by Jamila Wilkinson
When my grandmother talks about growing up in Old Delhi, during the final years of the British Raj, her stories tend to be selective and rose-tinted — shimmering spring days spent perched in the mango trees of her grandfather’s orchard, winter nights opening K-rations like Christmas presents. Every corner of her memory is sun-soaked, every window to darker recesses cloaked by vetiver-perfumed curtains. Because while my grandmother spends the first fourteen years of her life a colonial subject, I don’t know that she ever thinks that of herself or her family. They are Indian, of course. But they are from the North, so their skin is fair and smooth. They wear tweed jackets over their sarees, and their Lutyens-designed home more closely resembles an Anglican fortress than a Mughal tent. So, while they were not British, they are British-adjacent, certainly.
She boasts that her mother had the lightest skin in all of India, the color of milk, as fair as sugar, as linens, as her lahangas. It’s not surprising to learn, then, that in 1955, equipped with a scholarship and an additional grant from the British government, she boards an Oriental ocean-liner from Bombay to Southampton, where, presumably, everyone will be the color of cream. But once she’s there, she finds she misses the smells and tastes of home, rosewater on skin in the summer, mustard seeds and curry leaves popping in hot oil. She writes home to her mother, begging her to send her recipes. They don’t do anything to the potatoes here! They’re just boiled and fried and salted!
Her mother obliges, sends handwritten recipes through airmail for keema matar and murgh korma. At university, she quickly finds that she gets more acting roles when she subdues the rise and fall of her Hindi lilt. But in her tiny London flat, she blooms turmeric and cumin in 1 oil and is reminded of the train rides of her childhood, of the East India passenger rail sneezing and chugging along on its way to the countryside.
By the time my grandmother settles in New York, she’s cast-away much of whatever provincial Asian-ness remained. She’s had an ugly separation with Saeed, her Punjabi first husband and the father of her children, and after a brief stint of living with their aunt in Delhi, her daughters return to find a new woman. She wears her hair in a beehive, and has married a black man from Bed-Stuy. She takes the cramped two-bedroom in Greenwich Village over living in Jackson Heights, amongst the rest of the city’s South Asian population, and the girls learn to adjust.
All three are sent to private school on the Upper East Side, the only brown bodies in a sea of white. But there’s nuance to their color. Zia, the oldest, has deep-set eyes framed by dark lashes, a pronounced, hooked nose that makes street vendors in Brooklyn call out to her in Arabic. She looks the most like her father, feels most acutely the residual tremors of their time in Delhi, the whiplash of their return home. She doesn’t talk to their step-father for the first few months, glares at their mother for yanking them away, for abandoning them in the first place. Meera, in the middle, is beige-toned and freckly, with sheets of long, black hair, and small, slanted eyes. Centered in a family of dramatic, sometimes sullen women, she learns to shape her breaths to accommodate silence and noise, the swell and plummet of the moods of those around her. As she takes the F train heads east towards Chinatown, white bodies filter out, and Mandarin replaces English. They don’t notice Meera. In a crowd, she can pass.
My mother is born last, only two when she is sent to India and five when she returns. Her name is Sakina, but there, she acquires the nickname Mitthoo, usually reserved for pet parrots, 2 and after that, it’s all she’s ever called. Back in New York, she is not angry with her mother; she scarcely remembers her. In a year, she has forgotten Hindi, too. She likes to talk, so she talks with her step-father when her other sisters won’t; about being bussed from middle school in East New York to Julliard, about being the only black man in the pit at the Philharmonic. She has the same tawny skin as Zia, the same glossy hair as Meera, but the way her eyes and lips part makes her face harder to place. She rides the A train uptown to Washington Heights, delights in the fact that north of 81st street, she can be Puerto Rican.
She meets my father when she’s twenty-three, while he’s twenty-five and working at a magazine a few blocks from her childhood home. He admits to me, later, that he’d never met an Indian before. He’d grown up in a working-class suburb of Philly, gone to a high school where the most exotic kids were Polish, and ended up in New York mostly out of desperation. They begin dating, and my mother lapses into an easy rhythm with his white friends, with his five blue-eyed, strawberry-blonde sisters, which surprises them, but not her. She’s good at this by now. When they’re married, the old grange upstate is a sea of jewel-toned sarees, and pastel church hats, donned by both the Irish Catholics and the African American baptists.
My brother is born five days before Christmas. He’s milky like Meera, but his eyes are unmistakably my father’s, sans the blue. He’s inherited the thick, black hair and eyebrows of the Indian side, but very little else. Mostly, people think he’s white. Sometimes, they’ll throw in Chinese, because why not. One day, when he’s in the eighth grade, he comes home begging to put diamond studs in his ears. My mom takes a deep breath, and looks him in the eye before describing, not unkindly, the ways in which he’d more closely resemble an off-brand Vanilla-Ice than anything remotely nearing cool. 3
Later, when he’s in college, he tells me why he wanted them, stopping every so often to burst into laughter. “All of my friends from basketball were joining gangs,” he begins. “And I was like, ‘Hey, what gangs can I join?’” Wheezing. “They’re like, ‘There aren’t gangs for white guys, dumbass.’ Remember, they all called me Steve Nash. And I’m like, ‘I’m Asian!’ But they tell me there aren’t Asian gangs, either. So I look it up when I go home. And they’re wrong! I mean, there are definitely, absolutely no Indian gangs. But there are Chinese ones! And Cambodian ones, and Vietnamese! And I’m like, ‘I could kinda be Cambodian.’” Sure. “But they’re all in, like, LA. So I figure the best I can do is get the same earrings as them.” The anecdote is so vibrantly stupid, I can’t catch my breath between laughs the first time he tells it. But the more I think about it, the more I understand.
In elementary school, I have one half-Vietnamese friend, and the rest are all white. Not only that but, by some glitch in recessive genetics, the rest are all blonde. Tai is also half-white. But she has the wide set, high cheekbones and slanted eyes of her father, her Italian mother mostly evident in the slight wave of her black hair. I have my mother’s skin and lips, but the strawberry-blonde of the Irish side has mingled with the black, and my skin pales like my father’s in the winter. We’re not Hindu, and I don’t bring Indian food to school. When I say we’re both Asian, the other kids beg to differ.
“But you’re not really Asian,” they start. “You’re basically white.” I think of my flaxen-haired friends, the tin foil packages of bread and cheese and fruit my mother packs me each day, the faces of my dolls and action figures and I think they might be right. Designing a family on Sims one night, I carefully select each golden highlight, and ski-slope nose. They are all blonde, blue-eyed, tall. Pleased, I show my mother my handiwork and she frowns. Later that 4 night, she comes into my room, sits on my bed, one leg tucked under the other. I’m in the middle of “The Secret of Platform 13,” my eighth book about an intrepid, white adventurer that summer.
“Did you make that family because you want to look like them?” She’s gentle, not accusing.
I’m staring down at my forearm, russet from days in the sun, covered in dark, downy hair. I play with the single gold bangle that slides loosely up and down my skinny wrist throughout the day.
“No,” I decide, looking back up at her. “I just thought it was fun.” But suddenly, I don’t feel sure.
By fifteen, something strange has happened. My hair has darkened to the same shade as my mother’s, black in all but the most brilliant sun. I have filled out, softer curves where all my bony angles used to be. I feel a comfort with my body that’s a far cry from my middle-school awkwardness, but distinct from the freedom of childhood, too. White boys call me exotic, intimidating, hot. I am catcalled for exposing my skin on the street. And people, across ethnicities, begin thinking I’m Latina.
Often, I don’t correct them. I’m happy to be misconceived. Latina feels more exciting than Indian, certainly cooler than white. I’m at an age where I’ve confused sexualization with appreciation, male attention with self worth. I begin to line my lips. I grow my hair out, long and wavy. I lean into this idea of myself. I can be the fiery Latina they want me to be, I think.
But by the time I get to college, this feels wrong too. Race and identity feel important here in a way they didn’t in high school. I’ve learned enough by now to know better than to co-opt the aesthetics of another, but I still hesitate on forms that ask me to check a box. I don’t 5 feel white, like my pale, water-polo-playing cousins in Seattle. But I don’t feel Asian either. I am darker, more ambiguous than my images of the word, and most of America agrees.
More than that, I grasp for tendrils connecting me to India, and come up empty. I don’t speak Hindi, or any of the other twenty-two languages. My mother knows a few words that she uses sparingly — sweetheart, dirty, water, be quiet — but for the most part, she doesn’t either. We celebrated Diwali once, when I was small. I only remember watching puris puff and rise on the gas burner of the stove, dipping them in dal and chutney and stuffing them in my mouth. But the adults decided it was too complicated to shuttle the candles and garlands of marigold around, and after that we just stuck to Christmas and Thanksgiving. I don’t feel like anything. I just feel brown.
I wonder now how much the assumptions cast on my family were based on demeanor rather than phenotype. Zia, who was serious and intimidating, was thought to be Middle Eastern. Meera, who was quiet and deferential, was thought to be Chinese. My mother — loud, talkative, emotional — even now, makes money playing Latinas on television. I wonder whether the world responded to them, or they responded to the world. If they did both in equal measure.
The summer I turn twenty, I am living in an apartment for the first time. I have begun referring to myself as Indian, learned to ignore the confusion on people’s faces that follows. I wear gold jhumka earrings, and smooth almond oil in my hair on hot days. I ask my grandmother for a book of recipes, and learn how to bloom spices in oil, how to roll out chapatis, how to tenderize meat with yogurt. While working in a Latino neighborhood, I’m still met with catcalls and questions in Spanish. At parties, I’m still asked, “What are you?” by ruddy-faced men holding beer. But one day, a hijabi woman from the organization next door comes by and asks 6 me something in Arabic. I have no idea what she tells me, but I smile before getting someone who does. For now, that feels close enough.