“You’re a big girl now. Make sure you stay by my side at all times, hold my hand and don’t talk to strangers. Nobody.” These were the rules. Normally these are things you say to toddlers or young children who don’t know much about the world around them yet. Usually they don’t even know how to talk. This was the first conversation my mom and I had once we landed in India, my home country, when I was 15.
“Even to distant family members, don’t talk too much. And to people you don’t know, don’t say a word.”
So I shut up. Restricted from speaking my own native tongue to even my own mother, I was told to keep my gaze past the people looking at me, to not make eye contact. I was told to make sure my shoulders were covered, to not show anything more than my ankles, to not showcase my excitement when seeing my extended family after three years. I couldn’t even hug them.
Oh no. I was a big girl now, and this was the life of a woman in India.
“Taxi? Ma’am taxi?” They knew I wasn’t one of them, but for this month I would try. I would break my own feminist standards and rules; I would try to not respond to the questions being asked; I would try to keep my language, mind, and body as reserved as possible.
I would be a doll.
Foreign. I hated that word. All it took was one incorrectly rolled “r” and they would know I was “foreign.” My experience visiting India showed a rift between my identity and my ethnicity. I was born in India; whenever I went back I would still feel like I was one of them, but nobody saw me this way. It was too obvious. The many different freedoms I had taken for granted in America, which encouraged certain feelings and actions were red flags to everybody else in India. I wasn’t one of them. All the freedom I had would dissipate the moment I set foot in Chennai International Airport, a sort of gateway if you will. From the time I left that building to the time I came back to America, I would be a different person. I never understood why my mom made me act differently until I experienced it myself.
This was the trip to India when I was first assaulted.
At the time, I didn’t tell anyone. Not even my parents. I don’t consider it rape, nor could it compare to any of the horrendous things that happen to women every day in India. I was just a bystander until it affected me. I was disgusted. I wanted to catch a flight back that same day. I wanted to leave, I wanted to go back to where women weren’t nearly in as much danger. I wanted to be safe. I refused to go out for the next couple days. I was terrified of my own country, my own people. I felt distant in my own skin. How could people treat women this way? This probably wasn’t even the worst kind of treatment women faced here. I only had to be here for a month, but the women who live here have had to face these restrictions every day for way longer. They are expected to keep their mouths shut when speaking to men, elders, and any kind of superior authority. This outlook is changing now, but lots of women’s freedom and safety is still a big question in many parts of India. I come from one of the most educated and technologically advanced areas, yet I faced assault and harassment.
This wasn’t the India I remembered. The country of color and culture, constantly in touch with the old and the new, the country that is one of the world’s best examples of coexisting religions. My own house had a mosque, a church, and a temple all within half a mile. My country, is the largest democracy and home to some of the brightest people. We came up with some of the oldest mathematical discoveries. We even mapped out the sky hundreds of years before the first telescope was invented. This country that I was so proud to be from made me feel like an outsider. The rush I used to feel when my parents would tell me that we were going to India became a thing of the past. I used to long for the days I would spend with my cousins, celebrating Deepavali six months late with firecrackers they would save for us. I used to feel like I belonged, but I was a big girl now.
I yearned for the sense of belonging that I used to feel there because I looked just like everyone else. I wasn’t ridiculed for eating food with a certain aroma, I didn’t feel criticized for looking the way I did or saying certain words with an accent. Those were the things I grew up with. However, I was freer in America as a grown female than I was in India. It took a lot of bravery for girls like me to put up with years of being forced into conformity. Even in America, I don’t fit in as a woman because I’m torn between my identities as an immigrant and an American. I’ve had racist teachers, name-calling classmates. I’ve been accused and punished for things I didn’t do, but I know others have had it much worse.
But this is nothing new for immigrant children. We all go through it. No matter how hard we tried, we were never normal. And there comes a time in every immigrant kid’s life when they realize that even though America is called a “melting pot,” trying to melt in was never going to work. American hatred taught me to embrace myself and be proud of who I am. There came a time when different was good, when being you was most important. The backlash and ignorance gave me the strength and the freedom to think for myself, and not be held back because somebody else thought I wasn’t capable or worthy of certain things. America made me a fighter.
As a girl who learned who she was in a foreign country and realized what the world saw her as in her own country, I had a new and profound sense of identity. Or so I thought, until I plunged into a completely alien country with a culture I was never exposed to.
Last semester, I studied abroad in Korea. I had been an avid fan of their dramas for years, with their interesting plots and unusual (sometimes even unnecessary but totally mind boggling) plot twists. I loved the music, the etiquette, the culture, and the language. After watching Korean dramas for a couple years, I ended up picking up most of the language, and could hold a solid conversation on basic subjects. I was in love with everything I saw through the 15.4 inch screen that usually accompanied me in my dark bedroom along with a box of tissues. I wanted to go. So when the chance came, I took it.
I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard about the xenophobia and the other three girls going with me were Asian and white, both races Koreans favored. I knew everything I’d seen on TV wasn’t real, and as a sheltered Indian girl, I had never traveled alone before. This was it.
They say that if you want to get to know someone, you should travel with them; if you want to get to know yourself, travel alone. This trip forced me to do just that.
I had to use the Korean I learned from watching dramas, and had to make my way across a city every day. Whether it was to get to school for the day or to explore a new part of the city, I was always out doing something. People would stare at me on the subways, move away from where I sat on the train. They would move their kids away from me. I was a girl, with a very obviously American style and demeanor, so my vibe was different. The micro-aggressions I knew in America and the restrictions I knew in India were all pushed to a whole new level here.
People were very obvious if they didn’t like me. Everything made me stick out in Korea. The only thing I had going for me was the language. People were very accepting and inviting once they found out I spoke Korean, because I didn’t have an accent. They would ask if I was adopted, if my parents were Korean, if my siblings were Korean, and the answer was always “anniyo,” a no with the smile, no accent, and just a dash of arrogance. I was asked for my hand in marriage four times. Three of those were by the Ahjummas and Ahjussis (middle aged men and women) who thought I was way too special for them to pass me by as their future daughter-in-law.
Taxi drivers would tell me stories about their families and I would joke along. They would ask me for my stories. A girl out on her own in the world for the first time, with of course, daddy’s credit card, but I did more than just spend money. I climbed two of the highest mountains in Korea, I visited the islands, and I pushed myself, I explored certain parts of town alone.
I spent most nights karaoking in a room full of classmates, with two mics, too many empty bottles of soju, and popcorn strewn about. I ate live moving things, I ate dead and dry things, I ate things I don’t remember the name of, I ate things I shouldn’t tell my insanely devout Hindu mother about. I had photoshoots, performed on the streets of Hongdae, pranced around the foreigner hub of the capital in Itaewon. I met people. So many people. I found my interests, new passions, pet peeves, everything. I was whoever I wanted to be and I did whatever I wanted to do.
Most importantly, I found out who I wasn’t.
When people ask me why I liked Korea so much, I tell them all the same thing. I was born in India, a country with such a deep rooted sense of tradition, and unhealthy amount of concern for “he said, she said” drama that nobody dares to change or stray from the norm. It had an unbreakable bond with the people of its past to which it will never stop paying its respects and gratitude. Yet it was one that bustles perpetually in its inevitable leap into the modern world. Similarly, I was brought up in America, home to one of the world’s most individualistic, “you do you” minded people. A country with such pride of the legacy that it has built — that respectable, with that much power, and that much gut. I learned my whole “don’t fuck with me” attitude from the citizens of this country, and it’s taken me further than any kind of dress code restriction ever has. Two such drastic cultures and two very distinct people, yet I had a part of both in me. I never felt too comfortable in either place, even though I spoke those languages fluently.
Korea was the middle. Women worked, and were treated very differently, people were group-oriented, ancestors and elders were respected, the quality of life was completely different. Refreshing. Thrilling even. I felt myself not just living, but thriving. It was comfortable. I wasn’t even completely fluent in the language and I was a downright alien in the most linguistically and ethnically homogenous country in the world, but I somehow felt a sense of belonging. I felt one with myself. I’ll go back someday. I don’t know when, but if I made it happen once, I can do it again.
I’m a big girl now. Big girl. This phrase that started all my restrictions and made me hate being born a female, and even made me feel helpless at a point, now gave me the power to take things into my own hands, change and mold my own life the way I want it to be. I’m different. We’re all different, and that’s exactly what this world needs, a different perspective from its most highly suppressed demographic. It’s a big world out there, but we’re all big girls now. And unlike the world, we aren’t shrinking. To the three countries that taught me how to be a fearless woman with big dreams and undying ambition, I thank you. Be proud of where you’re from, and appreciate where you are now, but where are you going next big girl?