I was, without thinking, trying to obliterate those parts of myself that I thought weren’t American enough (and to me, in those days, “American” meant “white” because that’s the message I was getting). I wanted to be lighter skinned, taller. I wanted to blend in and become someone else. I was trying to perfect the art of becoming the human chameleon.
But as I went through high school and then college, a strange and wonderful thing started to happen. I began to see myself for who I was, past all the cladding of “immigrant versus American born,” of “accent versus no accent.” There was a side to me, I realized, that had nothing to do with the labels other people gave me. I started to pay attention to that side more, to unearth who I was for myself.
My volunteering with the teen crisis line and individuals with developmental disabilities, for instance, helped me see I was a person capable of empathy and kindness. My high school best friend, who happened to be the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, helped me see that there was nothing inherently wrong with being an immigrant. She embraced her Nigerian roots and celebrated her parents’ accent and where they’d come from. The way she spoke openly about the injustices they faced helped me see that that’s what they were—injustices, prejudice, ignorance. I’d had a hard time seeing it when it was directed at me, but seeing it directed at a friend drew the line between right and wrong pretty starkly.
I met incredible women in the places where I volunteered, who told stories of overcoming traumatic pasts and abusive partners, mental illness and poverty. We had a mutual sense of responsibility to share what resources we now had with others less fortunate. We spoke about what it meant to be female, how easy it was to be hurt, but how capable we were of healing.
I enjoyed the freedom of being able to walk down the street without being incessantly catcalled or waiting in line without being groped. I began to see that I had inherent worth as a young woman that went beyond my looks, and I was eager to see what that might look like for me.
Although my high school teachers had not seen much merit in my writing, people at college did. I still remember one of my English professors telling me he’d seen my essay in the literary magazine. He looked at me appraisingly from behind his glasses. “You’re a good writer,” he said. “Have you written anything else?” And so I began to believe, once again, that I was talented, that I had something to offer that other people wanted to see. I met my husband, a white boy, who believed that I was beautiful as I was—dark skinned, on the shorter side, with curly black hair.
I began to realize that for every ignorant, misinformed, or prejudiced person I met, there was a counterbalancing person in the world who would recognize my worth and stand up for me and others like me. I heard the Mr. Rogers quote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” and it really resonated with me. It was true, I realized. And somehow, realizing that other, good people saw me as worthy helped me realize that people who didn’t see my worth, who automatically categorized me as “less than,” were the ones in the wrong. I had to lean on other people to find myself, but once I did, I began to blossom.
It was a little like emerging after hibernation, I imagine. I came out into the sunlight, blinking and unsteady, but I was warm again. I began to tunnel my way out of self-doubt and anxiety. I realized I was so much happier when I put myself in charge of my life, when I refused to accept what other, misinformed people said about me. A large part of that, too, was realizing that adults weren’t always right. Being raised in Indian culture, I’d been taught to always respect my elders, to never disagree, to accept what I was told. But adults, I was quickly learning, could be judgmental and cruel, prejudiced and bigoted. Adults did not automatically get a pass anymore. I had a right to question them.
I began to make art again, with gusto. I drew, painted, and wrote short stories and poems. I sometimes even made up song lyrics and music, though I’d never considered myself especially musically gifted. It was at this time that I began to realize that I had a voice and I could use it to tell my story. Who cared if it wasn’t perfect? I knew there must be people out there who experienced the same things I did—the cold pain of otherness, the sting of rejection, the joy of connection, the particular pain and beauty of being a woman, the brilliant and ecstatic freedom of creating—regardless of their backgrounds. I thought about the stories I’d read that had touched me, from people like Enid Blyton and Kate Chopin, women whom I had little in common with on the surface. Still, I’d recognized parts of myself in their stories. Art, for me, though I didn’t think about it in concrete terms then, was about pushing against all the hands that swatted me back down when I tried to grasp for the American dream. It was my way of saying, I belong just as much as you do. I’m here to stay.
Little by little, by first claiming my femaleness, I also began to reclaim my Indianness. It hadn’t been totally discarded, I happily found, just lying dormant, a seed waiting for sunshine and air. I stopped providing disclaimers about arranged marriage and my ability to speak Hindi. But more than that, I began to talk about my time in India, to really relish telling people how things were different where I had spent a significant part of my childhood. I began to understand that being Indian was just different from being American, no better and no worse. Moving to the States at fifteen certainly changed some parts of me. As an Indian-American, I prize financial independence and ambition more than most of the female elders in my family did when I was growing up. I’m also much more liberal about social issues. At the same time, though, I’ve retained the collectivistic attitude of the importance of family. Although I don’t see elders as infallible anymore, I do still believe in the wisdom of the ages.
I don’t view myself as a chameleon now, but rather as a tree, constantly adding new branches and leaves, growing and turning purposefully to the sun. There’s so much more to life, I feel, than trying to shoehorn yourself into one identity, one way of being. What authority says, anyway, that you have to be one thing or the other, that you can’t successfully straddle more than one self? There may be people out there, especially in this tumultuous political climate, who are vocal about this: you can be either American or an immigrant, you can either speak with an accent or speak the “right” way, you can either be female on our terms or accept the label we give you, you can either assimilate completely or get out. To them I say respectfully, you’re missing the point of America. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my nearly twenty years in this wonderful country is this: there is no one way to be American. There is no one language, no one color, no one accent, no one religion. We are a country of multitudes; we should be proud to remain that way.
I am still learning. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still sting when people shouted insults at me. I was recently at a protest where I felt that cold, heavy ache of otherness as people chanted and jeered at me and people like me, as they told me to go back to my country, as they refused to accept my right to live alongside them simply because of the color of my skin and where I was born. I still have days when the fight feels never ending, when I wonder if I will ever be able to exist without having to justify my existence. But on those days I look to the helpers and to others like me. On those days, most importantly, I look inside myself.
I give myself permission to be exactly who I am, where I am. I give myself permission to participate fully in the American dream. I am still learning, but I am starting to accept that this is the only permission I need.