Exploring culture, language, family, and place

In the last few days, I’ve been spending some time reading This Is One Way to Dance: Essays by the writer Sejal Shah. I actually found out about the book reading my quarterly Wellesley alumnae magazine because Sejal is a fellow alum. While many people wax nostalgic about their high school and college days, I look back on those times with a lot of stress and anxiety, mostly because of how mediocre I always felt next to my high-achieving, insanely smart classmates, as well as how grueling and challenging my classes were. My “heyday” that I tend to look back on with fondness and fun was middle school, but even then, I felt like I had outgrown middle school before it had even ended.

Oddly enough, I have more fondness for identifying as part of the Wellesley community and alumnae network now than I did as a student then. This collection of essays immediately intrigued me, as it explores culture, language, family, and place and how all these intersect with each other when you are an individual living in a country that does not really accept you as “one of them.” She touches upon a lot of the topics I’ve been reading a lot about this year in light of a racial reawakening given George Floyd’s murder: white centering with all non-white views and perspectives being considered “other,” racial and gender tokenizing, and how personal and colonial history are intertwined. We live in a world that wants to give one, single, one dimensional voice to all Indians, all Chinese, all Black, all X, all people from different countries. It’s apparently too complicated for White people to understand that one Indian American experience could be vastly different than another Indian American’s. And unfortunately, that’s what is forced upon you when you decide to pursue a BA or MFA in writing…. you have White professors, White instructors, 99% White classmates who are all drilling you about who your audience actually is and what voice you are actually trying to showcase. The irony: when White writers want to write in a voice of a person from another race, no one seems to question the “authenticity” of this portrayal… yet when an Indian American woman is trying to portray a child of Gujarati/Kenyan immigrants to the U.S., she gets questioned endlessly about how “representative” this experience is and whether it will actually resonate… with ANYONE.

I never thought about this when I was considering majoring in English literature at the end of high school, not even for a second, and what it would mean to be an Asian American writer in White America. But I have a feeling I would have been destroyed under all this pressure and never been able to survive this kind of scrutiny, racism, and White centering. It takes some serious grit to pull through this and use your voice the way you want to use it.

Other highlights:

*Her name is Sejal Shah. In Indian culture, particularly of Gujarati descent, her name is just as common as Sarah Smith would be in a White town in the U.S., yet throughout her entire life, she’s been told by White people, “Wow, your name is so strange/unusual/interesting/bizarre.” Are they even remotely aware how common her name is in her own community?

*Why do White people always come to her, asking for Indian restaurant recommendations in the area? She’s not a chef and at that time, she barely knew how to cook. She ate Indian food, which she called “food,” only at home with her parents or relatives, who would cook it. Do they think the food will be “authentic” just because the recommendation came from a brown person…?

*Her brother got so sick of people mispronouncing his Indian first name that he renamed himself to “Mike” as an elementary school child. One day, another boy knocked on their front door, asking if Mike could come out to play. Their mom, who answered the door, said no one named Mike lived there. Her brother ran down the stairs and underneath her through the front door and yelled, “I AM MIKE!” and ran out.

I did not grow up in a suburban White neighborhood with no one who looked like me outside of my family. I also am not South Asian. But I identify with a lot of the experiences and thoughts that Sejal has had. It was almost like I developed a kinship just reading her essays that she’d wrote over the course of the last 20 years. This is why writing in the moment is so important — to capture that moment and those feelings in that moment.

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