written by Tulsi Patel
It’s 6:45 am, and sounds of crying children and jingling bangles ring throughout the house. In the living room downstairs, two professional hairstylists craft elegant puffed buns and handle steaming irons while my little cousin yells “I want more curls! More curls!”
This isn’t a memory. This is what is actually happening right now as I write these words.
Only a few moments ago did it hit me that my family is chaotically getting ready for a fake wedding. Today is Tulsi Vivah, otherwise known as the marriage of Goddess Tulsi, or “The Holy Basil.” That’s right. A plant. After scoffing about this fiasco to my whitewashed self, I was struck by another epiphany, one that may seem obvious to you all: I am not white.
I ask myself this: Why is getting ready for a Hindu celebration so ridiculous compared to getting ready for a Christmas party? I am compelled to answer that it is simply more normal to dress up for the birth of Jesus Christ– in this country, at least. It has taken me 19 years too long to discern the impact that growing up in a predominantly white suburb has had on every aspect of my life.
Two messy French braids fashioned from thin blonde hair crawl perfectly down the sides of my white friend’s heart-shaped face. Meanwhile, my desi friend covetously complains about the “devil horns” that would peak out from the sides of her forehead if she ever tried to craft those braids with the frizzy thick hair that we South Asian women feel so burdened with. If only someone had told us that we grew up idolizing the only standards of beauty we saw around us. That our beautiful dark locks, massaged with coconut oil and interlaced into a thick braid falling down our backs, were just as lovely.
Yale is a space where I first started observing this. Sitting in my seminar, I took notice of the way a floral headband neatly pushed back my white classmate’s cute curls while also appreciating the way my black classmate’s box braids fell over her shoulders and down to her lap, or how a fellow Indian peer’s highlights contrasted with her large, dark eyes. This isn’t an article saying POC women can’t wear headbands; this is simply an instance that evoked the realization of my own coloredness. While I am thankful to Yale for exposing me to diversity, the story gets more complicated than that.
I am stricken with the everso frequent memory of checking my race before a test. Eight-year-old me fretted over two options: Asian or American Indian. I checked the latter, only learning years later that the term was referring to indigenous American people and that test-makers hadn’t bothered to update a term that derives from Columbus’s mistake that he had ”discovered” India. I checked that box, though, because in the moment, I identified with it more. If I checked Asian, surely they wouldn’t think of someone who looks like me.
Coming to Yale confirmed this suspicion. I had read up all about cultural houses, thrilled at the thought of finally having a community to relate to. First-year me excitedly opened the door to the AACC, anticipating Asians of all kinds mingling and doing Asian things. My shoulders dropped slightly when I failed to find any South Asians, but hey, there were others, right?
I still remember a moment in grade school when I made some sort of relatable Asian joke– you know, the kind about good grades and stuff. A delightful little peer of mine looked at me rather perplexed after I referred to myself as Asian. “Aren’t you Indian?”
“Where do you think India is?” I retorted.
“I mean, yeah, but that’s different.”
As wrong as he was, he was right. It does feel different. There has always been an intangible barrier I’ve experienced around my East Asian friends. A feeling of intrusion- of something that condemns me for “trying to be like them” when all I am doing is trying to fit under the same little five-letter label that 4.5 billion people share. That’s what I felt when I walked into the AACC for the first time. I’m not sure how much of it was in my head, but it just seemed that approaching any group would be reciprocated with an awkward silence as opposed to an embrace. This discomfort repeats itself quite frequently when I go back to the AACC, which has about 50 affiliate groups including SAS, KASY, JASU, TAS, MASA, and more.
This uneasiness carries over to my academics– particularly Korean. I have always had an affinity for languages, and choosing Korean was not out of love for K-dramas or idol groups (though if people do like those things, it shouldn’t be any less justifiable). However, there remains a feeling that it is more valid for my fellow East Asian peers to be learning this language than it is for me to be learning it. I lived in Seoul for three months this past summer (courtesy of the Light Fellowship), always disguised– actively avoiding being perceived as a “koreaboo.”
I do not know what exactly perpetuates this distinction between Asian and South Asian, but it is hard to miss the fact that we are simply darker. Society has a dichotomous view of skin color: people who have it and people who don’t. However, this division finds its way into spaces even under the POC category. Every South Asian woman recognizes the brand Fair and Lovely, which we would use to whiten our skin, or Nair, which we lathered ourselves in to get rid of leg hair that would grow back the next day. These are sentiments that our Asian counterparts to the East didn’t necessarily share ubiquitously– or at least shared in a different way (Eurocentric beauty standards can be found everywhere).
Nevertheless, I do believe that Asians from all directions share a lot of experiences and that there is a way for us to socialize under this label while also preserving and appreciating our unique cultural differences. One way to do that is to normalize integration into cultural groups. I am on the South Asian dance team, MonstRAASity, but our members come from Filipino, Hispanic, and European descents as well. I encourage Yalies of all backgrounds to pursue groups they’re interested in without fear of intrusion and for those groups to create an environment that comfortably allows students to do that.
As I rediscover the ethnic part of my identity, I see it being modified and stripped of its cultural richness in order to better adapt to mainstream whiteness. Elephant pants that find their way into Urban Outfitters cannot compare to the dazzling saris I see in front of me. Stick-on henna tattoos in the shape of daisies are bland in contrast with the intricate mendhi detailing the fingers that type these words. The term yoga is prevalent in Good Life Center resources and Lululemons. The culture I never saw growing up is finally finding its way into spaces around me, though it’s rather distorted. And here I am, still left in a state of confusion, still not knowing which box to check.