Passing

By Casey Syal

In middle school, I shared many of the same experiences that non-white kids do. I threw away my home-cooked lunches at the beginning of the day, preferring to go hungry than be told that my favorite lentil dish looked like I was eating “dog shit.” I became skilled at fixing computer bugs, since I would be called over every time someone’s computer stopped working. If I couldn’t fix it I was a fake Indian, because Indians have to be good at IT support, right?  I begged my mother for expensive hair treatments and shaved off parts of my eyebrows in middle school so that my thick, dark hair wouldn’t stand out among my blonde friends. 

But unlike many others, I don’t face judgment at first glance. My family is from the northern part of India, which means that my lighter skin tone passes off as full white, and I am treated as such right up until the moment I mention my heritage to  someone. As long as I don’t share that side of myself, I can pretend it doesn’t exist. 

 

When I first attended school, it didn’t occur to me that my heritage would be an issue. Most members of my small elementary school had met my father before, and everyone knew my background. After my time in middle school, though, I became increasingly self-aware of this part of my identity. It became a heavier part of me, one that would nudge itself into my thoughts when I got ready in the morning or looked at myself in the mirror. The moment I transferred to a large public school, however, I had a fresh start. For the first time, I was in control of how others perceived me. 

I certainly didn’t start out wanting to squash half of my identity. But as the first few weeks of school went by, I noticed that no one had made any jokes or comments. I blended right in with several girls whose personalities matched mine and whose company I enjoyed, and it definitely didn’t hurt that I looked and dressed like them as well. I felt faced with what seemed like an easy choice regarding how I was treated: keep pretending, and that ever-present weight could lift away.

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But I could see the pain in my dad’s eyes every time he watched me shun parts of the culture that he tried so hard to instill in me. He has so much pride in our Punjabi history, and since I am the only grandchild on his side of the family, he was watching our family traditions die out as my interest in them died as well. Even when nobody was watching, at home at the dinner table, I subtly shunned the food and dress that we would often have to celebrate traditional holidays such as Diwali, as if I was afraid of it sticking to me when I went to school the next day. I finished high school that way, and I could probably count on two hands the number of people from home who know I’m Indian. 

 

I’m older now, and my attitude towards my heritage has changed. Now, I have realized that I cherish those aspects of myself that make me different - parts of me that I can embrace and share that match the uniqueness of my personality. I’m not entirely sure what has brought about this change. Maybe it’s because college brings people together from inherently polar opposite walks of life. This is the most geographically, socioeconomically, and racially diverse group of students I’ve ever been a part of, and oddly enough, my race might be the part of me that’s the least different from my friends. Cultural groups are welcomed and embraced in a way that was foreign at my mostly homogeneous high school.

I’m proud of how I’ve progressed. I’m taking a class on Indian History, and plan to write my research essays on the Partition and its effect on my family. I’ve started learning some Hindi phrases, preparing for a day when I can communicate with my grandmother for the first time without my father translating. When visiting home for break, I asked my dad to make me home cooked Indian dishes that he hadn’t made in months. The happiness on his face as he stood in the kitchen, teaching me the correct order of spices to add to the pot, was the best part of my time at home. 

Obviously, I am aware that the average Duke student is unlikely to tell someone they look like a gorilla because their hair is a bit darker. (Direct quote from my 7th grade crush, by the way. Still not over it.) But I still catch myself holding back. Don’t wear those dangly earrings, they make you look so Indian. Straighten your hair again, it doesn’t look right. Fix your eyebrows even though you’re late to class, in case someone notices how you don’t fit the white ideal. Don’t correct that person for describing you as “exotic,” they only mean well. 

 

I’ve learned to embrace the jokes that come along with not fitting peoples’ preconceived notion of what an Indian should look like. I have an image of my dad to pull up if people claim that I’m lying. “Guess Casey’s Nationality” is a party trick which usually inspires people to get creative, and ends up making me feel a little bit like I’m in a museum.

Overall, I’ve learned that the heavy part of me, the one I kept trying to push away, is actually just as important as all of the other parts I’ve worked to love. My heritage grounds me, teaching me strength and humility as I learn about the struggles that my family went through. I’m done pretending I’m full white; I no longer want to be.  

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