“He has a turban, and has long hair like a girl … like why would anyone like him?”
At sixteen years old, standing under a staircase in high school, I heard a conversation about me and a painful perception that has shaped an unfortunate view about how I see myself and how I thought others saw me. I could never look like those tall white guys in the Young Life youth group. I could never look like the guys wearing Brooks Brothers polos and backward snapbacks that I saw at Grand Valley State University. I was not good enough because of the way I looked.
Immigrants’ sons are taught to hustle. We are taught to make a name for ourselves and fly from the launch pads our parents made out of love, tears, sweat and blood in order for us to have the lives we are so blessed to have. Coming into college, I took this mantra in everything I did. From a high school experience where I felt closed up with no purpose, I took on my freshman year full-on. I was loud and opinionated, I made sure people knew I had a say because I felt that I did not have a say for so long in my hometown, where micro-aggressions and subtle racism helped diminish my voice. In trying to protect my voice, I closed off the voices of others in the process. My ego took over in wanting to be the immigrant son who did important work and made moves to accomplish things in order to honor my parents' sacrifice. I wanted to define myself so badly in a place that was so big when my insecurities made me feel so small that I did not think of the consequences.
Being the good immigrants’ son that I was, I accomplished what I set out to do. I started groups, I helped lead groups. I was involved with activist movements that set precedent for public universities. I helped build startups that provided value to consumers. I performed service to communities as mandated in Sikhism through the concept of Seva (Selfless service). I was admitted into specialty programs and received media commendation. This “Me. Me. Me” monologue could continue, but it stops when I pause to reflect on “at what cost did I achieve?” I alienated some of the first people I met in college; I overpowered kind, soft spoken people when I spoke because of a need to make sure I was heard, since I was so scared of losing my voice. For years, my arrogance pushed away the first girl in my life to make me feel OK with what I looked like and who I was. Someone so kind, and because of weaknesses that I failed to address, things ended abruptly. In trying to pursue what I thought were ideals during my early years of college, I lost far too much to feel wholesome.
For me, internships unfortunately did not mitigate this, but amplified this behavior. Finance operates, at times, in a vacuum. So long as you do good work, reduce costs and support the firm, no one really cares what you do. The worst part is they incentivize you to be that way. In some of the places I worked, I saw people with gigantic egos and wallets, all the while stretched thin. As a result, they had little time with the people who mattered most in a place that applauded your work above all. And I am ashamed to say it got to me. It made me tougher, more critical, more in tune to senseless office politics and more aggressive in recognizing my accomplishments to senior management. By the time I realized how business had changed me, it was far too late.
I realized how alone I felt and that I wanted to be loved. I kept a lower profile and apologized to as many people who were willing to listen. I tried to listen more than I spoke and admit when I do not know enough about a situation. I became less influenced by money and asked myself what was important and who was important. I spent nights crying in my room asking to turn back time and begging for a redo. From persuasion through friends who cared enough about me to tell me the truth, I stopped chasing after the people who were not willing to listen that I was trying to be different. And with that, I could not blame them for their interpretation of my character, given what they saw in the past.
I spent time trying to understand love and what that meant. In London, it was looking at my Indian grandfather smile at photos of my deceased grandmother. It meant that no matter what racism my grandfather faced in England, or how many people alienated my white grandmother for being with my grandpa, that love was love and it was going to endure until the end. It meant taking time to talk to my neighbors in Buenos Aires who explained that love is a growing thing, not a constant. That you love more and more every day that you know someone and it is not something that you try to rekindle over time because it dies out after marriage. It meant my mother following my father to a home 3,000 miles away and holding each other while crying the first day in their new apartment because they knew they were going to make it together — without hesitation. Once I came to understand it, I realized I wanted it to be a part of me so long as I was happy with being myself first.
How can a Sikh boy atoning for his past find love in Ann Arbor? In a place where I am reminded I am an outsider, where recently several women laughed as a man sneered while telling me to “go back to my country,” how can I find something meaningful? My immigrant parents fell in love in months and knew they would be with each other forever. I cannot taper or dilute my happiness, excitement, pain and sadness like the white boys and girls were taught. As a means of longevity and survival, the communities I was raised in promoted being blunt and candid and open. There was not time for nuance or diminished feelings. I was told to wear my heart on my sleeve. When I am happy or upset, I make it known to the people who matter. When I am confused, I try to reach out and ask for clarity. I try to make people feel special if I truly feel they are special.
In a town where if I look for a special someone to grow something greater with then I am called naïve, or called a coward for not bringing the first girl at the bar who wants to learn about my turban back to my place, how can I find someone worthwhile? And even if I find that girl, can I be genuine given my insecurities? I look to my past and pray that I have changed when I ask if there is a me that is not defined by others? Is there so much G.S. that there is not enough room for another person in my heart? Will implicit racism and bias bring poison and fear into the relationships that I have had, tearing it apart? Or maybe I still feel like that 16-year-old under the staircase? And will that hold me back from the courage to start the conversation?
How do I become more than what is assumed of me?