Personal Statement: The weight of bubbles and boxes

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Illustration by Jake Wellins

 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 - 10:03am

I sat beneath the weight of a three-letter acronym and I felt unknown. For all the countless hours spent to mold and mend my mind into standardized testing, I had no answer for the very first question in the crisp, white booklet in front of me. I fidgeted as the clock ticked deafeningly. I see the physical boxes on the paper in front of me and it’s sharp edges cut sharp corners in my round mind. They simply do not fit.

“Race/Ethnicity.”

A few identities swirl and surface before I shove them away.

“I’m half Trinidadian, half Indian; I was born in England but I grew up in New York.”

There is no box to check off there, no bubble teems to the surface. At the very best I am “other.” My identity, with its colorful exuberance and undiscovered parts, with its proud history and fierce defiance, is crammed and shoved impersonally into that small box.

Those boxes become most dangerous when we find the need to fit into them. Before I turned seven, I moved around half a dozen times within the tri-state area. I counted rosary beads in a Catholic school but silent Hindu prayers ran through my mind as each rough, red bead slipped through small fingers. I ate rose-colored candies and homemade soda bread with our fair, Irish neighbors and their beloved beagle, Mickey, with his watery, all-knowing eyes and ears that swept the floors. My big brown eyes lit up my small face in preschool when my mother agreed to “plait” my hair in two long braids just like my Jamaican friend did her wild locks. I climbed on countertops with knocked knees and a wicked smile to find “that thing,” my favorite Indian spice, before my grandmother pulled me down and sat me on her lap — the folds of her saari taking me to visit all the rich smells of her country, my country. As I entered middle school, I learned torah verses as I attended more bar and bat mitvahs (and a few b'nai mitzvahs) than I can count on my hands and feet.

In my high school years, I filled in many bubbles. From that sea of multiple-choice questions, I dove and somehow swam ashore in the Midwest — a place I, at the time, associated with cornfields and windmills, yet one that has brought me more cultural clarity than I ever could have thought. In a single day, I cross paths with hundreds of students, their story traced across campus as they run to class or schlep begrudgingly through the snow across the Diag. I learn from and about them, whether it’s laughing through my tears with my best friend in her room at 2 a.m. or making brief eye contact with a student in the first floor of the Ugli. Each day as I brush elbows, my cultural index grows. As I arrive home, the promise of New York City with its jagged buildings across the eternally lit backdrop stirs awake all the cultural magnificence there is to see. Traveling between the multicultural dichotomies of the University of Michigan and New York City provides me with endless opportunities to open my mind to the backgrounds of others. I always compare them to two different “worlds” intersecting that I hardly believe exist outside of myself.

***

I now trace my way through my heritage. My mother is fair skinned with light eyes and naturally wavy black hair made for the summer heat of an eternally sunny island. It puffs and swells in the humidity as if trying to capture the salty sea air. Her high cheekbones sit beneath the shadows of long eyelashes, catching the low light as she laughs, one of the most reserved of her boisterous family. My father is frozen at a permanent state of youth. His eyes glint a perpetual glee, one never subdued by the weight of the world. His trademark salt and pepper moustache sits atop an eternally lit smile refusing to bow to the bulky world.

My mother grew up the second youngest of seven, in a well-respected, well-off family in Chaguanas, Trinidad. Her medical school experience was filled with homesickness as she travelled across seas away from her family. My mother is from a ferociously proud breed of polouri-loving, cricket-watching “Trinis.” Trinis underline their lives with the emboldened red and black of their flag, never failing to showcase their pride in their country — one with less than the population of Manhattan that still manages to boast Nobel Prize laureates, multiple Miss World Titles, World Cup qualifiers and Olympic gold medalists.

My father, halfway across the world, grew up in New Delhi. At age six he saw a blind man in a rural suburb of India and, in the endearing hopeful charm of a young child, he swore to himself he would become a doctor to help him. He sewed his own repairs on his primary school uniform, hemming to the hums of the crickets in the high grass and beehives in the trees and studying to maintain his scholarship. He read voraciously to quench an undying thirst for knowledge of all kinds, tucking away information like gemstones in an encyclopedia of jewels. His hands helped his mother around the house, feeding cows dalpuri and creating jars of pickled spices, while his mind wandered over fields, across seas, through amazons, to the depths of oceans and heights of fighter planes. 

In Pondicherry, India that Trindadian challenged that New Delhi native with her quiet strength. Something about their meeting spurred three decades of marriage. They moved to England for their residencies and eventually to New York. My mother retains her strong sense of pride in Trinidad and often chance takes us to warm beaches or to the smell of doubles and polouri in Queens. Nothing quite compares to the lackadaisical days of hammocks drifting between tall coconut trees.

From plastic surgery to cardiology to published research to wound healing, my father invested that six-year-old’s promise in his passion for medicine. His upbringing in India, surrounded by immense medical resources in contrast to some of the most earth-shattering illnesses, was a major factor in his success today. He often dreams aloud of his desire to reground his roots upon the rocky hills of Rishikesh or the busy, rickshaw-filled streets of New Delhi with all the color and culture that flutters beneath his eyelids. He tells me time and again that all that man needed was a few pills of vitamin A and he would be able to see those same colors.

If I were to sit there with my pencil now on that ACT exam, I would not want to fill out “other.” All of our backgrounds are to be embraced, to be celebrated. Not just the complex ones or the misunderstood ones, but each individual’s heritage. The conclusions and boxes we jump into, we often create for ourselves. To take a moment and consider that somebody may have an interesting story is to recognize your own. Standardized tests are just that — standard. Yet we can decide to set no limits on the vibrancy of our cultured, colorful realities.