Being a Second Generation WOC in America

“Where are you from?” 

“Born and raised in Shrewsbury, Mass.” 

“No, where are you really from?”

It is difficult being of Indian descent having grown up in the United States. It’s like being caught between two different worlds, forever being pulled and shoved back and forth between two nations. I’ve always felt like I was having an identity crisis: am I Indian or am I American? Can I be both when it feels like people always need me to just make a decision? It’s like the whole nature vs. nurture conversation we’ve all had at least once in a high school science class. Are we defined more by our genes and roots or by our environment and upbringing?

My parents grew up in India, raised in the colorful, vibrant culture of our homeland. They had an arranged marriage when my mother was 21 and my father was 28 and moved to America a few years later to start a new life. I always wonder what that must feel like: leaving behind everything and everyone you know, packing up your entire life, and moving to a foreign country with a person you just met. Terrifying, confusing, and… thrilling.

Both my sister and I were born in Framingham, Massachusetts. I have always felt like we were raised in different ways. When my sister was born, my parents were still very attached to their Indian culture. She grew up only speaking our native language Tamil and didn’t hear English until she started going to school. I think my parents felt that they hadn’t assimilated her into America properly. That was what it was always about for people moving from India to America; it was about assimilating into the new culture and fitting in, not bringing in a taste of an old culture to a new world. So, when I was born, things were different. I was raised on an eclectic mix of Tamil phrases and English sentences. I could’ve grown up to be fluently bilingual but my parents stressed English with me much more than they did Tamil. I’ve grown up understanding Tamil almost fluently, and being able to speak it pretty well, but viewing Tamil texts as meaningless, confusing symbols.

As I got older, into middle school, that’s when I started realizing I was inevitably “different.” I had skin as tan as roasted almonds, eyes darker than twilight and a head of black waves. I didn’t look like most of my friends, who were pale-skinned and blue-eyed. This is when I started recognizing the pressures of society to “choose” a side. And as most tweens and teens, I chose the side of fitting in with my friends. From late middle school to high school, I found myself doing as much as I could to dig out my Indian roots and conform to my American culture. I stopped watching Tamil movies and listening to Tamil music with my parents. I ate Indian food at home, but would never have done so in front of friends. I wore scandalous clothing, fought with my parents and spent as much time as I could with friends. I donned the reputation as “the whitest Indian girl” at school, and it filled me with immense pride. Finally, finally, I was cool and wasn’t known as just another Indian girl. I was special because I fit in with my white friends. I had chosen my side and that side was America.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how wrong I was. Emerson has taught me so much about embracing your culture, your roots and who you truly are. I had never been in such a welcoming, diverse environment that celebrated each other’s differences. I had never been appreciated for being Indian by non-Indian friends. This is where I have finally embraced my title of a woman of color. And ever since coming to school here, I have made efforts to speak in Tamil more often with my parents, talk about my culture with friends and enjoy the rich traits and lifestyles of my homeland.

Being a woman of color in America is hard because your family is constantly reminding you to stay true to your roots, while your friends are reminding you that you are in a different world. As if being a woman isn’t already difficult in this world, being a woman of color means less opportunities, less rights, and being taken less seriously. It means picking and choosing which aspects of your life you want to remain true to which culture, and making sense of how your heritage and environment coincide and have worked together to create the individual you are. I know I would be a completely different person if I wasn’t raised embracing two different cultures, and for that, I am thankful. But, most of all, I am thankful to come from parents who have never once pushed me to do one thing or another, but have let me make mistakes, forget and remember what is important and finally understand who I am all by myself.

Learning the Forgotten History of Boston’s West End

When people think of neighborhoods in downtown Boston, they think of the North End, the South End, Chinatown and Beacon Hill. When I heard of the “West End” of Boston, I wasn’t even sure if it existed.

Because it doesn’t.

Of course, the area of land that is the West End still exists, but there is no longer a neighborhood. Instead, the space is home to complexes that take up vast tracts of land, such as the Mass General Hospital and the TD Garden.

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 8.22.53 PM

So what happened?

A complicated but ultimately devastating political movement called “urban renewal” occurred in the 1950s, which explains why many cities in America look the way they do now. Urban renewal is “the redevelopment of areas within a large city, typically involving the clearance of slums.” Boston embraced this movement, particularly in two areas: the West End and Scollay Square (what is now Government Plaza). It’s hard to imagine what these places look like to what we immediately know; the equivalent of these neighborhoods is the North End, which was spared from the razing.

9319187837_f6c3bc7ed2_z
By City of Boston Archives, “West End Urban Renewal Project sign”, https://goo.gl/uVuz5r

I had never known this chapter of our city’s history and always assumed things were just the way they were. Looking up pictures of the West End in its original form, I see a completely unrecognizable village, featuring the brick built homes that give Boston its character. Observing the before and after pictures of the urban renewal policies shows the scope of destruction. The only remnant of the “Old West End” is a single tenement. It stands at 42 Lomasney Way. 500 feet from the building is the West End Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the neighborhood. The exhibit I visited, “The Last Tenement,” tells the story of how an entire community dwindled down to a deserted flat.

by City of Boston Archives, "56-62 Leverett Street", https://goo.gl/M85JZq
by City of Boston Archives, “56-62 Leverett Street”, https://goo.gl/M85JZq

At the entrance of the room, the introductory sign asks its patrons a few questions. What makes a neighborhood and what makes a slum? What makes a community? How do local values and public policy interact with each other? How do cities come to make decisions? All of these questions are answered in the tragedy of the West End.

For most of its existence, the West End was a haven for Boston’s “undesirables.” These areas were home to lower-class Bostonians and immigrants: Irish, Italians, Jews and various nationalities from Eastern Europe all lived side by side. Something that was completely unknown to me was that the West End was home to a number of free black residents, starting in the late 18th century. Between the years 1876 to 1895, at least one black resident from the West End served in Boston’s community council. The information was enlightening, especially since the stories of black Bostonians are a component of the city’s history that are too often overlooked.

by the Boston Public Library, "West End Branch - story hour", https://goo.gl/3Ezyxo
by the Boston Public Library, “West End Branch – story hour”, https://goo.gl/3Ezyxo

The museum does its best to humanize those who were residents, to show that this was once a place where real people made their lives. Trophies from sports clubs are on display in a glass case, bulletins from the social clubs are framed and pictures of kids in classrooms are shown in grainy black and white. There is heavy emphasis on what makes a community: active church life, the importance of the corner store, a sense of belonging despite differences. One sign jokes how Greek Jews and Russian Jews complained about each other, while the Italian Catholics had their opinions on Irish Catholics; but when confronted with outsiders, they stood united in their shared West End identity.

by the Boston Public Library, "Christmas and Hanukah at the Boston Public Library's West End Branch", https://goo.gl/CljC0X
by the Boston Public Library, “Christmas and Hanukah at the Boston Public Library’s West End Branch”, https://goo.gl/CljC0X

Alas, they could not stand against the larger forces in the city and federal government that were determined to destroy them. While the process of urban renewal is perplexing and dense to tell, the museum manages to explain the neighborhood’s demise. Important historical events such as the middle class flight from the city, the Housing Act of 1949 and decaying buildings all contributed to the razing of the town. What surprised me most was that initially most West Enders did not fight the demolitions, because they had been promised housing in the “new West End.” Thus, there was no major protests or outrage from residents. Only when their tenements had been destroyed did they realize they would never be able to return home.

by City of Boston Archives, "[Unidentified location in West End, near Massachusetts General Hospital]", https://goo.gl/52A2xH
by City of Boston Archives, “[Unidentified location in West End, near Massachusetts General Hospital]”, https://goo.gl/52A2xH
Of course, Boston as a city has changed significantly over time since it was founded in 1630. Even the exhibit noted how the West End went from a collection of marshes, to Yankee townhouses, to immigrant settlement homes. Cities are ever changing organisms and should embrace their role of being places where transformations can flourish; whether they be technological, political or social.

Some may wonder at the purpose of such discussions when these issues are clearly a matter of the past. Yes, cities should embrace change; but the nature of how cities change should be decided by the citizens that call it home. These discussions are especially relevant now, in Boston and all over America, when gentrification is becoming a major determinant of change in urban life. Who gets to to be a part of the conversation and who gets left out? As the lessons learned in the West End shows, including residents in the process is absolutely vital to creating thriving cities and happy citizens.

The West End Museum is located at 150 Staniford St, Boston, MA 02114. It is open to the public from 12-5 PM Monday-Friday. Admission is free.

Crossing Borders with Race: A Book Review of Americanah

Nigeria and the United States seem like worlds apart. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel Americanah, these two countries are bound together by the story of Ifemelu. In this novel, Ngozi shines again with her sharp thoughts, deep prose and extremely important observations of the world we live in. This is an honest reading, where the writer says more than you expect. Ngozi gives you the pleasant surprise of learning something new, of seeing the world from a different perspective with every page that goes by.

The story begins when Ifemelu, a Princeton student, is going to get her hair braided. As the scene of her braiding develops, we learn that she is a Nigerian woman who has been living in the United States for 13 years and has just decided to move back to Lagos. From the first chapter, Ngozi succeeds in making deep observations of cultural differences between people. For example, the women who braid her hair are all African like her. Yet, they believe that Ifemelu doesn’t eat “real food” because she is eating a granola bar, a very American thing to do for an African person.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets to learn more about who Ifemelu is and where she comes from. Born and raised in Lagos, she grows up with an image of America as the land of dreams. Her boyfriend dreams of America, and Ifemelu gets the chance to move to America for school.

When Ifemelu moves to America, she “becomes black.” Not once had she felt black in Nigeria, or had thought about what, culturally, the word “black” entails. She recognizes the differences between American Blacks and Non-American Blacks. Hence, Ifemelu experiences the hardships and differences of America and begins to write a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non­American Black.” The blog is absolutely magnificent and presents some of the most provocative ideas about race in the book. Ngozi does not let one thing go and uses the nuances of the language to bring attention to the problem areas in our society. She also manages to do so with strong, uplifting prose that allows a laugh every once in a while.

Ifemelu’s story is intertwined with Obinze’s, her boyfriend in high school and university. He is the one who seems to know everything about America back in Lagos, and life surprises him by sending him away to London to live the life of the immigrant. This novel is not only about race, but it is about the universal experience of not belonging, of being an alien wherever you are. It is a story about crossing borders, physically and culturally. And, like all good stories, it is also a love story.

This novel is worth a read, or maybe a hundred reads. It speaks truths for every minority, and is extremely empowering. You close off the book feeling refreshed by the new perspectives and with a new understanding of the complexities and subtleties of race. This novel speaks of and to the world right now, where racism is excessive. Ngozi highlights the lack of equality in American society and how this issue is deeply rooted in all areas of the country.

By becoming aware through the reading of books like this, a person can understand new perspectives and recognize the need for real equality, an equality that can use differences as a positive asset.

These are some of the most provocative quotes from the book:

“When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded this courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue. We are too superior/busy/cool/not-uptight to bother about how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall.”

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

And if this book wasn’t great enough, they are making a movie of it now! Exciting news!

(Photo credit: epiphanyinbmore)

The New Mall Culture (And Tips for Surviving It)

Changing fashion trends and the rise of online retailers has changed malls from the malls we grew up seeing depicted in 90s teen movies. Despite major rebranding efforts from wildly popular malls from the 90s and 00s, stores like Delia’s and Abercrombie & Fitch seem to have missed the mark with teens today. This year, Delia’s closed all its stores and Gap announced its plans to reduce their number of stores by 175. It seems teens would rather shop at thrift stores and Forever 21 than buy a shirt branded with the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch logo. American retailers appear to be struggling to maintain steady business as fashion trends and methods of shopping drastically change.

As an employee of the same mall on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts for the past four years, I have seen the decline in foot traffic. Even with the allure of no sales tax just over the New Hampshire border, malls seem to have transformed from suburban gathering places on weekends to now being the destination for sporadic trips at best. I have gone from working in a children’s clothing store where it seemed like my main job was to keep kids under control to now working in a high end women’s clothing store, where a pair of pants cost more than what I make in a day, and my main job is to entertain bored housewives with small talk.

Tips for surviving retail employment:

  • Make friends with employees at the other stores. It can lead to discounts and insider scoop on upcoming sales.
  • Similarly, befriend the employees of food stands and food court restaurants in order to receive discounts. (For me, I know becoming friendly with the people at the pretzel place has worked in my favor.)
  • Bring a book to make it through the lulls when no one in the store is intellectually stimulating.
  • Turn the bizarre coworker and customer encounters into inspiration to further creative projects.
  • If not inspiration for writing, at least let them become funny anecdotes to tell your friends.
  • Embrace the diversity of stores within the mall, as well as the diversity of the different employees that work at each store. It can lead to a very eclectic environment.
  • Learn all you can from working at a supposedly “dead end retail job,” because customer service skills look great on a resume. (Not sure how to do this? Check out my article about it here.)

American brand stores, such as Gap, J. Crew, and Abercrombie & Fitch, have reported slumping sales. Instead, consumers are spending their money at foreign-owned, fast-fashioned retailers, such as H&M and Zara. It seems American malls filled with American stores may be on the decline without a lot of hope to make a rebound. Only time will tell.

Even though working at a mall has had it ups and down, from the larger than usual paychecks after working long holiday hours to the irate customers who are more full of self-loathing than anger towards the store, I will always hold on to a bit of nostalgia towards the suburban American mall. After all, it provided me with employment throughout my teen years and bizarre inspiration for countless years to come.

A Comparison of Chinese and American Stationary

When I first started high school in the United States after moving from China, I was very confused about the whole stationery system. I didn’t understand why American students used such simple and plain notebooks and pens. It seemed like most of the notebooks were in fundamental colors like black, red or blue. If you were lucky, you could find some with patterns on the covers, but they were unreasonably expensive. When it came to pens, it seemed as though there were no fancy colors, patterns or functions that allowed you to switch the cartridge when you needed to refill. More importantly, there were no cute stationary stores like that ones my friends and I would go to in order to buy our pens and notebooks for school. Instead, most school supplies in the US are mostly sold in stores like Walmart, Staples and Target.

To me, American students look much more mature than Asian students. American high school students look as old as Chinese colleges students. I guess it makes sense then for American students to use simple school supplies to emphasize their sense of maturity.  I suppose most adults wouldn’t use pens that have cute dogs on them. On the other hand, Chinese students buy their own school supplies whereas many American students have their parents buy them. So in that sense, it seems like the Chinese students are much more mature.

This made me think about social identities in both countries and how they are reflected through the act of buying school supplies. In the US, individualism is definitely more emphasized than it is in China, but the school supplies used are mostly the same, which decreases the individualism. In China, students only get the kind of stationery they like. There are certain styles for each students’ use of pens or notebooks, which interestingly should increase their individuality. I am lucky that I received both a Chinese and an American education, creating harmony in my choices for stationery.

During my first year of American high school, I brought my own pens and notebooks. While I was packing for my trip to the US, I went to the stationery store to get the most fancy pens and notebooks I could find. When I used them in class, I received many compliments from my peers on my rabbit pen. Its cap was shaped like a rabbit head and it was pink and white.

As time passed, I transformed from a high school student to a college student. I still have some Chinese pens and notebooks, but the number of them is decreasing every year. Right now, I only use the American multi-prong notebooks and binders because it’s more convenient and it makes me look more like an American student.

One day in my multicultural literature class, the professor mentioned that when she was teaching English to some Japanese girls, she was amazed at how they were still using notebooks with flowers and stickers on them even though they were 20-years-old. I smiled and nodded my head because I understood. It felt like I just saw someone I knew in a strange place. It was then that I realized that my Chinese pens were not just pens, they were actually a symbol of that one piece of “Chinese-ness” that I am trying to hold on to. They are the one thing that I am familiar with in this strange country where most people’s faces are different than mine.