My name is usually the first thing people notice about me. It’s only a handful of letters, but it’s enough to signal to someone that I am part of their community or that I’m different.
As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants I always felt like I had one toe in my family’s culture and another in American culture. My dad would tell us stories about Nigeria, but as a child I never quite understood just how different my parents’ upbringing was. I’d ask my dad what his favorite ice cream flavor was and he’d just shake his head at me. I’d bring my home cooked lunches to school and would be made fun of for how much it smelled to my classmates. At the same time I would also be a spokesperson for Black America in my home. I understood the effects of systemic racism in the US better than my parents did because I grew up experiencing it, as a child and young learner, while also studying and understanding the impact of American history on Black America.
I was self conscious of my name and at 8 years old I decided that I was going to change it to Chrissy. I began writing it everywhere: my homework, tests, cards. All of my classmates went along with it until my teacher, who was White, told my parents. They were shocked and disappointed that I would overwrite the name they’d given me. My younger self didn’t know the meaning of my name and what I cared most about was whether or not anyone could pronounce it. Between that, and anything that felt “foreign” like the food and other aspects of my Nigerian culture, all I wanted was to fit in. Changing my name seemed like the easiest thing to do.
When I was nine years old, my parents told me and my three siblings that we were going to live in Nigeria for a while. At the time, I was clueless as to what that implied. They could have said, ‘we’re going to live in London’ and it would have been all the same. Only when we landed in Lagos did my siblings and I realize that life was going to be different. It was around Christmas time and it was sweltering hot when we landed. My 7 year old sister said, ‘I’m so hot I need a Coke’. We looked around the airport and I remember realizing, ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but looking back I realized how much culture shock we experienced. Just as I was becoming an “American kid,” I now had to learn how to navigate being a Nigerian one.
Yoruba is one of four main languages spoken in Nigeria, if you include English. The other two commonly spoken languages are Hausa and Igbo. My parents and family speak Yoruba, but I didn’t know a word of it when we first arrived. We only spoke English in our home in the US; it was a way for us to be American first, and Nigerian second. Once we landed in Lagos that requirement faded away and my mom decided that they would let us learn the language. Our parents would go on speaking English to us so that we could have continuity, even though English was the primary language spoken in all of our classes. Each interaction that I had became so critical to my ability to connect with others. Through listening and getting to know my grandparents, who I met during that time, I not only began to learn Yoruba, I also unknowingly honed my skills as a listener; observing and truly hearing what others are saying.
We ended up living in Nigeria for six and a half years. Even after that much time I never felt completely Nigerian. While it’s clearly my heritage, there were always obstacles to completely blending in. I didn’t know what my full name meant until I learned Yoruba. My name translates to God has given me or God’s gift. The beauty of Nigerian languages is that when I meet someone I can figure out where they’re from because everything is translated back to a word or phrase. So upon seeing my name, people knew I was Nigerian and expected me to speak Yoruba fluently with a perfect accent. I’d get questions about why I couldn’t speak it properly and I’d always get corrected. These expectations constantly wore on me, knowing full well that if I had an American sounding name that I wouldn’t be held to these standards. I spent those years wondering, am I Nigerian enough? And upon returning to the US I also wondered, am I American enough?
After returning to the US I found myself floating between both my Nigerian and American identities. I’d developed a tangible connection with where my family comes from; I’d learned the language of my ancestors, met my extended family and was surrounded by familiarity. While I was returning to a place that I recognized, I realized that I had changed. Developing my sense of self in Nigeria meant that I came back to the US with a global perspective that opened my eyes and enabled me to be proud of being different. As I grew older I began meeting other people like me; people whose parents had immigrated to the US and struggled to conform with the old limited notion of what it meant to be American.
Growing up in two distinctly different cultures left me feeling like there was no one place I belonged, and I needed to know if there were others who understood my struggle. I was in my twenties and looking to find myself, and part of doing that meant understanding why I felt so restless. In my search, I learned that I’m what’s called a “third culture kid” or TCK. The third culture implied that kids like us found a way to mold the two or more cultures we experienced growing up into one that fit our personality. Many TCKs either wound up as a restless spirit who continually is searching for the place they can call home, moving from one city to the next or as someone who seeks stability, firmly planting roots in one place, as a way to feel grounded and connected. I’m the former. After college I moved all around the US and eventually I made the big decision to move to Cambodia. Because of my time in Nigeria, it was relatively easy for me to embrace Khmer culture. During my first visit to Southeast Asia, I traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. When I arrived in Cambodia, I felt an automatic connection to the country. Traveling through Phnom Penh and Siem Reap reminded me of traveling from Lagos to Ibadan, more so than Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok. What I discovered, after some time living in Phnom Penh and traveling through the provinces, is how similar Khmer people are to Nigerians. When I mentioned this to a fellow South African, she mentioned that Cambodians are the most “African” of Asian people. That made sense to me. In Yoruba culture, when you visit a family and they’re eating, there’s a saying, “E wa jeun.” which translates to “Eat with us.” When I traveled through the provinces of Cambodia for the Pchum Ben holidays, I experienced that same welcoming nature. Six of us were invited to eat with a friend’s cousins, folks who didn’t even know we were arriving until about 30 minutes before we arrived. And despite our language barriers, visiting them felt like home. If anything, my three years abroad once again underlined how similar we all are and that if we took more time to connect with one another then more of us might make that realization. While I’m back in the US now, I know that this isn’t forever. My community is scattered across the globe, spanning from Iraq, to Brazil, Cambodia, South Africa and beyond. I’ve begun sketching out what I call my 20 year vision. I realized that it’s ok to call the US my base and that maybe there’s another base out there that’s just waiting for me to find it.
The scent of ripe persimmons and wet hay. An old gymnasium floor with countless layers of wax. Dry mountain air and pine needles in the dust and sun. Jasmine and calla lily and gardenia on a cool evening. Rubbing alcohol and the hum of fluorescent bulbs overhead. Green Palmolive dish soap suds and coarse gears of a paper towel dispenser. Shampooed hair French braided early in the morning quiet. Rotting leaves, orange slices, sprinklers on grass fields. Worn leather seats and department store perfume. Chlorine, sunscreen and barbecue smoke. Distanced whistling and humming on the sidewalk, a jingle of keys and shutting of a car door. Harmonies reverberating off walls, in a room full of risers. Worn in Danskos on a linoleum floor, accompanied by never ceasing drones, beeps, whirs, and whooshes...
These distinct smells and sounds compose memories that represent my life thus far: time spent with biological and chosen family in familiar places on the west coast, on gym courts and fields playing volleyball and soccer, at bedsides providing nursing care, singing for those who are ill or dying or practicing in rehearsal spaces both humble and impressive.
I am a person whose identity rests in “nurse,” “daughter,” “partner” and “friend to most,” “choir member” and “teammate,” and descriptors that reflect values of loyalty, kindness, fairness, and determination. I am smiley and usually generous, and very easily moved (tears flow quick and easy). Since I was small, I have had caregiving tendencies, having once dreamt of becoming a veterinarian, always feeling worry for and responsibility to the living things around me, also feeling an intense commitment to following rules and trying to do what is right, sometimes to a fault. I was quiet and a bit of an old soul that blended in enough, could empathize easily and was polite enough to be well-liked. Surrounded by others, I sometimes felt isolated but I never imagined or felt it was depression or anxiety manifesting.
After an unexpected and brutal divorce of my parents when I was fourteen, a move to a different town when I was fifteen, accompanied by my one sibling (read: “comrade”) moving away for college shortly after the other unexpected and traumatic changes, isolation became a much larger part of my daily life. My mom was back to work full time, my older brother was hundreds of miles away and quite busy, visits with my dad were scheduled weekly and often felt strained, and friends I was closest with lived further away. Family court feels like a blur that left a bad taste in my mouth. I routinely woke up and came home to an empty apartment and made my own meals, and found my own rides, for the first time in my privileged and peaceful life. Looking back, it benefited me to become more self-sufficient, and it also eventuates why my grades plummeted sophomore year in high school and why I felt apathetic more days than not.
Fortunately, I was well-supported and felt loved, despite this uncomfortably different time for us all, and I was able to make it through high school and college with familial support and encouragement from a few close friends and esteemed teachers and coaches. They saw value in me and affirmed my natural tendencies. They heartened me to make room for and listen to my own opinions and feelings, and lovingly recommended that I continue to choose vulnerability and intention and take risks, and follow my intuition. Many answers I sought were already within me and simply needed to be unearthed. I slowly became less outwardly focused and tried paying attention and showing more generous affection towards myself- something that was not a distinct part of my daily life for many years.
A myriad of strange health problems arose in college that to this day I cannot fully understand or explain, even as a licensed healthcare professional. Being diagnosed with gout, Crohn’s disease and probable Celiac disease in my 20s, among other odd maladies like severe headaches, dental infections, and liver and spleen issues, was impossible to fully accept and disturbing to endure as a previously “healthy” person. I spent hours in labs and doctor's offices when I probably should have been at the library or with friends. What I can make sense of now, years later, is that I got through as best I could at the time, coping with day-to-day life as a young student, combined with some unexpecteds…two car accidents that led to more doctor's appointments, two unpleasant breakups, multiple moves, and a violent campus shooting...
Particularly difficult was deciding to leave someone who I cared for, but who was not managing his own trauma and took out much on me. This choice gave me a renewed sense of strength and self-respect. I was punished for this decision, which was excruciating at times, however I felt an internal clarity and knew it was a step in the direction of choosing myself over everybody else. This is something many girls and women who have been raised in the stringent expectations of the gender binary have had to grapple with. "Care for others first and foremost. Don't be too needy." I held anger towards myself for too long after this, for accepting and excusing mistreatment, but have since found some form of acceptance. I look back and see how anxiety informed most of my romantic and platonic relationships and understand that the pit-in-stomach feeling was often me holding onto things that were not mine to hold.
As I started my nursing career on a progressive care (also known as step-down from intensive care) floor, I felt as though I was welcomed into the fold: hospital workers that rise early before daylight with lunch totes in hand, to trudge into a 12 hour shift to collaboratively and compassionately keep patients alive and on the path to recovery of body, mind and spirit. I was fortunate to have competent, empathetic, and authentic preceptors and managers in a pro-learning environment. They believed in days off, taking scheduled breaks on shift, parental leave and being proactive instead of reactive. My time with them was immensely formative and although brief, is something I could never regret. Unfortunately, the prior almost 10 years of “go go go” and unresolved trauma caught up with me as I tried to understand cardiac rhythm strips and end stage heart failure, among other fascinating and challenging subjects and skills. One shift I was preparing an IV line (a menial task we do every day multiple times a day) and my brain and my fingers would not listen to one another. I recall it taking at least three tries to complete. Sleeping solidly before shifts was increasingly difficult and I felt more and more responsibility for even the smallest of details. It took me longer and longer to complete tasks that should be and had been simple. I was met with more support and more intentional guidance and training, and yet my body and brain could not recover and settle to begin again. I was unable to give the care I wanted and needed to give. This was morally distressing and led to the heartbreak of resigning from the ideal job at a well-respected hospital and coworkers and patients that I cared deeply about and had the privilege of getting to know and learn so much from. Still, again, I was met with compassion, positive regard and respect. This humbled and moved me and still brings me to tears.
Now almost four years later, after a few month break from and much-desired return to nursing, a move back home (2 states south), a long distance sustainable partnership becoming non-distance, antidepressants for a time and much counseling, and stints in other realms of nursing outside the hospital, in schools and people's homes, and now in a public health clinic, I feel grounded for the first time in a long time, and can look back with immense gratitude to the people, most of them women, who showed up for me and never made me feel ashamed or unreasonable in my struggles. While my inner critic was doing an Oscar worthy job at stoking feelings of inadequacy and failure, I was reminded that turning inward and becoming smaller would be a disservice to myself and others. Leah, Eileen, Monica, and team, George, Eric, Ashlynn, Catherine, Haley, and Kathy, and all others who stood or sat bedside me on this particularly difficult leg of my journey, I tear up as I say a thousand thanks could never be enough.
My deepest hope is that the increased clarity on the disparities of our one world, brought into glaring focus from the pandemic, will help us seek the teachers (human, plant and animal) who have been there all along, preaching the interconnectedness of us all. May we realize the necessity to reimagine and rebuild our often unnatural and exploitative systems that do not value life, time, energy or sacredness. May we be moved to both intend and impact, to heal and recover, for the sake of the collective good on Earth, the place to which we all belong.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
California Healthcare Homes: Community Health Clinics (Lifelong Medical Care, La Clínica de la Raza, among others)
Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
“Every Feeling on a Loop” album, Josiah Johnson
Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Letter to my Daughter by Maya Angelou
Real Rent Duwamish, Seattle, WA
Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, Oakland, CA
The photographs of Dorothea Lange
The photographs of William Eggleston
True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Spotify belonging playlist
- 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
- 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
- And, now, @burnquorum, for inspiring stories!
- 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
I had an atypical childhood. I was born in Virginia, moved to India when I was 8 and then came back to the United States for high school. As a brown girl growing up in 90s Virginia, I experienced a lot of racism from my elementary school classmates. While most of the kids in my class were nice to me, there were still the remaining 10% who simply didn’t like me because of my skin color. Their remarks hurt me deeply and had a significant impact on my sense of self worth as a child. I was quite shy because of it and didn’t find confidence in myself until much later in life.
We were still living in Virginia when the 9/11 attack happened, and racism became even worse in our community. Going to school became dangerous. Students were bringing guns to school and parents told their children to stay away from Brown kids. It was becoming very unsafe for us to stay in Virginia, so we moved to India with the hopes that we would receive a better education, belong to a community and learn more about our culture. I would also be around more family because most of my mom’s family is there. It’s funny, I thought that once we were in India I wouldn’t have to experience the feelings of otherness that I experienced in Virginia. Once I got there, however, I experienced huge culture shock and realized that because I wasn’t born in India, I was still considered an outsider.
I didn’t know anything about India before we arrived, except for the language we spoke at home and a few things my parents told me. Every aspect of our life seemed to change, including who lived in our home! Family is a very big deal in India, and there’s this concept of a joint family, meaning that everyone, your mom, dad, kids and then your uncles and grandparents are all living under one roof. So, not only did I find myself in a completely new place, I now had all of the adults telling me what to do. As an 8 year old, I couldn’t adjust to the home environment and school was just as bad as in Virginia with taunting and exclusion. Even though I am Indian, I wasn’t Indian to them.
Aside from being born in America, there were other cultural differences that kept me apart from my classmates. One big thing was that I was being raised by my mom. My dad had to stay in Virginia for his job, so it was just my mom and us. India is a very patriarchal society and not having a father figure was considered very unusual. Dads have more say in a family than moms do and typically run the home. The notion back then was that you needed to have a man in your life otherwise your life was made much more difficult. My mom, on the other hand, was the one in charge. She taught us how to be independent and how not to have to rely on others. While I became fully capable of cooking, cleaning and generally caring for myself as a result, it would still take me several years to feel fully in charge of my presence in the world.
After middle school, my parents sent me to boarding school which they thought would reduce the amount of ongoing change in my life. In the end, boarding school perpetuated my feelings of being the odd one out. The kids from Indian society were so different from me and while I tried to mingle with the kids from other foreign countries, there were so few of us that it was impossible for us to build a true community. I decided that I’d had enough and begged my mom to let me leave India for California. Once we arrived in Southern California, I started attending high school in Glendale. People may not know this, but Glendale has a very large Armenian community. Many people living in Glendale have an ethnic background, bringing in a medley of cultures from Armenia, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It felt like everybody shared an experience of being from different heritages, which allowed us to connect.
There weren’t many Indians living in Glendale at that time and so people would come up to me and ask, ‘where are you from? Which festivals and holidays do you celebrate’? For once, people were curious and wanted to know more about my heritage. It was through those conversations with my Armenian and Middle Eastern classmates that we realized how similar we all were. Even though we came from different countries, we shared similar family dynamics, dishes and even our languages had shared words across them.
It was in Glendale that my confidence levels really grew and everything became better from there. I recall my brother inviting me to an Indian film festival in Los Angeles and the rush of familiarity and acceptance as I met with the filmmakers. That one film festival changed my entire outlook on the possibility of finding community. All of a sudden, I had a desire to share my story and grow my network. Then, college gave me the chance to meet more people and I finally became comfortable putting myself out there. I realized that the more people I met, the greater the chance I would find someone else like me. And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t always have to be the odd one out.
I started working as soon as I could legally work. My mom had instilled a sense of independence in me and I’m proud to say that I put myself through college without any additional help. I paid for my books, rent, everything. While it was tough, I’m really glad that I did it because it made me a much stronger and more independent person. I now know that I don’t need to rely on anything or anyone. I can survive any circumstance or be in any country, having lived in two which are worlds apart.
I'm pretty grateful for the challenges that I’ve experienced in my life. Everybody has problems, so with that in mind I try to make the best out of it. I ask myself, what did I learn from it? Moving around from one place to another had a big impact on my childhood; so much so that I’ve created a life goal around it. My dream is to stay in one place and to be able to call it home forever. It’s been over 11 years since I moved to Southern California and out of all of the places where I’ve lived, this is the closest to feeling like home. I’ve found peace and a sense of belonging that I’d never known previously and a community that loves me for who I am.