It is 1989 and I am 3. I am on a field trip with my preschool class. We are lined up on a bench, like figurines placed on a mantle. I stand happily in the middle with my brown skin, black hair and unruly curls. While the other two girls in my class sport pretty pastels and sweatshirts featuring princesses and flowers, I am dressed head to toe in navy blue boys clothing. My immigrant mother believes that all children’s clothes are unisex. She has not learned that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. I neither speak nor understand English, but it does not matter. At 3, I am too young to compare and contrast, to assign values to colors, to appreciate my otherness.
It is 1995 and I am 9. We are watching Spartacus in Latin class. The other children are enthralled by the violence on screen. I am enthralled by Megan’s hair. It is long and blond, without a single kink or curl. It gently cascades over her shoulders like my mother’s silk scarves. She shifts positions slightly, and the light golden strands catch the sunlight pouring in from a nearby window. I feel a steady, rising urge to touch her hair, to feel it between my fingers, feel its weight, watch it glisten and move in my hand. The urge is not rooted in admiration or jealousy or longing, but sheer curiosity. I feel no shame or inhibition. The world around us fades away, and I reach out and gently graze the ends of her locks with my fingers. It is even softer than I had imagined. She quickly turns around appearing startled, I quickly return to reality and feel embarrassed. I say nothing. She returns her attention to the screen. I examine a strand of my own hair – course, tangled, in tight coils. In that moment, I learn the meaning of envy.
It is 2001 and I am 15. I stumble into my bathroom half-asleep. I turn on the radio I keep beside my sink to make the 5:45 wake-ups more bearable. I tune it to Top 40 and step into the shower. In place of the usual pop songs and morning banter, there are somber voices. They say a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center. I convince myself it is a commercial, then a prank, then an accident. I am halfway through shaving my left leg when they report a second plane crash. I freeze for a moment trying to rationalize this new development. I cannot. I drop the razor, grab my towel and make a bee-line for the TV in my room. I flip through the channels in horror, unable to fully process what I am seeing. I step into the hallway and scream for my father. He opens the door to his room appearing groggy and confused. I am standing at the end of the corridor, dripping wet, with half-shaven legs. Steam is billowing out of the bathroom where the shower is still running. I do not have the words to describe what is happening, so I simply tell him to turn on his TV. I return to the shower to shave the remainder of my left leg, which now feels vain and insignificant. The school day goes by like a dream. I cry quietly on the bus ride home. It is the first time I cry for strangers and the first time I cry for my country. My mother is too distraught to cook dinner. We pry my father away from the news and head to the local Applebee’s. We get an unusual number of stares as we enter the restaurant. My father takes a seat on a long bench while we wait for a table. The woman beside him shoots him a suspicious glare and pulls her children closer.
It is 2003 and I am 17. My parents and I are visiting an old Indian palace in Jaipur. As we wait in line to pay the entrance fee, our city tour guide leans over and quietly instructs me not to speak when we get close to the ticket counter – they always hike up the price for “foreigners” and even the slightest hint of my American accent will give us away. It strikes me as ridiculous that even here, surrounded by people who look exactly like me, I do not blend in. I laugh loudly and nod in response to the request. The man at the ticketing counter immediately squints in our direction. I continue to wait in silence. A few minutes later we arrive at the front of the line. He charges us the higher price.
It is 2012 and I am 26. After a long day at the hospital, I am looking forward to a hot bowl of mac n’ cheese and an episode of American Idol. I open up my laptop to check my email while I wait for the water on the stove to reach a boil. My homepage opens to the New York Times. My eyes widen at the news of a shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. Six people are dead. It is thought to be a hate crime. I feel an unexpected rush of emotion. I do not believe in god. I do not identify with my religion. I do not even know where the nearest Sikh temple is, but I suddenly feel the need to go. I find one 25 miles away. On the drive there, I am recounting snapshots from a life lived between two worlds, moments of otherness, of envy, of prejudice, of constantly standing out. I search for the meaning of what I am doing. I cannot explain why I am in the car, why I am no longer hungry, why I am taking this so personally, why I believe this is urgent. When I arrive, services are over and the building is devoid of people but filled with peace and the smell of incense – the smell of home. I remove my shoes and cover my head with a red silk scarf. It is the first time I enter a temple without being forced. I deposit a $20 bill in the donation box and stand quietly before the altar. It is the first time I cry for my people. It is the first time I feel that I am exactly where I belong.