Remember when I was in first grade and you would sit behind me as I watched “Dragon Tales” with my cereal and comb my frizzy black hair with those bright Hello Kitty clips you brought for me from India? I’m sorry I took them out every day when I got on the school bus. I wanted so badly to have the smooth, blonde hair of the girls sitting in front of me and their headbands from Claire’s that I didn’t appreciate the gentle touch of your fingers running through my hair as you tried to tie a little bit of your motherland to me.
Remember when, as a shy third grader, I had to switch elementary schools and you were concerned about whether I would make new friends, if I would be able to find my voice? You loved it when I would have friends over to the house, helping us open bottles of nail polish and smiling as you would overhear our silly conversations. But most importantly, you loved to feed us. I’m sorry for the time when my “friend” said your pakoras and chaat were gross and smelled weird. I knew they were my favorite snack, you knew they were my favorite snack, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “Yeah, Mom, can you get us something else?” I saw the expression of sadness on your face as you quietly cleared the plate, but at that moment all I could think about was fitting in with my American friend. I found my voice, Mom, but I didn’t use it to stand up for you and for that, I am sorry.
Remember the half days I used to have at school and you would make time for us to have a lunch date? I’m sorry for all the times that I spoke over you and made you feel small. I’m sorry for forgetting that English was the third language you had to learn and for viewing your speech as something to be hidden rather than the act of courage that it is. You exist within a system that forces you to fight to have your voice heard, fight to be treated equally, fight to be valued and I’m sorry I perpetuated that.
Remember how I would always forget that I needed something the night before a class project was due? You’d put away the book you were reading, proceed to grab your keys and tell me to be more prepared next time. As you slipped your shoes on, I’d stand in the doorway anxiously scratching my head, “Mom, aren’t you gonna change?” I’m sorry for all the times I questioned when you wore traditional clothes in public and for making you feel as though I was ashamed of your appearance. What I viewed as yet another barrier obstructing my quest to be “American” was your attempt at holding on to a little bit of home and I’m sorry I didn’t understand that.
Throughout my childhood, I always questioned whether I was Indian or American. Whenever I was asked that question or asked where I was from, I’d give a different answer each time, accompanied by a convoluted, long-winded explanation that was representative of my own confused inner monologue. Truth is, I really didn’t know what I was. I knew that I loved standing on a stool next to you in the kitchen to help you make rotis and stuff samosas. But I also knew that I loved listening to Christina Aguilera and making gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies with my friends. I didn’t understand how a duality could exist.
But you did.
You’ve taught me a lot of lessons, Mom, from how to tie my shoes to pursuing an education I care about. But the most important thing you’ve taught me is how to embrace myself. You have made many sacrifices; you crossed an ocean with little more than blind optimism and began a new life in a new country with only two suitcases. Yet you never sacrificed your culture or your roots and the weight of that decision is finally resonating with me.
Growing up, I projected my discomfort with myself and my identity onto you. And in doing so, I failed to see that the answer to my question was right in front of me. You showed me that I am my strongest and best self when I stop attaching labels to each facet of my identity and simply embrace what feels natural. There is no checklist that I have to cross off to prove that I am a real American. There is no specific way to be a real American. I can, and I do, love two countries and their cultures with all of my heart, even though fully accepting the duality of my identity has taken me nearly 20 years. One of them is the country I took my first steps in and where our family is. The other is where I have grown up, met my best friends and had so many opportunities. Thousands of miles separate them, yet in my heart they are inextricably linked forever. Thank you, Mom, for giving me the space and time to understand this, and especially thank you for a safety net of love to fall back on.