My Appearance Precipitates Unwanted Labels

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Courtesy of Boeing Jobs

Tanned skin, brown fleeting. Large eyes, inquisitive. Small stature, accent fluid–a myriad of places encased in oscillating tones.

Indian?

The predictable response follows: a curious glance through the rearview mirror, a bemused tilt of the lips. “Are you sure?” the inevitable question comes, disbelief ringing through—skeptical that I have evaded their long list of labels, peppered with nationalities far and foreign. “But you’re so fair!”

It is always the same. After all, who would expect a girl with only a hint of chocolate beneath her skin to be Indian? Is it that her shade separates her from two hundred languages and a subcontinent of twenty-nine states, where all apparently share the same skin color? Or that her neutral voice escapes the gawky figure they have constructed, numbers whizzing under dark skin and greased hair?

My reaction mimics the routine I have become accustomed to–pretend that their incredulity does not suffocate me, feign a misshapen smile, and offer a fruitless explanation upon deaf ears. More often than not, I try to humanize: to paint my nation as more than a monochromatic brown haze until the exhaustion of the endeavor befalls me.

These instances are not uncommon. They revisit me in the form of visitors with different guises–new skin and familiar faces. My guests bear unwanted gifts: identities.

Each meeting leaves me heavier, misplaced personas building underneath my bones. Bisexual, Indian, International jostle with impostors–some of the most memorable ones being Mexican, Malaysian and Adopted.

All external, some valid.

When one is surrounded only by labels, she begins to believe in some of the lies, regardless of her strength of mind. The practice makes one sensitive to the deleterious stereotypes that surround us and from within.

The unsung turmoil of a white passing Indian may be a privilege to some, but it has exposed me to the idea of rejection not only from the external concept of an Indian but also within the nation itself. The color of my skin marks me as foreign in my own country, thriving on a narrative spun by sheer laziness; the tenor of my voice distinguishes me as an outlier, distant from the lilt of my people whose musical accents are deemed “awkward;” and my Hindi accent, unique with its own rasp, separates me further from my own.

I am an Indian whose skin does not fit.

There are advantages to this, of course—not every anomaly is without benefits, nor every overcast cloud is without a hint of sunshine. My position has allowed me to coexist with two cultures–never embraced with open arms by either.

Yet, the friction of being in-between in a world that thrives to characterize creates a dissonance, which resounds through every fiber of my being—each cell and every pore until it surfaces in my home. Redundant expectations are not merely imposed on us by outsiders but exist within ourselves as well.

Fall in love but not with a Muslim. Choose your partner, but get married before you turn thirty. Have children–what would people think if you were childless? Follow your dreams, but excel in everything you touch. Have a career, but remember family comes first, beti.

We feed ourselves single stories as a result of these restrictive labels. The ideal Indian girl is a diplomat with an impeccable façade of nonchalance. She is weighed down with age-old preconceived notions, along with new limitations, but has perfected the art of willful ignorance to please others—to cope rather than fight, to live her life before settling down to embrace the inevitable fate of being another stereotype.

As a bisexual Indian girl who does not yearn for children or marriage, I am dismissed as a merely rebellious child. A deviation from the ideal, respectable Indian girl is still a catastrophe behind the novelty of progression we wear like a mask. My cage awaits me–golden and heterosexual, with childlike giggles muffled by self-imposed shackles of identities misinformed. It hungers for another girl, craves another weary soul lost.

Head held high, shoulders straining underneath the weight of my burden, I will step away from it time and time again, fighting tooth and nail until my dying breath—a ubiquitous warrior, peaceful in the knowledge that she is both worlds yet bound to none.

-Tanisha Pande