I took World History in my freshman year of high school, hoping to expand my mind to cultures beyond the strict borders of my very small, eurocentric town. For once, my expectations were above the bare minimum I had designated toward America’s public school education. I embarked on a new journey with every lecture, traveling from the sermons of Rufi, the great Sufi poet, in the Golden Age of Islam to the French Revolution, where I could feel the very spirit of Robespierre inching toward my neck with a guillotine. My professor seemed to teach freely and without bias, sporting a glint in his smile when he described the fall of the Berlin Wall as if he were telling an ancient story.
I should’ve known that in my town, where the flag of ignorance waved proudly, classes like World History were never spotless for long.
As an Indian-American raised in the United States, I had experienced my fair share of racism by the blossoming age of fourteen. Sometimes, it came in the form of a microaggression when my classmates asked if I spoke Hindu or why I didn’t smell like garlic naan. My personal favorite, the one I’d grown the most tired of overtime, was a racist remark masquerading as a sickeningly-sweet question—what kind of Indian are you?
My classmates never acknowledged the difference between the Native American Indigenous and Indian populations, not when Christopher Columbus had deemed the two terms as interchangeable long ago. From their ignorant perspective, I couldn’t be a real Indian if I didn’t know the symbols of the Cherokee language or the history of the Trail of Tears. I would never be considered an American either, not while my dark brown skin reigned supreme. Calling myself a combination of the two, a proud Indian-American, was a catalyst for the “but what are you, really?” comments.
After months of trying to find the perfect label to represent me, I decided to start with my own name. I adjusted the pronunciation—ahNAANyuh instead of aNUNyuh—to better fit the tongues of my white peers. Though the result didn’t quite sound like me, I had grown tired of fighting for an identity that no one wanted to learn.
I wished that my classmates had taken World History to eliminate their internal biases, and along the way, they would recognize that India had so much more to offer than Apu from the Simpsons and chicken tikka masala. I expected them to open their minds to another culture beyond their own and maybe they would understand why I was initially so eager to identify as part of two countries instead of one.
I should’ve known better.
My professor, who I had once believed to be unbiased, began our India unit with a video of “my people” bowing down to a cow in the middle of the road. The next slide in his presentation was a saint, crossing his legs in the middle of the forest, meant to illustrate the popular religion of Hinduism practiced in India. The remainder of the PowerPoint was riddled with various microaggressions, stereotypes, and misrepresentations. My classmates turned to me, one of the few women of color most of them had ever seen in their lifetime, after each slide. At that moment, I realized that I had become my town’s token curry-guzzling, cow-worshipping, spiritually-awakened Indian yogi.
My professor continued with a lecture on India’s rigid caste system, used to discriminate against innocent citizens. He compared the hierarchy to the South African Apartheid of the late 20th Century. The girl sitting beside me flashed a heated look, and at that moment, I knew exactly what she was thinking—how could I identify with a nation that would commit such atrocities?
My professor referenced various statistics that detailed how India was the rape capital of the world and that most of its citizens live in poverty, crowded under clouds of Delhi air pollution. He even claimed with confidence that many Indian men did not believe in contraception, which was why India had one of the highest populations in the world.
I left World History in a hurry that day, my eyes focused on the floor. I tried to stomach the angry tears threatening to spill down my cheeks as I stormed down the halls to the cafeteria. The minute I arrived at my lunch table, a safe haven I’d spent all period looking forward to, my friends asked me if it was true. They asked me if the caste system in India ever made me feel oppressed. They asked me if my family lived in little huts made of straw under a bridge across the Ganges River, surrounded by trash and covered in dirt.
I didn’t know how to stand up for my entire country, so I didn’t. I stuffed my face with a dried-up paratha, hoping the flaky comfort food would soothe my anxiety and give me an excuse not to respond. My friends waited for an extra minute as if they expected me to change my mind and educate them anyway, before moving on with their lives.
World History was the first class where my identity was thrust upon me. It didn’t matter what I wanted to call myself anymore. I now represented the ugliest stereotypes of my country, from the systemic poverty to the dirty streets. As much as I wanted to identify with India’s colorful festivals and savory foods, instead, I ended up believing my professors—that my ethnicity, my religion, and my skin tone were inherently shameful.
I wonder if my parents had sensed the disillusionment in their once-proud daughter because they’d booked a roundtrip to India the following summer without a single warning. I was reluctant at first, not wanting to be associated with a vacation that wasn't somewhere “normal” like Lake Tahoe, but my parents told me that I needed a cultural reset.
My family descended from the state of Kerala, which I learned boasts a one-hundred percent literacy rate. Of course, there were homeless people scattered about, but my father reminded me that poverty existed worldwide, whether it be in New York City or Mumbai. Once we’d landed in a modern, glistening airport, I was greeted by my extended family for the first time in years. I noticed that my grandparents engaged with our cab driver—who used to be of a lower caste—as if they were childhood friends. Later, I was taught that India had not legally implemented the caste system since 1948.
Contrary to my public school education, my country isn’t a third-world hell. It is woefully misunderstood, and always will be, by a school administration that chooses not to see beyond the imperial haze of white history. Throughout the course of our vacation, I learned that my history curriculum was never quite made for people like me. As long as it continues to be written by the descendants of masked colonialists, I will never see myself represented properly.
There comes a sense of freedom with knowing that my education doesn’t define who I am. Although it broke my heart to know that I was failed by a system that should have supported me from the very beginning, this pain brought me to an important realization.
I am Indian and I am also American and I love both of my identities.