I was the only South Asian kid in most of my elementary and middle school classes. If by some twist of fate, an Indian kid did end up in one of my classes – we strictly observed an “ignore or suffer” ideology in hopes nobody knew we were different. It was the late 70’s and 80’s my parents moved from a rather diverse neighborhood to a very white one. They moved because the diversity was making them nervous. They were immigrant parents of the 60’s, they were prone to believing stereotypes and what they saw sensationalized on television. The new school seemed nice enough until kids started name calling in week one. It could have been my braids, or my name or the fact that my house smelled of spices. In my lowest self-esteem moments I thought it was just me but I saw it happen to other non white kids as well. I was branded with cooties and the rule was that no one was allowed to talk or touch me or they might “catch” them. This lasted from 1st through 5th grade. In second grade I gave a boy named Brian a valentine. He was a very blonde boy and for reasons I still can’t comprehend, that hair color was a fixation for me during many of my school girl years. When I told him I sent him a valentine he dumped out his entire pouch on his desk and went through each one asking me if it was mine, and when he finally got to the right one, he tore it up without opening it and laughed. I laughed too – so it wouldn’t seem like he’d hurt my feelings. But he had. I had put serious time into the thing and I felt lower than dirt. Somehow, later that same day I wrote a valentine to another unpopular kid saying that I hated him. Looking back, I have no idea why I did this. I must have just been trying to disperse the bad feelings I’d been experiencing. He told the teacher and she pulled me aside and scolded me as he watched. I was so angry at her, angry that she hadn’t noticed what had happened to me earlier in the day. When I got home that day I cried and cried and when my mother asked what was wrong I said she wouldn’t understand. I never did tell her.
We just moved to a predominantly non diverse Pennsylvania town. When people refer to the ethnicity and culture of the area they are referring to the Amish. I worry for my son. My friends and loved ones tell me it is a different time but I don’t know. I don’t worry about him not knowing more Indian types, that will happen in time if he wants. I worry about his peers and if they’ll accept him. I suppose that’s common. I’d like to think I’d know what to do now, that being first generation south Asian American, that I’m better equipped than my parents were. Yet, he still has an Indian name. I still cook with spices. I remember when I got to college and all the sudden the very characteristics I had been trying to hide (and successfully so by high school) became unique and attractive. It became cool to be Indian. Many of my friends tell me that this is common in most elementary schools these days. I hope so. I really do. I just don’t quite believe it. Kids are mean. Elementary school kids can be down right cruel. I guess the difference is that if he came home crying and didn’t want to tell me why, I have many stories like this one to share with him. If for no other reason than letting him know he’s not the only one. I wish I didn’t have these stories. I hope he won’t either. I am hoping that if he meets another Indian kid in class that he’ll be able to be friends with him. That in acknowledging that they are different, they will have something in common. That alone would have made my elementary school years much much better.
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