Despite the lack of income, I never felt poor. We may have lived in a small apartment, furnished by cheap wicker furniture and hand-me-downs, but my mom made an effort to save money for what mattered to her most: good food and travel. Because of these values, I noticed that she prioritized things differently than my peers’ parents. One way she did this was by working hard to write research papers to be published in scholarly journals that would get her accepted into conferences, which often took place in enviable destinations around the world. That way, when she was accepted, the university would cover the cost of travel and accommodations so she could go present her paper while she pinched pennies to buy a ticket for me to accompany her. We couldn’t afford a babysitter, so the world (kind strangers, long-lost friends, hotel lobbies, and conference colleagues) took care of me. Sleepless nights on airport benches, going on shoe-string-budget excursions, and making friends with the local kiddos—I caught the travel bug early and, reflecting now, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Traveling was my first experience in feeling like I belonged—an adventurer, a nomad, a citizen of the world! However, as soon as I returned home and went back to school, those feelings quickly drifted away as fast as they’d arrived. I grew up in a tiny rural town with 2000 full time residents, that influxed to about 10,000 when the university students came back each fall. To put it into perspective, there was one small main street, no movie theater, and when the wind changed direction the smell of manure tickled my nose; not to mention the echoes of mooing cows and crickets that peppered my evenings as I fell asleep with the window open. An idyllic existence for some, I guess. But as the only brown-skinned girl in my school from pre-K through 12th grade, my story was a bit different than most I knew.
Discrimination was not yet in my vocabulary despite my mother and I experiencing it on a macro and micro level. But the word, and its meaning, played a big role in my upbringing in this small, White town. As much as I felt accepted when I was traveling, or working the room at my mom’s potlucks with her friends, the fact of the matter was that in school, and in life, I didn’t feel like I belonged. I had a hard time making and keeping friends. Kids thought I was weird because of the Indian food I brought to school, the language my mom spoke (Hindi) when she picked me up at the bus stop, and, perhaps, because the way I communicated was more appropriate for adult-potluck chatter and not elementary lunch hour. Additionally, my mom didn’t have time to be like other moms—she was doing the job of two parents. She didn’t know how to bake, so she couldn’t bring cookies to the school bake sale. The only tools we had in the house were a screwdriver and hammer, so she couldn’t help me build a car to enter the Soap Box Derby. She always had to say “no” to chaperoning our field-trips because she worked during the day. And, while I don’t want to admit it, I hated her for it at the time.
When I was five I asked her what a stealer was. She told me, “It’s like a robber, someone who takes things without asking.” I went back the next day to tell my peers what I learned only to come home in tears, screaming at my mom, “the Steelers are a football team!” When I was six, she picked me up from my first day of school and asked me in Hindi how my day was, to which I responded, “don’t speak to me in that language.” I may have understood her perfectly, but from that day forward, I only responded in English. In my adulthood, I regret this immensely. But in context, it makes sense: Do what you can to assimilate or you’ll be left out of everything, forever.
Being different culturally, linguistically, and physically had such an influential role in how others interacted with me in my childhood into adolescence. And, it shaped my understanding at the time of what it meant to be a minority in a sea of Whiteness. A great (read: terrible) example of this was in high school, with peers that I’d known at this point for 10+ years, when any person of color or different culture was featured in an educational video, without fail, a classmate would turn to me and ask, “do you know what they’re saying—can you translate for us, Rachel?” Hell, one teacher even called me “Brownie” as a pet name for the entirety of freshman year.
To put it further into perspective, my last week of senior year, I got on the bus that I’d been riding for 12+ years and someone randomly shouted the N-word, to which another person responded “shut up, there’s a Black person on this bus,” to which a third person retorted, “she’s not Black, she doesn’t have the nose for it.”
This was my reality growing up… but only part of it. I was still complicit, I didn’t know that what was happening to me was foundationally wrong or should be called out—I don’t think I ever even uttered the word ‘racist’ until I was in college. I thought it was normal, laughed it off, and accepted these comments at face value, using them as motivation to change the parts of myself that I could to fit into the box expected of a young, teen girl. And it mostly worked. Get straight A’s and be accepted by the “smart” kids. Play the piano and get accepted by the choir kids. Join the musicals (inadvertently get cast as every minority without auditioning for that role) and be accepted into popular kids’ after-school hangout sessions. Looking back, some of the off-color remarks that had been made were by people I considered friends—some of whom are still my friends today and, post high school, have repeatedly apologized for their comments and behavior. While some outside of my experience may want, or have expected me, to write these people off...I do believe everyone has the capacity to grow and change. Like the cliché says, “When you know better, you do better,”—and they did.
I know now that much of this ignorance came from a lack of exposure to anything or anyone that was outside of a White-centric, small town. It also came from a severe lack of access to appropriate and intersectional education that so often is still lacking in public schools to this day. More than this, it’s in looking back that I realize traveling is the only reason I didn’t fully succumb to the pressure of being different and bottom out. Being frequently thrust out of my comfort zone at the behest of my mother across time zones, cultures, and continents, is the single thing that I credit to laying the groundwork for who I’ve grown into today. The flexibility, openness, compassion, and curiosity with which I carry myself came solely from learning through experience that it’s the differences within each of us that make us special, make us stand out, make our world more interesting.