By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published February 21, 2014
I remember the light, the way it dampened my skin. It spilled out of an old-fashioned projector, warming my clip-on tie as it burrowed its way through my oversized button-up shirt. I remember my chest sweating. I remember thinking how ironic it would be if an overenthusiastic light bulb bled radiation into my veins while I spent 15 minutes gesticulating overenthusiastically about radioactivity. I was speaking about alpha particles when I saw the way they looked at each other — the knowing glances teachers only exchange if the presentation is going very well or when they’ve finally noticed the sweat stains start to expand.
Maybe it was both. A month later, I knew the presentation went well because I had two glowing letters of recommendation in hand as I nailed together the finishing touches on my application. One by one, the pieces were falling into place, and I watched, smiling, as the MIT of high schools came into reach.
I was in 8th grade.
For those unfamiliar with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, it’s a magnet school in Northern Virginia. A magnet school that, over its 26-year history, has become noted for a rigorous, science-heavy course load and an equally rigorous application process, which features a verbal/mathematics written exam, letters of recommendation from middle school teachers, followed by the obligatory “what makes me a special snowflake” essay entry.
But that’s just scratching the surface. Preceding the three-part run through the gauntlet, students spend months pouring over practice books, wadding their extended lists of extracurriculars and attending hours-long tutoring workshops that all flaunt the “hidden secret” to getting into TJ. It’s a slightly dulled down, kiddie version of the college application process, four years of getting figuratively beaten with a graphing calculator waiting beyond the finish line. And after a while, it all congeals together, like a fading, smearing memory — a forgotten dream that hangs in the air, lost behind layers of repetition.
I’m not here to critique it. The people who dive into it headfirst know the water’s a rough, churning mess that, when conquered, can be as rewarding as it is difficult. Every journey through it is different. I want to talk about mine. I want to talk about how the scars it gave me make me the person I am today. I want to talk about how it let me reevaluate my understanding of what it means to be Indian.
I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t afraid. No matter how many days, months, years I scroll back, I can’t recall ever waking up and not feeling that cold paranoia twining around my diaphragm.
I’m pretty sure it was before high school, but the precise moment escapes me. I see it floating around somewhere in those summer hours of lethargic nothingness — the afternoons lost between seventh and eighth grade. Or maybe in an evening I spent alone, and the weirdly in-depth conversation I found myself having with an old lady who often hung out at the local independent movie theater.
I don’t know.
I know the ecstatic anxiety that washed through me when, at 13, I learned I’d gotten in. I go back to that moment a lot. I was downstairs, thinking about whether or not Richard Karn combed his goatee before tapings of “Family Feud” when my mother burst out of some imaginary hole in some imaginary wall, unable to wipe the excitement dripping from her voice as she exclaimed, “YOU GOT IN. YOU’RE IN.” I was overjoyed — who wouldn’t be moments after being accepted into the number one public high school in the country?
There was pride in my parents’ eyes — in the way they ruffled my hair and held my shoulders. That same pride leaked through the phone call to India as they explained, in rapid Hindi, to my grandparents how this was just the first step, how I was on my way to changing the world. I’d felt it all before, but there was a palpable difference tainting the air — it was as if they understood better than me how significantly this experience would define my life.
Then they handed me the phone. I went blank. My granddad spoke first, asking me about my career plans after high school. My tongue stuck to the top of my mouth as I swallowed, unsure. Before I had a chance to move it, he added, “doctor or engineer?” Doubts flooded over me. Was I really prepared? Is this what I was setting myself up for?
In order to get ready for the verbal portion of the entrance exam, I used to keep a flash card, pencil and dictionary next to me whenever I opened a book. I’d meticulously note down words beyond my vocabulary and before going to bed, spend an hour repeating them back to myself. The next day, I’d work them into conversation. Memories of an interesting afternoon I tried to slip the word “concubine” into discussions about McDonald’s come floating back. Were those experiences supposed to prepare me for four long years grappling with a curriculum denser, more challenging than anything I had ever encountered?
The short answer is they didn’t. I figured out early on I wasn’t cut out to be one of the teenagers hunched over a soldering iron, tinkering away behind the circuit board that would later be used to build a satellite — the first of its kind launched into space by people who hadn’t even acquired a diploma yet. I wasn’t the child prodigy meant to sequence DNA in a functional biotech lab sitting across the hall from the high school’s supercomputer. And even if I was, I didn’t want to be.
I hated going to class. I used to walk down the hall, seeing how long I could hold my breath before I heard someone mention a physics exam. I hated looking up and seeing blocks from the periodic table painted over ceiling boards.
I struggled in my first semester. I grew depressed. I developed insomnia, a condition that plagues me to this day. I withdrew into myself and became introverted, unwilling to connect with anyone, content to drown in my own sadness. One evening, I begged my parents to let me drop out so I could attend the “regular” school my brother was enrolled in.
They looked at me in silence, and in that moment I hated them. I hated how they waited for me to reconsider. I hated how I eventually did. I hated how phone conversations with my grandparents always reminded me of “doctor or engineer?” Slowly, I began to associate this hatred with my Indian-ness. The white kids’ parents weren’t forcing them to aspire to be the next Isaac Newton. The white kids were always the ones you’d see talking about how they’d take Hollywood by storm, while we Indians exchanged uneasy glances, seemingly fine coloring in those tech-support stereotypes.
One thing most people don’t know about India is how closely masculinity is associated with logical thinking. From an early age, I was conditioned to prioritize subjects like science and math. Everything else was secondary — fleeting hurdles that had to be jumped over, fancies to be forgotten with age. When my family spoke about the few kids who decided to pursue an education or career in the liberal arts, it was in hushed voices, like we were talking about some unreported criminal activity.
So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that engineering so often becomes the expected career path for so many boys as they stumble into adulthood.
I found peace in these generalizations. They gave voice to my anger. This was happening to me because God had dealt me a shitty hand. How could it be my fault every single male family member I knew had a degree in engineering?
To me, India isn’t just the beautiful place college students go to find themselves. It isn’t just the American way of saying Taj Mahal. India is my grandmother sitting across from me, telling me her granddaughter couldn’t study electrical engineering because “that’s not a field for girls.” It’s my 11-year-old cousin’s eyes darting toward his parents when I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up.
It’s beauty, but beauty encased by the crippling pull of tradition. And I’m still a slave to that tradition.
My brother, now a computer science major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, once explained to me why he studies what he does. He described how, when he’s sitting behind a computer, writing code, he loses track of time. In those hours chipping away at an unfinished project, he’s so totally engrossed by his work, so involved, he forgets to look at the clock.
“I don’t just do what I do. I live for it.”
I’ve never felt that way about school, and doubt I ever will, because the truth is I’m still living in the shadow of hatred. The generalizations I made about India are, in many ways, grounded in the reality of my experiences. But there’s nothing I can do alone to change them. So they become excuses — clever ways to hide my cowardice.
Because ultimately, we choose the things that inspire us. Because I can’t remain a slave to what others expect of me. Because generalizations are made to hide exceptions.
I grew up disregarding my own feelings. It’s the reason why I overreact when someone I care about ignores me, the reason I’m never quite convinced my ideas are worthwhile. I’m tired of rotting away under the weight of that shadow. Do I regret those four years? Every day. But they made me stronger. They gave me scars. They made me the person I am today.
So no, I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t afraid. No matter how many days, months, years I scroll back, I can’t recall ever waking up and just not being worried. But I don’t want to be scared anymore. Because I am constant. Because I am worthwhile. Because generalizations are made to hide exceptions.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.