Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On travel and race

When you’re born in one country and move to a second before settling down in a third, nationality becomes a tricky concept. Each time I travel, my national identity becomes increasingly less defined; although each new trip teaches me to value both India and the United States more, the experience of travel never actually pushes me strengthen my ties to the two. Rather, I am always reminded of the fact that I'm part of the world, that who I am is a result of where I've been and the experiences I've had as a result of setting. For example, with the case of this past summer in Spain, I don't consider myself more Indian or American. While I still identify as an Indian-American woman, I now think of my heart as belonging to three places—India, America, and Spain.

Because the thing is, travel allows you to compare that which you learn to what you have already known, and in that sense, a big focus of my trip to Spain was on racial and national identity—how we regard it, how we think about it, and how we talk about it, if we even do. I've been thinking about my experience with race in Spain before I even got on that flight to Madrid. I hadn't known how I'd be regarded, what my skin tone would be perceived as, whether or not it would be an issue. But it was never at the forefront of my mind and I sort of shrugged off any concerns that had presented themselves. I told myself that it was 2015 and my race wouldn’t concern anyone. 

But even though I've thought about it for so long and so extensively—both throughout my trip and beyond—I never wrote about it on here. For one, race is hard to talk or think about. And this is even more so when you’re an Indian-American, when your face is hardly represented in the media, when you have no real public role models who openly talk about race and nationality and the Indian-American experience.

Because I've grown up in the States, I've been aware of my race for as long as I can remember. I joked with a professor last year that I am most aware of my "Indian-ness" when I am around people who aren't Indian, when I am forced to realize or when I am reminded that there is something about me that is different, that there exists some sort of separation between me and those around me. But when I spend time with my friends who are Indian-American or Pakistani-American, I forget about it all. Of course, this is not to say that I live with the constant reminder of my "otherness," that I am always painfully aware of this separation. It's not that way at all; it’s not constant, and it's more subconscious, and even when it is conscious, it's not necessarily bad. 

But it's something that is important to me to acknowledge to myself, especially since I spent a lot of my pre-college years almost ashamed about or frustrated with my Indian-ness. I didn't know how to regard myself and like any kid, I looked at myself the way others looked at me. So for the longest time, I've felt like the weird little Indian girl and sometimes, I still do. I tend to be a little internally cautious, trying to gauge if strangers will look at me or think of me or treat me the way I'd experienced a lot of my childhoodor if they will see me beyond my racial or ethnic or national identity, as is often the case with people I meet in D.C.

The thing is, I'm incredibly proud of and grateful for this identity. I identify as an Indian-American woman and I love every part of that phrase. I love that I am Indian, that I have family that has taught me so much beyond the traditional, quintessential American experience, that I have been born elsewhere and speak four languages and have an entire cultural and linguistic lens through which I can view the world. I'm so grateful to be American, to have been an immigrant and to live in a country that teaches you every day through both its flaws and strengths. And I love, love, love being a woman, because I have been able to embrace feminism in a way that might have not been as encouraged had I been born biologically male. I'm grateful for each part of my identity for the variety of perspectives that have been available to me, for the ways I have been taught and able and encouraged to view the world around me and my place in it.

And the amazing thing about travel is that it makes you acknowledge it all and rethink it, too. How is race regarded differently in Spain? How do people acknowledge (or avoid acknowledging) my ethnic background, and how does this compare to my experiences in D.C. or New Jersey or Mumbai?

My first night out in Madrid, I had three separate groups of people come up and ask me what my race was. I had people guess if I was from Peru or Mexico or Ecuador, and one person even asked if I was Mayan. And although when I told my American friends about this they were shocked and a little offended, I later learned from a Spanish friend that this wasn't something he necessarily considered rude. He is from Peru but has lived in Spain since he was ten months old, and he's definitely accustomed to complete strangers coming up to him and asking about his background. It's normal to him and he considers it completely unoffensive. And when he told this to me, rather than focusing on what my response should be—both to the interactions with people asking about my race and to my friend’s experience with his own “otherness”—I just let myself consider the fact that there were multiple ways of looking at the situation, multiple lenses through which I could view the world and its treatment of race, nationality, etc.

I let myself consider that people regard race differently. It wasn't just the broad scope of questions I was asked, up to and even after establishing myself as an Indian-American, or the specificity of the questions (including but certainly going beyond the standard, "What does the dot on your head mean?”); more than anything, it was that race was talked about, that race wasn’t something that was taboo, and as a result, it was okay to be of another race. You weren’t necessarily weird or other or foreign or strange. You just were.

I've been back from Madrid for nine weeks (yikes!) but I'm still learning. Isn't that amazing? For those of you trying to decide whether or not to buy that plane ticket or select that study abroad program or take that summer off for an experience that will make you think and reconsider and grow beyond you realize, if you're waiting for a sign, this is it. Go. Do it. And when you're there, when you're in the middle of it all and you realize, holy shit I'm in Spain and I'm different and it's all so crazy and I wouldn't have done this had I not booked that flight, take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate this and how lucky you are to experience it all.

And when you're there, open yourself up and let yourself learn.

~ V