For most of my life, the fact that I am from India was little more than an embarrassment. I grew up in settings replete with the influences of western culture (with friends who were mostly white) and as such, my associations with being Indian arose mainly from the typical stereotypes having to do with a ridiculous sing-song accent, a ubiquitous curry smell, and generous helpings of body hair. I wanted nothing to do with these associations and in the process of trying to distance myself as far as possible from them, I buried my identity beneath the veneer of being a third culture kid. In the end, the very mention of my being from India was grounds for an apology.
I’ve talked to many (non-white) people, from Asians to Native Canadians, who have had similar experiences. Ultimately, the common thread seems to be that many of us grew up defining ourselves not by what we were, but by what we were not. Popular media’s various mythologies of beauty apply as much to race and skin color as to body image. By this I mean that, in general, the espoused conception of who and what is beautiful prioritizes whiteness much in the same vein that it prioritizes thinness. This means that children and adults who already live with an acute consciousness of their non-whiteness will struggle all the more to build positive identities based on who they really are. In short, if you’re not white and you live within the periphery of western culture, it’s likely that the process of making peace with your own skin has proven to be an uphill battle.
All of this begs the question as to how one exhumes and then reclaims one’s true identity from the tomb. My own renaissance began rather dramatically just a few years ago as a result of prayer, and while I don’t want to rehearse the particular details of the experience, I will say that for a week afterward whenever I washed my hands, showered, or looked in the mirror it was as if I was discovering (delightedly) the color of my skin for the first time. More importantly, where before I cowered at the sight of other Indians, I began to feel an affinity and kinship, a sense of belonging even. It was as if curtains somewhere inside me were being gently drawn open. And it was lovely.
Another thing that was being unearthed was an excitement about doing more traveling in India. At the beginning of this year, I was invited on a trip to northeast India – to Siliguri, Pedong, Kalimpong, and Darjeeling in particular. An added bonus was that the trip would also take us to Kathmandu, a place which I had wanted to visit for several years. Although we had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the other places I mentioned, we were going primarily to attend a conference in Siliguri, where several Himalayan region churches were gathering for three days of jubilee.
As I flew from Delhi to Siliguri at the beginning of the trip, I was staring out the window when the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas suddenly poked through the clouds. There they were, towering, undaunted, majestic. It had been some time since I had been so awestruck by a spectacle of such natural beauty, and it was all the more special that this was all materializing as our plane hovered over Indian soil.
Shortly after I arrived in Siliguri, I hopped into a car with two dear friends (Noel and John) and drove several hours to Pedong, alongside glacial rivers and then higher up into the seemingly endless foothills of the Himalayas. Noel and his family stay at an orphanage in Pedong and it was so wonderful to get to know him and his wife. We sat around their dinner table long into the evening hearing their stories. The next morning, the sun was out, brightening the colorful houses of the town and making visible the surrounding hills, and it was so calming to sit in the orphanage garden and sip chai.
The next day, we drove to Darjeeling, which I had no shortage of romanticism about due to a certain Wes Anderson film. Darjeeling is at an altitude of 6,700 feet, almost 3,000 feet higher than Pedong, and it’s quite magical how our car managed to pull itself ever upward. Believe it or not, Darjeeling is not famous because of Wes Anderson, but because of its tea plantations. As our car wound its way up, we began to see hills covered with them. Minutes before we entered the town, we were given the most beautiful vista of the plantations. The clouds – which we were literally driving in – whisked away, leaving the lush hillside entirely awash in sunshine. We got out of the car and breathed the crisp mountain air, and I felt as if I couldn’t take in everything enough. I wanted to wander aimlessly down the plantation corridors and lose myself in the hills.
After two days in Darjeeling, it was back to Siliguri for the conference. Around 400 mostly poor people from all over the Indian and Nepali Himalayan region attended. There were many remarkable occurrences, but by far one of my favorite things was hearing these people sing such gorgeous Indian melodies to God, in their own language. Though I don’t fully understand all the words since I am neither fluent in Hindi nor Nepali (both of which, though distinct, have much in common), I felt within myself some parallel, deeper understanding.
After all the beauty that India had shown me thus far, there was one moment, when I was hearing everyone singing at the top of their lungs and seeing them dancing with upturned and rotating wrists, where I felt a distinct sense of pride welling up within me. It wasn’t an occasion of great fanfare and it was marked by something which I said under my breath almost involuntarily. I realized that I had never said it in my life, but it was a moment of clarity if I ever had one. There, amidst the swirling beauty of the singing and dancing of my people, I said “Thank you God for making me Indian.”