“Well, who am I?” the apothecary asks Jane Eyre as she slowly begins to awaken, echoing one of the central themes seeded in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her struggle to know who she is. The novel begins with Jane locked away for being disobedient, where she finds herself drawn to her reflection in the mirror. Unable to recognize herself she wonders who is “the strange little figure there gazing at me” before embarking on a circuitous journey to discover the parts of herself she cannot yet see. Bronte’s genius lies not only in crafting a novel whose lyricism croons our heart, but also one which nudges us to consider the question that plagues it, “Who am I?”
Jumping in front of me he lowered his head towards me and asked, “Who are you?” I had always tried to keep a low profile in school, not wanting to be seen, but his question seemed absurd considering he sat behind me in homeroom. He was wearing a black shirt notable for its declaration ‘Proud to be Italian’ carved in blood red lettering. I kept my eyes fixed on it, too scared to let them wander. I remember thinking I would have never worn a shirt that revealed my ethnicity anymore than my skin color already did. I would have sooner died than be found in a t-shirt that announced I was ‘Proud to be Indian.’
Who am I? I had wondered. I didn’t know then. I know now who I was: Someone who was too embarrassed to be Indian, and too Indian to be American. An outcast. Alienated and isolative. Someone who didn’t belong anywhere. Someone who never felt good enough. Someone who a few years later would punish her body by starving and purging it to fit in.
“What are you doing here?” he questioned, as he blocked my path, and the door out of school. A group of boys gathered behind him and fanned out around me. Leaning close to my face and pointing with his index finger he questioned, “Did you lose your way?” Turning his head to one side and cupping his ear with his hand he continued, “What? I can’t hear you.”
When I didn’t respond he enunciated each word with labored clarity, “Do-you-speak-English?” and after a brief pause slapped his friend’s back as he ducked his head up and down with laughter adding, “Gandhis don’t belong in this town. Gandhis belong in Gandhi-field, not here in Bergenfield.”
I had stood speechless.The fiery words that clamored within me smoldered in my mouth, but I had swallowed them, I always did. I felt relieved when he turned away from me and began to walk away, but looking back he had shouted, loud enough for everyone who had been looking on to hear, “A f—ing dot head is who you are. Go home!”
“Why are people so mean?” my older daughter Saige wondered out loud.
I couldn’t have gotten to her fast enough. We hadn’t watched the 2014 Miss America Pageant live, but she was excited to see Nina Davaluri’s performance in the talent segment, because her dance teacher Nakul Dev Mahajan[i] had choreographed it. Having eschewed television, it was my patient who had mentioned a woman of Indian origin had won the pageant, while warning me “some people are not happy about it and are saying some pretty racist things about her.”[ii] Waiting for the YouTube video to load, Saige had read most of the comments below it, before I had scrambled my way to her. Looking up she had asked, “Mom, what’s a dot head?” I wish I had warned her as well.
“Because we sometimes wear a bindi like with Indian clothes, a ‘dot head’ is way of making fun of people who are Indian. When I was younger sometimes people would say that to me to tease me because I’m Indian.”
“That must have been hard Mom,” Saige said snuggling her head on my shoulder.
“It was hard. It made me not want to be Indian. I didn’t want to go to school. I felt kind of alone and sad. And while it might have been easier for me if I didn’t have experiences like that, because I did it’s made me a better person. Those experiences, and coming to terms with them, have made who I am.”
I patted the empty space beside me to encourage my younger daughter Anika to sit. “Sometimes people might say things to you that are mean about the way you look, about being Indian, if they do, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you, or with being Indian.” I wish I had known that. “If they do I want you to tell me about it. There’s lots of things we can do to stop it from happening.”
“Like in 1st grade when Erin was being mean to me and Mrs. McDonald made us read Love, Ruby Lavender and discuss it during lunch?” A girl in Saige’s class had written a note to her telling her she was her 4th best friend because she didn’t like her dark skin color and hair.
“Exactly, you told me about it and you were scared to tell Mrs. McDonald about it, but when you did she stepped in so that it didn’t continue.”
“Mom,” Anika said climbing onto my lap to get a better look at the laptop Saige was holding, “I didn’t know that an Indian person could be Miss America.”
“Of course,” I responded, “that’s why Nana and Nani left everything behind in India to move here. They always told me if you worked hard and never gave up you could be anything you want to be in America.”
“Does that mean I could be Miss America?” Saige asked eagerly.
Beauty pageants, regardless of who wins, evoke mixed feelings in me. “Yes that, or you could be an astronaut, the president, a veterinarian, a psychologist. Though it’s pretty cool that someone Indian won. I didn’t think that could happen.”
“Maybe Nana and Nani were right. When you grow up in America, you can be anything you want. You just have to keep practicing and trying.”
I nodded in agreement, though the one thing I never wanted to be when I grew up was Indian. I spent a lot of time hating and hiding that I was, and trying not to look in the mirror, which would make salient what I was most ashamed of that I am Indian.
“Look at yourself in the mirror: you have not taken one peep.” Sophie says to Jane Eyre prior to her initial failed attempt to marry Rochester. Turning toward the mirror Jane sees “…a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.” While we repeatedly find Jane not recognizing her reflection, we see a different Jane emerge in response to Rochester, who she does eventually marry, as he teases her that he would like to visit Europe with “a very angel” like her “as [his] comforter.” Jane is quick to retort, “I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.”
It’s taken me some time and self-reflection to get here, where I can say, I like who I am and what I see. And while I haven’t seen a “Proud to be Indian” t-shirt, if I did, I would wear it, finally knowing that I am.
I’m not sure what that boy and others like him who teased me see when they look in the mirror.
I know what I see.
When Dumbledore finds Harry Potter returning repeatedly to the Mirror of Erised he says to him, “The mirror shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts…The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself, exactly as he is.”
What I see is myself.
[ii] Public shaming page regarding racist tweets about Miss America: http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/search/miss+america