Remember Me

IMG456I just finished reading On a Wing and a Prayer, by Arun Sarma. It’s a tragic story, but fascinating because it’s about Assamese people like me. I had never read a piece of fiction about Assamese people before I came across this book. Obviously, there is other literature about Assamese people, and the literature has existed for a long time, but for some reason it took 22 years for me to find. The work is translated from Assamese into English, which makes it even more fascinating. The English text still has the residue of Assamese speech. I can hear the quaint interjections and greetings being said in the language they came from. I can picture the green hills, the village life, and the river that I have seen myself when I read this book. I never thought I would read about that place in an English text. I didn’t know it could exist in English prose.

I have recently learned a lot about the region of the world where my parents are from. It turns out people from northeast India, or the Northeast, are treated in India much like minority populations are treated in the United States. Their level of education is often questioned. They are taunted about their accents, their slanted eyes, and their way of life. They are often denied access to public spaces, or their citizenship is questioned. In essence, they are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. (Sound familiar?)

I didn’t know this until just this past year. Suddenly, many of the encounters I had with other Indian Americans as a child make more sense now. I grew up in the United States, where Indians are often lumped together as a group. Americans are hardly sensitive to the level of discrimination and in-group/out-group dynamics that occur within minority populations. I assumed, before ever having any Indian friends, that I would be fully accepted as Indian if I were to ever to find any because that’s what I assumed I was.

It became very clear to me, upon meeting other Indians (at the age of 5, nonetheless), that I was not like them, at least they didn’t think so. Most Indians I came across didn’t know that Assam is a state in India, let alone being familiar with where it is. They often questioned the authenticity of my “Indianness”, commenting on how I “look more Hispanic”, my eyes are “so Asian”, my features “are not Indian at all”. They thought that because I didn’t speak Hindi (which I can now), or one of the languages they’d heard of, like Gujurati or Marathi, I was not Indian. The people who did know what and where Assam is tended to exotify me even more than the non-believers. They said the sorts of things you’d expect white men at a bar to say to me: “Oh, that’s so diverse!” or my personal favorite, “Wow, you’re so exotic.” To no surprise, I never felt I belonged to the very people who were supposed to claim me as their own.

I ought to explain, it is no mistake that I look more Southeast Asian than South Asian. The region of Assam is a mix of several cultures of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Assam is located in the Brahmaputra valley, on the border between India and China. A number of tribes populate the region, and several different languages are spoken. The culture of the area often more closely resembles those of Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries than that of the rest of north India (Hazarika, 1994). Some of the languages spoken in the Northeast belong in the Mon-Khmer language family, an Austro-Asiatic language family, though it should be noted that Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language (the easternmost Indo-Aryan language, according to the 2001 Indian Census).

Growing up, I never once felt inferior for being Assamese. My mother taught me the significance of my culture since the day I was born. She made sure I learned to speak Assamese. She taught me about Assamese homes, how they worship, what they eat, and what they wear. She taught me their music, she told me their stories. I spend a lot of my time being angry with her. I always wondered why my parents moved our little branch (more like, twig) of the family over here to the United States, and why I had to watch everything over there from afar. I always wondered why my mother never knew what I wanted, why she never understood when I had a problem, and never yielded when I wanted my way.

I have never thanked her for what she gave me. She taught me where I am from and instilled a sense of pride in who I am. She has given me enough knowledge for me to be a vessel for my culture, to be able to transmit it to another generation if I choose to do so. She has filled me with a love for that place that claims me as its own. She gave me somewhere to belong on this lonely planet.

For those of you who know who I am, I have never admitted how important being Assamese is to me. I would go so far as to say I consider my Assamese identity more salient than my Indian one. People have always acted like it doesn’t matter. They have told me it is such a trifling difference, such a confusing distinction, can’t I just be happy being Indian? I always went along with the suggestion because I did not have the tools to explain why it matters, and even if I did, it would be too exhausting to explain. I will not let that be the case any more. In a perfect world, it would not matter. Being Indian would encompass being Assamese. But knowing what I know now, knowing that this small place that claims me already does not have a voice, and has even less of one if I never do anything about it, is not fair. It is more than unfair, it is unjust. At the University of Florida, where there are 50,000 students, there were 5 Assamese people when I was a freshman. That’s 1 for every 10,000 students. By now, two have graduated. That means there is 1 for every 16,667. After I graduate, there will be 2. That is 1 for every 25,000 students. That is staggering. We are exceptionally rare.

And fine, I will concede that resources would be difficult to provide. Frankly, in my experience as part of the Assamese diaspora in Florida, we can usually provide our tiny community enough support without any external aid. That does not excuse your ignorance of us. That does not excuse your exclusion of us. That does not excuse your persecution of us.

I only ask that you remember me. Remember where I am from. Remember what I have said here. You will search a long, long time before you meet another person like me.


A Letter to God

Dear God,

It is the thirty-seventh day of the new year, and I meant to write this letter to You on the first. Perhaps this year I can work on doing things on the day I plan to do them.

I thought I would spend this post taking stock of all of last year, but instead, I would like to talk about dreams. I will admit, God, I thought I had forgotten how to for a time, not because I don’t believe there is anything to look forward to anymore, but because I couldn’t recognize the dreams I have now as dreams. When I was younger, the quintessential quality of dreams seemed to be that they were intangible. Perhaps it was my own helplessness that made me feel that way. I had so little agency to keep the things I loved, and to eliminate the things in my life that harmed me. Thought becomes action in a matter of seconds for me now. I can fully grasp and appreciate how my thoughts shape my personality, how they become who I am.

I remember I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a child. I remember I loved doing many things–painting, writing, dancing–and I thought perhaps I would dedicate my life to one of those things, but then again maybe I wouldn’t. As I grew older, I think my dreams were molded somewhat by what people around me said and did. I remember I lied about liking a boy when I was nine years old so I would feel accepted. Everyone seemed to like someone. I thought that if people thought I liked someone, maybe they would like me.

In high school, I thought I knew what I wanted. I recall how much the word “married” got thrown around. My girl friends would speculate about who among our friends would get married first. My guy friends would whisper to me about other guys who claimed they wanted to marry me. They would talk about what kind of parents people would become, what kind of a parent I would become. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to be. Someone said accounting might be a good choice for me, so I thought that was decided. I thought I would be rich and successful, that I would live in a swanky apartment in the city and wear Donna Karan dresses. Then when I turned thirty, maybe I’d find a nice guy and buy a house somewhere where there would be a lot of grass. I hoped I would have a daughter, continuing the tradition of having the oldest child be female, as did all my female ancestors. I thought at that point, I would quit my job and take care of my child, make sure she knows how to speak Assamese, teach her to read and write in English, play with her toys, paint with her, play outside with her, teach her to ride a bike. And maybe that would be it for 18 years after that.

That is what I dreamed, God. I honestly did.

I don’t remember when I stopped thinking that. I don’t remember a specific point when I thought to myself, “I’m not going to think that way any more”. But Sean asked me one day what I dream about, and I realized I could not answer him. I have forgotten the last time I had a dream like that, with marriage and children.

I don’t want a child any more, God. I couldn’t bring one into this world without it preying on my conscience. How could I do that when I know that child is going to suffer? They will either suffer for the same identity-based reasons that I suffered, or they will suffer from identity-based experiences that I have never had. They will suffer because every new age tortures its youth in its own way. They will suffer for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine. I can do everything in my power to make them happy: keep them healthy, give them toys, teach them so they are smart, take them to all the wonderful places in the world, tell them I love them every day, but it doesn’t matter. They will suffer merely because they are alive.

How do I know this to be true? My parents gave me everything. They fed me well. They gave me nice clothes. They gave me toys and books. They taught me to read and write. They taught me to swim, to bike, to garden. They loved me so much; they still do. I still suffered. I suffered from loneliness, alone among Indians and non-Indians alike. I suffered from an abusive relationship. I suffered from depression. I suffered from the sort of identity crisis that Camus only wishes he could write about. I have one of the better lives, and I suffered.

And I am not the only one. I know there are those who don’t even believe they are suffering while they suffer.

Do all parents know this, God? Are they comfortable knowing their children will suffer, and they can do nothing to stop it? Would they bring children into the world if they knew that all of them suffer?

No. No children for me.

But I still dream, God. I can see them now. Here, in the decade of my twenties, I can reach out and touch the things I dream about. I dream of figuring out what I want to be. I have, and I even found graduate programs that will prepare me for that endeavor. I dream of making real connections with other human beings. Every day, I talk to lively, vivacious, articulate people who celebrate me as a person and who have given back to me my faith in human beings. Every day, I am reminded of how many incredible people I met in the last four years. I dream of being a person who I can admire. I love myself. I have found the words that I want to use to describe me, not what others see me as. I have found the strength to overcome fears I didn’t even know I had. I have contributed something to my community that no one else could have given. I will no longer be the exotified, sexualized creature I was. I will not be the person to whom someone else’s dream is pinned. I will not be some voiceless fantasy. I am compassionate, introspective, and fierce. I am even better than what I dreamed I would be at this age.

And I will have a hand in creating a better world. Nothing else seems to matter, not where I live or what I wear. Not who I spend forever with. Maybe I am a child; maybe this is the age when you dream of impossible things. I don’t care. That’s what I want, God. That is what I dedicate my life to. It fills me with pride to finally have found what I was born to do.

As always, I appreciate all that You have made possible for me.