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.

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Un Aventure En France

When I landed in the Marseille airport, I had no earthly idea what would be in store for me throughout my first three weeks of travel in the beautiful and mysterious south of France. There was so much I had yet to learn. I didn’t know that there are €1 and €2 coins that replace small bills, nor could I have anticipated still finding them in my purse weeks after returning to The States. I also didn’t know just how challenging it would be to assimilate into French culture.

Many little things added up to produce that low hanging cloud of confusion that followed me around in the beginning: there was no ginger ale in any of the bars or restaurants, nor was there any brewed iced tea (the closest thing, to my disappointment, was peach Lipton in a can). In the little apartment that I stayed in with my host, the toilet and the shower were in separate rooms. Shop keepers expect a prompt bonjour upon entry, and it’s considered rude if you neglect to say so. Upon departing, you kindly wish each other bon journée. 99% of the time when colloquial phrases are forgotten or misused, the French will not fail to remind you. One common misconception in America is that bonjour means hello, even though it actually translates to “good day.” There were countless times that I forgot that small fact and stupidly said bonjour past 5 o’clock–at which point I was answered with a cheeky “bon soir!”and a twinkle of the eye.

Still, not all surprises were uncomfortable. To my endless amusement, the French actually do say “ooh la la” — in varying dialects ranging anywhere from Parisian to Marseillais. Most afternoons they sit for an aperitif, an afternoon nip of alcohol. In Aix-en-Provence where I stayed, this was usually rosé or champagne, accompanied by some bread or crackers and olives. Being so close to Italy, the olives are sublime. The ice cream, too, always gelato, is absolutely magnificent. Sadly, this prevents me from enjoying it in America to the extent that I used to. There were marvelous Provençal flavors like violet, amarena (a delicious blend of cherry jam and creamy, milk ice cream), and of course lavande, the smell of which seems to permeate the entire countryside.

Something I will sorely miss is the ease of communication the French have with strangers. People sitting close to each other in restaurants speak freely–even in the street, it is common to strike up conversation with passers by. Despite my unsophisticated French, I rarely felt nervous to ask questions of people I didn’t know. Not everyone was nice, but a majority were more than happy to speak with a foreigner. Some would even compliment us on our good French, even if there were a few grammatical mistakes mixed in.

If I close my eyes and transport myself back to Aix-en-Provence, I can still smell the roses as I walk down the streets of the La Vieille Ville, the ancient part of town that looked like it hadn’t changed in 400 years. I can hear the sounds of the little city: the mossy fountains bubbling with a steady stream of water, the pitted patter of French puppy paws on their promenade, the slow, mellow ring of the cathedral bell.

 

On Being Late

In Costa Rica, when someone says, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” five minutes can be anything from 10 to 15 (to even an hour), depending on the context. When I was living back home, I knew that in most situations, being five minutes late somewhere was not a big deal. Dance classes would start roughly at 5:05 p.m., not 5’o clock; coffee with a friend around 4:30 p.m., not the planned 4:00 p.m.; your mom saying you are leaving at 9:00 a.m., but you know it’s really 9:15.

When I moved to the States for college, I was surprised at how much importance is given to every minute in this country. I now understand why the expression “time is money”exists. Being late is considered rude and selfish by social norm. Lateness in the United States means being a couple of minutes behind scheduled time. Lateness in Costa Rica (and I could argue Latin America) means being over a half hour late or more. There is a different perception of time and a different rhythm of life in the countries. In Spain, people have dinner at 10 or 11 p.m. and in the United States it is normally around 6 or 7 p.m.

Time is a societal, cultural construct. But, even so it has consequences in our lives. When I started college, I experienced complete culture shock. I was moving at my own time and my own inner clock was still working according to the norms I learned back home. I never saw a problem in entering a class five minutes late, until I realized I was being offensive to my professor and fellow students without meaning to. I have realized the importance of time in interpersonal relationships, and I am working at being punctual. I have to push myself (because it’s a challenge) to be on time, and ‘on time’ by North-American standards. But, those couple of minutes that make the difference always seem to be rushing past me: encapsulated in small situations that only make me realize how ironic (and comedic) life can be.

1. Mornings—they are just crowded with possibilities for lateness, even more when you aren’t a morning person. Every morning is full of wonders:

The snooze button on your phone is a big ally to tardiness, and you know it, but you still want five more minutes in bed (because they tend to be very long five minutes.)

An even better trick is when you set up the alarm, but mistake the AM for the PM settings. Do not fear, your alarm will go off 12 hours after you actually needed it.

Once, and if, you make it out of bed you will already be haunted by the ghost of tardiness. Proceed to get showered and dressed. But, you have to change shirts five different times because it’s that kind of day and nothing feels okay on you. Or, it could be a bad hair day. Regardless, either one will require attention and the extra minutes that are your enemies.

Just when you lock the door behind you, you will realize you left the keys, phone or wallet behind. Sometimes even the full backpack. Now, go find them and run!

2. The Trek—once you are late, getting to wherever you are going will be a trek. And, your anxiety about being on time but knowing that time has been lost will make it even harder. But, it’s okay because you can always find something to blame it on: 

The T, because you know the green line sucks. And public transportation is a disaster and out of your hands.

The traffic, because your teacher or boss can’t really know for a fact whether that accident or construction was actually happening.

The weather, especially during the winter. It’s always the snow’s fault. Always!

3. Arriving—that is the moment between the trek and the moment where you actually arrive. When you sit down in class or meet with a friend or check in at work. Those final little seconds are always key.

But, Murphy’s Law is always playing with you. The elevators will always be too crowded. This is especially the case in a school like Emerson, where the ratio of people to elevators is messed up. When you open the door to a building, and you have two minutes left to be almost on time, but there is a line for the elevator, you are doomed. 

Or you will run into someone that talks a lo, and you really don’t want to be rude and you have to go, but they insist for a quick little chat.

Or it will take forever to find a good parking space.

Or you will need to run to the bathroom because you can’t hold it and there is no other option.

These are some of the ironies in my daily life that sometimes hold me back from being on time. I like to look at them in retrospective and laugh, although I now understand cultural norms of time. I am trying to improve my punctuality, but no one is perfect and it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself.

Although I mock being late, I only do it because I appreciate seeing the differences in social contexts in relation with time. While being late is rude—and I have come to understand that—I also think that time should not be taken so seriously. Always judging according to the right context and, most importantly, knowing that taking life with some humor will make you a happier person.

A Weekend in New Orleans

By: Rebecca Szkutak

Three nights in New Orleans, Louisiana made for one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. The weather was beautiful and the action was non-stop as we made our way to all of the important sites, both touristy and not. I was traveling with my good friend, Andrew, and my boyfriend, Kyle, to see our other family friend, Britta.

Day One:

After two planes rides, a two hour layover in New Jersey and seven hours of traveling, we arrived at Loyola University, located in the uptown New Orleans neighborhood, where we would be staying for the rest of the weekend. Our lovely host, Britta, and her suite mates made us feel right at home immediately.

After some unpacking and getting ready we headed to the Boot, a local bar and grill within walking distance from both Loyola and Tulane’s campuses. The weather that night was so refreshing compared to the harsh winds and cold temperatures we had left just a few hours earlier; it was in the mid 50s, perfect weather for walking outside. Starting the evening at 1 a.m. seemed late to a Bostonian like me, but I quickly learned that Louisiana nightlife works a little differently. After an hour of people watching, loud music and dancing, we headed back to Loyola to rest up for our first full day.

Day Two:

We had a late start due to some much needed sleeping in. We got up around 11 a.m. to head to a local diner, Slim Goodies, also located in Uptown, New Orleans. The diner offered cute, vintage decor with walls covered in old polaroid pictures and brightly-colored booths littered around the establishment. My breakfast was simple but delicious and full of southern flare with the taste of Louisiana baked right in.

Once we had finished a truly charming breakfast we headed back to the car for a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was in the French Quarter to walk around and take in all that it had to offer. We started out on Bourbon Street, a tourist classic. Then, we visited an open air market to browse before heading to a local thrift store.

The French Quarter really summed up everything I had imagined and expected about New Orleans; that it would be completely different from Boston. The weather was warm and a perfect change from the frigid winter we left behind in Massachusetts. The jazz music filled the quarter with life and gave the streets the soulful energy.

Once we got tired of walking, we headed back uptown to another college student destination, the Fly. The Fly is a park that includes a long stretch of grass at the cusp of the Mississippi river. We arrived with just enough time to soak up the remaining sunshine and watch the sunset over the river, an ideal ending to the afternoon.

We grabbed a quick pizza at a Loyola pizzeria and then started to get ready for our second night in New Orleans. First up on the schedule was a local band from Loyola made up of friends of Britta’s. The concert was only five minutes away from campus at the local Kava Bar. Kava is a root grown in the Pacific Island that is ground into a liquid similar in texture to wheatgrass that has intoxicating effects. After hearing a friend describe drinking the liquid as a feeling similar to an allergic reaction, I passed on the drink to just enjoy the live music. Three bands later, we headed back to campus to grab a cab downtown.

When we arrived in downtown New Orleans, it was clear that the city was even more alive than it was in the afternoon. The streets were packed with street performers, people dancing and–due to the open container laws–people drinking openly in the street with each other. Everyone including us was just having a great time absorbing it all in.

Our downtown destination was a Jazz club called Vaso. We stayed at Vaso for about an hour hanging out and enjoying the fantastic live jazz band that was playing. Once the band’s set was over we headed out to the famous Cafe Du Monde for some delicious beignets. These are a square pastry that are a mix between a doughnut and fried dough served covered in powdered sugar. They were as heavenly as you can imagine! Then, we headed home for the night.

Day Three:

We woke up to sunny skies and a warm temperature of around 70 degrees the following morning. We headed to yet another local diner, Coulis, which was another uptown breakfast location. The food was both cheap and delicious and offered a great way to start off our day.

We then headed over to Oak Street to explore the little shops and cafes. We were immediately drawn to a coffee shop right on the corner called Rue De la Course. It had a stunning atmosphere and the homemade lemonade I got exceeded my expectations. We then walked around checking out local thrift shops and a used book store.

Next, we headed over to City Park in Midcity, New Orleans. City Park was the most tremendous park I have ever seen, located right in the middle of the city! We set up a picnic blanket to absorb the sunshine (so much so that I got sunburnt!) We also visited the park’s sculpture garden which had sculptures made up of different materials and originating from different art periods. It offered a truly unique art exhibit experience.

Naturally, we visited the park’s cafe to grab some quick beignets–trust me, you really can’t have too many–to take a short break from walking and to listen to the live jazz. Then, we took a walk through the beautiful New Orleans Botanical Garden. And of course, there was a jazz concert going on inside! Another lovely afternoon cam to an end and we topped off the night by grabbing more pizza at a local restaurant and playing board games.

Having never been to the south before, New Orleans really opened my eyes up to a different part of the country and a new social culture. There was never a dull moment and I am already planning my trip back!

Interested in contributing to Atlas Online as a guest blogger? Email your pitch to emersonatlasmag@gmail.com!

Entering Vietnam

Vietnam

Saigon is almost exactly how I read it in class, and how I imagined it would be a thousand times in my head. Times 30. Plus a billion. It is chaotic, the streets crammed with motorcycles that practically kill you; you can feel a slight wind at your side as they just barely miss clipping the sides of your legs.

The culture and country of Vietnam is filled with so much beauty. Not just the women in pointed hats that pass you on the streets of Saigon selling their pork and quail egg sweet rolls, or the girls wearing sun-protective face masks whizzing by on motorcycles. Not just the palm trees lining the streets of the city stocked with fresh coconut ready to buy anytime or the French-inspired colorful architecture that towers over the raucousness below.

Despite the beauty, Saigon is haunted. The streets are haunted by ghosts and screams from forty years ago that fly through windows into the hot and humid air of our 4th floor hostel. It is a city existing in the 22nd century, ahead of us in size and energy but still strangely locked in reverse, moving forward much faster than we do but still so very stuck in the past.

Saigon is only called Ho Chi Minh City by the city’s government officials. If you ask anyone else in HCM where they live, they will say Saigon. This is what our eccentric but lovable Vietnamese guide explains to me as we speed away on a public bus to see the Cu Chi tunnels, 80% of which were bombed by the US as they tried desperately to find Ho CHI Minh during the war. Ellie and I are the only Americans scattered among other Westerners on the bus. On this lovely July 4th I’m not feeling exactly patriotic. In fact, I’ve never felt so alone; and ashamed.

All I want is a pork Banh Mi sandwich, an iced Vietnamese coffee and vegetable pho to take away this weird pain..and help me pretend that I don’t come from the country that tortured so many people, for no reason at all.

Hayley in Vietnam

Vang Vieng: How to Get Lost in Asia

We soon arrived in the virtually stoned, hippie village of Vang Vieng, tucked in the jungle mountains of northern Laos. Feeling a little daunted and alone since our good friends had stayed behind us in Luang Prabang, we were both relieved and freaked out to see a ton of Westerners on outdoor cafe beds watching TV reruns of Friends on two big screens. (They sat there all day and all night.) The Westerners were sleepily lounging with their smart phones, criticizing Instagram posts while enjoying a glass of Beerlao or a fruit smoothie.

As we walked, our guide told us that three British men that were on our tour had “hopped off” for two months here. My jaw dropped. Of all of the places in Asia, they had chosen this drugged-out Grateful Dead satellite village to stay in for two months? Did they forget that the world exists?

I looked around to see a tanned young man in a muscle t-shirt and board shorts (the standard for a white “phalong” in Southeast Asia) crossing the street barefoot, one headphone dangling on his chest. My look of incredulity ceased when I realized that this was the dream. Who wouldn’t want to walk around barefoot in this little make-believe heaven, switching between beer and fruit juice for nourishment and sleeping with all of their new best friends in front of flat screens showing Friends? And if you’re feeling somewhat sick of sitting, sleeping, lounging or chilling, you can take a short, but very bumpy, tuk-tuk drive to the blue lagoon. Yes, it’s exactly how it sounds: clear, crystal blue water trickling under a bridge with trees and rope swings to jump off of. I could have gotten lost there.

It’s very easy to want to get lost in Southeast Asia. There’s always a little bit of home to be found in even the most remote places: Friends reruns, 80s American ballades blasting from a roadside bar or the occasional local sporting an American flag t-shirt. It’s easy to take these similarities and internalize them, embracing the Asian culture but also remaining separate, unknowingly creating your own version of the Southeast-Asian life. Because the truth is, you don’t see  locals watching Friends. The only people that relish in this feaux-American village are the Westerners that are trying to run away to something different, but only to find something similar. As we move on from Vang Vieng to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, I decide I prefer to take these Americanizations with a grain of salt. I left home to escape and don’t want to escape back just yet. For now, I will choose to see the foreign in the familiar, even if I am eating Ritz crackers as we wind away through the jungle.

Laos

 

Traveler’s Reflections: Chiangmai, Thailand

Thailand is Thai. That is the only real way I can think to describe it. The heat holds you in its arms like a comforting grandmother wrapping you in a fleece quilt on a 98 degree day with 100% humidity. It’s busy, but it’s not as busy as I thought it would be. Everything smells like incense; the smell of hot meats skewered on sticks and strong exotic perfume mixed with sweat stains your clothes and soaks into your pores.

Thailand is an absolutely incredible country. Chiangmai is a city that feels more like a sleepy hippie town off of Topanga Canyon than the tourist-filled city in Northern Thailand I had heard of. After arriving sleepy-eyed, sticky and smelly off of the overnight train from Ayutthaya, we immediately boarded a tuk tuk and headed for our accommodations at the Manee House hostel. We lucked out. Our rooms had air-conditioning, our own bathroom and a haunting view of a Buddhist temple in front of lush, green mountains. There was a swimming pool that we swam in twice; of course we were the only people that used it: the westerners trying to come to terms with sweating half of our bodies away all day everyday.

The culture of Chiangmai is one of peace and health. Every little street and alley is lined with friendly-looking hostels offering fresh squeezed juice and fruit smoothies, fresh lychee, mango, mangosteen, dragon fruit, and Wi-Fi. There are more westerners walking the streets than I expected, but I guess that was my own anxiety hypothesizing that I would be a white fish in a foreign pool.

People in Thailand smile with their eyes. From the eager and enthusiastic man at the Kodak store selling me my makeshift camera, to the women at the hostel eagerly reminding us to eat dinner, there is no mask over their faces. You can’t see the American grimace of judgement or the western look of disapproval. It’s so refreshing, after feeling consistently judged for almost anything, to know that the people in Thailand that I encountered genuinely do have interest and respect for people that are different from themselves.

It’s also a patient culture. There isn’t that rushed feeling we get walking around the American metropolis; the need to constantly be in the know. They know what they know. And that’s enough. And it’s beautiful. And colorful. And delicious.

Hayley in Thailand