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Belong Collection

Next Story: Sanjana


On being different in small town America

My story of belonging shouldn’t be the norm, but it is. I’m a half-Indian, half-White, cisgender female who was born and raised in the United States. Reared by a single immigrant mother in a small Western Pennsylvanian town, much of who I am today is heavily influenced by this fact. 

My mom, who’s a dark-skinned Indian woman, experienced more discrimination than either of us would like to admit in her workplace of 25 years. She's a doctor of English literature and a university professor, specializing in Women’s 20th century literature and Asian studies. Unfortunately, her entire experience at the university, which she stayed at to support our family’s life together, has been fraught with racism and misogyny. This is exemplified in numerous experiences, most notably, repeatedly being passed over for promotion and tenure countless times against White male counterparts with significantly less experience, despite her having the most publications and accolades of anyone in the department. She watched people who had just joined her department get promoted within a year or two of being there despite the lack of publications, stellar student reviews, and years of experience. The discrimination was so apparent that she, several years back, sued the university in conjunction with EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), and won. While this may sound more like my mother’s story of belonging than mine, this series of events was the backdrop to my own. 

Despite an unsupportive department, and the institutionally racist surroundings, my mother forged ahead to find and build a community where she and I were accepted. This looked like other international professors, language teachers, and immigrant community members coming together for monthly potlucks where we shared our respective cultures, food, and conversations—a group of misfits who found inclusion in their own way. Looking back, the comfort, knowledge, and support their company provided was the foundation to my understanding that being different can be a strength.

I don’t know how my mom did it. In 1996 she was making less than 30K a year, working hard at her job during the day—surmounting the politics of it all—and coming home each night to cook me a homemade meal. Not only that, but a year into her job, when I was five, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer which launched a year-long process of chemotherapy and radiation. Needless to say, it was a rough start to our new life in Pennsyltucky. 

Hell, one teacher even called me “Brownie” as a pet name for the entirety of freshman year.

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.

I learned very clearly by 16-years-old that if I assimilate, I will be accepted. If I act White, and pass as White, I am more valuable.

Weirdly, I think if I had a high school do-over in 2021, things might be different? I’m the last bastion of children that remember a world without the internet as well as the transition to the technology-ridden society we live in today. While I still find myself frequently nostalgic for the days of mixed cassette tapes and the lack of mini computers burning holes in our pockets, there is some good that has come from the internet and the access to information it brought with its advent. Namely, access to knowledge, to culture, to media, and to a world outside the small towns many of us grew up in. For example, in 2006, if I had Mindy Kaling’s show Never Have I Ever, streaming into my eyeballs, I may have not felt so alone. Or, if I knew that teen-heartthrob Nick Jonas would one day marry Priyanka Chopra, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt as undesirable as a young Indian woman. Or, if TikTok existed, I may have come across the Bharatanatyam and hip hop mashup dances that young Indian girls have made go viral and not feel like I needed to quit my traditional Indian dance class at 15. 

But 2021 was not when I went to high school. And, the scars from my childhood and adolescence, no matter how small, still impact me today. I learned very clearly by 16-years-old that if I assimilate, I will be accepted. If I act White, and pass as White, I am more valuable. If I carve out the parts of myself that make me stand out, I’ll more easily make friends. For all I knew, these thoughts were sheer facts—I wasn’t enough as I was. And it was this thought that not only left me feeling quite lost in early adulthood, but also started the foundation of fear (of being different, being creative, etc.) that I’m still peeling back the layers on today.

Then, college happened. Still, a White-centric place (Penn State), but more notably diverse than the surroundings of my upbringing. Different colors, different cultures, even access to different cuisines—exposure to more “diversity” in one day on campus than I’d seen in 12 years of schooling. 

College, as I’m sure it was for many, was an interesting place for me. On one hand, I still didn’t fit in: PSU legacy families, Saturday tailgates, and a cult-like obsession for our football team… that was not me. On the other hand, neither were the cultural groups on campus: Bollywood movie club (I’d not been raised on any), the Indian Student Association (I wasn’t born in India), Bhangra dance class… I didn’t fit in here either. And, once again, I didn’t know where I belonged. What if I felt this way forever? 

Luckily, I’ve learned, after many more experiences of trying to fit in and failing, is: The tricky thing about belonging is that the feeling is fleeting. To belong, I’ve come to find, is transient. There are days when you have a great conversation with a friend and feel seen—a sense of belonging. And on another day, you share a knowing look with a stranger and, for a moment, you feel a sense of belonging to that earthly collective, which is bigger than all of us. Perhaps you volunteer your time at a soup kitchen and feel a sense of belonging after a hard day’s work with your fellow volunteers. On the flip side, there are days when nothing is right and that sense of belonging feels out of reach: The cashier looks at you wrong, a teacher calls you out, or you look around the quad and don’t see any friendly faces to join and, just like that, you feel alone again. 

When I stood my ground for myself and others that felt left out, I found friends. When I embraced the things I was good at instead of harping on all my failures, I found peace.

It wasn’t until I settled into the routine of college that I finally was able to relax a little more and surrender to the experiences that awaited me. The more I reflected on the times in my life where I belonged, the more I realized that I wasn’t doing anything special or trying to change. I was simply, and wholly, being myself. If anything, belonging often appeared most when I least expected it—when traveling and striking up a conversation with a stranger, drinking a beer with local hostel hosts, or saying yes to an unexpected adventure.

It can be difficult when you experience trauma or personal challenges to not let them ruin future opportunities for connection. To not let dismissal, oppression, bullying, and more stop you from staying open. However, I remember reading a quote when I started college from Kurt Vonnegut, that captured this idea and helped me remember what was important:

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place”

Remembering this sentiment each time I faced a challenging interaction, is what, eventually, allowed me to feel a sense of belonging more often than not. Staying present in moments that forge connection, staying open enough to allow myself to speak vulnerably, staying awake enough to join in movements for collective belonging—these are the things that have helped me grow up and feel like I belonged. 

I said this once, and I’ll say it again—I realized that when I felt the most sense of belonging was when I wasn’t looking for it: When my best friend supported my creativity by giving me a compliment on a fashion choice. When I sang in harmony with my school choir. When I stepped out of my comfort zone to say hello to a passerby or shared a laugh with the old lady sitting next to me on a plane. 

These moments may be simple, but their impact was profound in helping me understand and embrace the idea of belonging. Even more than that, belonging also felt most present when I was comfortable with myself and allowed myself the space to reflect, meditate, and grow. 

It’s hard not to be reductive with this statement, but it’s true to my experience: When I stopped looking so hard for belonging, I found it. When I followed the paths that made me feel supported versus ostracized, I found success. When I stood my ground for myself and others that felt left out, I found friends. When I embraced the things I was good at instead of harping on all my failures, I found peace. 

Belonging, to me now, isn’t about being accepted by everyone. That’s impossible, as I’ve come to find out. It’s instead about nurturing the feeling of belonging inside ourselves and others—slowing down enough to feel its presence. It’s about embracing authenticity both alone and in group settings. It’s about accepting that, even in your own body, there may be days where you still feel like you don’t belong. But, on days like those, you take a deep breath, surrender to the feeling, and go out into the world to see if you can help someone else feel like they belong. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the almost three decades of being alive it’s this: I know nothing. All we can do is our individual best and help others along the way. Be honest, be open, be accepting, be patient, and, most importantly, be kind. Belonging will always be fleeting, but the closest I’ve come to finding it is through both stillness and being present. So here’s to that concept! May you always find the quiet among the noise that exists inside us all and may you never need permission from anyone else to remember: 

I belong, just as I am. 

Thank you for reading this story from the Belong Collection. Our affirmation candles serve as a physical reminder to embrace your power.

We donate 10% of revenues from our Belonging affirmation candle to The Downtown Women's Center.


My Spotify belonging playlist 

Poets | Kayleb Candrilli, a good friend & a GREAT poet (support their work!); Rupi Kaur, anything by her, anywhere, anytime!; Mary Oliver, a true classic; Maya Angelou, an even truer classic; Yung Pueblo, an Instagram account that inspires me and how I can better relate to myself & others

Instagram Accounts | gottmaninstitute, get your relationships in order!; the.holistic.psychologist, access to information to heal oneself is key!; nedratawwab, if you still struggle with setting boundaries (like me!); alokvmenon, for fabulous fashion and trans/non-binary education; moistbudda, for laughs; upworthy, for good news; ardtakeaction, for my daily antiracism news and action items

Books | The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett; The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz; Water I Won’t Touch by Kayleb Rae Candrilli; Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr; Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman; The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Media | Never Have I Ever; Schitt’s Creek; Search Party; Mrs. America; Summer of Soul; Tina; Booksmart; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Kipo & the Age of Wonderbeasts; One Night in Miami