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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Michigan in Color: Messing with Texas

Courtesy of Akshay Seth

By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published January 25, 2014

I hate Texas. I hate the stupid 10 gallon hats. I hate the thorny green cacti they sell at every local grocery store. I hate the slobbery, drawling accents you learn to expect the moment anyone over the age of 50 begins to open their tobacco-stained lips. I hate how “bigness” is so often the equivalent of “holiness.” Even the Whataburgers are overrated.

But most of all — beyond all the bullshit — I can’t stand how so many of the people who settle down there happily go along with enlivening the nasty clichés everyone makes fun of. In more offensive terms, I guess what I’m trying to say is moving into the armpit of America shouldn’t make it OK to smell like an armpit. As thoughtful citizens, it’s our duty to be the difference we want to see in the world — to be the jasmine perfume.

The Lone Star State is the first part of the United States I remember smelling. I was 7 years old, technically not even yet an immigrant, but already about to make my first distinctly American memory. The airplane door opened too abruptly. The sudden influx of afternoon sunlight blinded my eyes, and the next thing I recall is tumbling down a Lufthansa airstair, unable to grasp, in slow-motion, how every strand of my moral fiber would forever be defined by the trauma of greeting American soil with my face.

As I lay there in a scattered pile, contemplating the scars in character I would find years down the line, my brother laughed. I cried. I didn’t stop crying — and he didn’t stop laughing — until we got through customs, into the main hull of a sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It was as if an expansive wall of white had collapsed onto the floor of the lobby, every white brick that had rolled off morphing into a different person. Up until that point, we had been surrounded by other Indian immigrants — people who, to some degree, looked like us.

I’ll never forget the feeling of utter alienation that formed at the pit of my stomach as my brother and I sat on a bench and watched those little specks of brown filter into a vast sea of white, like a small sari-draped bacteria slowly being absorbed by the cowboy macrophage lassoing it in. The most horrifying part was grasping how little anyone else seemed to care.

Apparently, the adults had been exchanging memos about how they were expecting this to happen while the kids thought about whatever Bollywood had taught us to assume (Shah Rukh Khan downing cheeseburgers).

The first day of school was worse. Of the 100-something students in the entire 3rd grade class of Mitchell Elementary, no more than four were Indian. I remember countless afternoons where the four of us would awkwardly ask to participate in games of pickup basketball (one of the benefits of being in the minority is always having to ask) only to be met with the inevitable eye-rolls of kids who would then tell us to form our own, Indian-only team (another benefit of being in the minority is always being told what to do). Eventually, we just stopped asking.
It was then that I started experiencing, first-hand, the debilitating effects of realizing this was much deeper than just a numbers problem. I started resenting my Indian-ness, started wiping off the red tilaka my mother would press on my forehead every morning. I re-envisioned my definition of “normal,” and surprise, surprise — it had a white face.

I stopped socializing with my Indian friends and did the best I could to personify a brown chameleon, blending into that wall of white. In the back of my head, I could tell what I was doing was wrong, like a host body desperately rebelling against foreign blood transfusions, screaming “JUST DO YOU” in a 7-year-old child’s Indian-accented voice.

But it worked.

Within a month, I was still air-balling, but air-balling in the middle of pickup basketball games. And there was a difference.

Times were good, and it was all going swimmingly until The Incident. The Incident — or Incidents — are what I like to call the five times I unknowingly flipped off my teacher and fellow students. Because in India, you see, sticking up your middle finger to point at someone isn’t considered at all out of the norm. The entire concept of people losing their shit over one-fifths of a hand was so utterly foreign to little Akshay that he couldn’t help but laugh after being pulled out of the classroom for a stern talk with a guidance counsellor.
It stopped being funny when she shrilly said, “You’re not in India anymore. We don’t behave like animals in the classroom here.” The sad part is I wouldn’t even have cared if a fellow student said it, but when someone in authority spews something that hateful, it registers. I went home and finally understood — understood that I would never be white, and pretending to be was a disservice to my parents, my grandparents and ultimately, myself.

I was still in Texas. Everywhere I looked, I saw whiteness: little brown kids slowly learning to speak in Southern accents, traces of color slowly being smeared into submission. I hated the stupid 10 gallon hats. I hated the thorny green cacti they sold at every local grocery store. I hated how “bigness” was so often the equivalent of “holiness.” The Whataburgers were still overrated.

All that shit was my opinion, and it still is. I just stopped hiding it.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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