Life as a Coconut

I am the poster child of the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) trope.

Taking one look at me will tell you everything you need to know about my experience growing up as a South Indian girl in Silicon Valley.

I have large, visible tattoos, unconventional piercings, bleach blonde hair, grey contacts. I always wear a choker, long acrylic nails and I love wearing leather and baggy Fashion Nova pants. In other words, I am every Indian parent’s nightmare (ok that sounded way more edgy and angsty than I meant for it too, ew). I look absolutely nothing like your stereotypical “good Indian girl.” As we Indians jokingly call it, I appear to be a complete coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

For a long time, whenever people would ask me why I look the way I do, I could never really come up with an answer. I’d usually shrug, smile and say “’Cuz I want to,” which I guess is, in part, true, but that’s not really the whole reason.

Even though I grew up in Silicon Valley and went to school full to the brim with other Indians, I was still bullied a lot growing up. I was bullied for being Indian, funnily enough. There was, and still is, a huge divide between North and South Indians. North Indians are seen as the “right” type of Indian. They are outgoing, love to party, have lighter skin and silky hair with beautiful highlights. Like I said before, I’m South Indian. South Indian culture is much more conservative. South Indian girls usually dress more modestly, are told to be quieter, are not allowed to wear makeup and have dark skin. We also tend to have thicker body hair too. Colorism is rampant in India, as well as in Indian communities in America and I was really affected by it, being a darker skinned Indian girl. 

All the “popular” Indian kids growing up were North Indians that fit the North Indian trope perfectly. They made fun of my thick eyebrows that connected in the middle and the hair beginning to grow on my upper lip. They made fun of the red dot my mom put on my forehead every morning (I loved it as a kid, because I got to wear the same red dot my mom wore, and it made me feel closer to her) and the oil she lovingly smoothed into my hair every morning. They made fun of the language I spoke and the food I ate because it was different from theirs. They made fun of my dark skin. They also made fun of my increasing weight, which was the result of stress eating from the constant bullying I faced from the people that were supposed to be my brothers and sisters. My nickname, as a shy eight year old still trying to gain some kind of confidence, was “Fat Ugly Indian Girl.” Ironically, the kids calling me this were also Indian themselves, but they were the “right” type of Indian.

As you can imagine, having that as my identity to everybody around me hurt. So I tried to prove to everybody that I wasn’t who they said I was and began spending all my effort trying to prove them wrong. I began starving myself. I started caking on too-light foundation and I would heat a comb in the microwave and run it through my hair in an attempt to straighten it. I used a men’s razor to try and “trim” my eyebrows (it went about as well as you would expect it to go for a sixth grader using a shaving razor on her eyebrows). I even stole a bottle of “Fair and Lovely” a “beautifying cream” (it’s literally just bleach) from the local Indian grocery store. Mind you, I was eleven years old, trying to change my entire face and body in ways that were super harmful for my young skin and soft hair. Looking back, it’s heartbreaking to me how much self hatred I had developed for myself and for my culture.

 In my eyes, I had began to defeat the “nickname” I had been so graciously granted by my peers. I had lost weight and I wasn’t “ugly, dark, and hairy” anymore. But wait, what about that last part? That “Indian” part? I couldn’t change that. You can’t change your race (sorry, Rachel Dolezal). But you can reject it. 

Yeah, being called Indian isn’t an insult, but it was used as one against me during my most formative years so I saw it as one. And so being unable to change my race frustrated me beyond belief. So I did everything I possibly could to become as un-Indian as possible. I did everything that the stereotypical good Indian girl would not do. I reveled whenever somebody told me that I was not really Indian because Indian girls are stereotypically shy, modest and they don’t dye their hair or wear edgy clothing. It got to the point where people usually began to think I was mixed, or not even Indian at all. And I loved it. At least back then.

But then one day while visiting India, my view of myself and my culture began to change. My mom, grandmother and I were visiting a boutique that sold beautiful Indian salwaars and exquisite Indian wedding gowns. I fell in love with those gowns. As small and shallow as it may seem, just seeing those gowns was like a physical shake telling me to wake up and realize how gorgeously intricate my culture is. I stopped viewing my country as dirty and crowded and full of people yelling at me. I stopped viewing South Indian girls as too dark, too hairy, too plain and too “boring.” I realized that the people making fun of my culture didn’t see all the life in the streets of Chennai, the Indian city most of my relatives live in. There were people making beautiful flower garlands, selling watches, ornate sarees, chai, jewelry, aromatic street food and virtually everything you could think of. There were laughing children running around everywhere. And of course, there was the constant aroma of dosa which I truly, genuinely believe is the yummiest food to ever exist in the whole world (please do yourself a favor and try it if you haven’t, seriously).

Over time, I began to work at chipping away at my biases and prejudices that I had built up throughout my life in an effort to feel more accepted. I realized that a lot about my appearance was just me doing a lot to have people see me as American rather than Indian. After all, I didn’t want to be connected to a group whose main representatives in modern day media are characters like Raj Koothrapali and Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb (you know, the whole super nerdy, sweater vest, awkward Indian trope) so I went out of my way to distance myself from that image as much as possible. So now I began to try and reverse the damage.

In my Humanities class my first year of college, we had a unit about India and its fight for independence. For the first time, I was the only Indian in the room, which felt extremely weird as somebody from Cupertino (probably the most Indian city in the world outside of India). All of a sudden, I was the one responsible for keeping accuracies. If my professor or any of my classmates said something incorrect or even prejudiced against my people, I had to stand up because nobody else was going to do it for me. And the more I did it, the more I talked about my country and my culture with my peers, the more pride I felt. I was, daresay, proud to be Indian. I realized that I love going with friends to Indian restaurants and telling them about all my favorite foods and laughing at them when their eyes start watering after they accidentally bite into the chilis that often adorn our recipes. I love going out and hearing others speak my language and of course, eavesdropping on their conversations.

Additionally, seeing the social media movements that emphasized the beauty of non-white cultures (especially cultures that had darker-skinned members) helped me realize that I didn’t have to be “white” to be “right.” I didn’t have to be a light skinned North Indian in order to be beautiful. And that realization was liberating beyond belief.

I’m not going to lie, though. I still have a long way to go. I’m still trying to learn my language, God knows the only Indian food I can “cook” is a premade naan that I just have to heat up on the stove and I know almost nothing about our music or film industry. But hey, a huge step has already been taken: I’ve recognized the ways in which my past experiences have led me to repress important aspects of myself and I’m taking steps to reverse that.

“Cool story, now what’s your point?” you may ask. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I guess I just want to bring to light the experience of being Indian American because the only people that really understand anything about it are other Indian Americans. We have virtually no representation in the media. We don’t have a Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther to show the world that we’re as normal as white people. Sure, people know about Priyanka Chopra but that’s about it. I spent my entire life trying to prove to everybody that I’m “normal” and trying to convince myself that I can be “white” if I tried hard enough. It feels great to not feel that burden anymore. 

Yeah, I still follow American trends, I dress American, I talk American and I act American, but now I have plenty of space in my heart to embrace my culture, which is all that really matters.