DAY #18: A Modified “NaNoWriMo” Challenge (Write 15 Minutes of Garbage Every Day)

I had some good news today.  It turns out that one of my essays, “I Am The Daughter Of Foreigners,” is going to be published on a popular parenting website called Scary Mommy.  This website has over 1.3 million followers.

It’s still hard for me to believe.  This journey to get published on this site feels like an eternity.  In reality, it has only been six months.  I actually have an entire category on this blog devoted to my rejections from this site.  Why don’t we take a brief stroll through what I affectionately term my “Rejection Diaries?”

After that last rejection, I lost the motivation to submit anything anymore.  I tried to motivate myself with pep talks about famous authors who had been rejected multiple times before achieving success.  I told myself that rejections in my past have always led to better things.  But the truth is that rejection SUCKS.  It just does.  So I walked away from submitting articles and focused my attention on this blog.

I think it was inadvertently the best thing I could have done for myself.  When I stopped chasing publication, I started writing with joy.  The irony is that the piece that they accepted was something I wrote for myself.  I had no audience in mind when I wrote it.  Odd, isn’t it?

So, for all of you who are struggling with rejection and wondering when you’re ever going to get a break, please don’t lose heart.  Sometimes, it helps to walk away from your project.  Sometimes, things will come your way when you least expect it.  Just keep on writing and love what you do.

My essay, “I Am The Daughter of Foreigners” will be published on Scary Mommy on Monday, October 19th.  I am especially excited that this particular story will be shared with such a large viewing audience because it honors my parents and other immigrants who left their homelands to pursue better opportunities.  The thought of all of the sacrifices that my parents made to give my sister and me a better life is what drove my response to the racist couple that I encountered in this essay.

Please stop by and check it out.  All “Likes” are appreciated!  And again, please don’t let rejection cause you to lose heart.  Keep on writing.

What Does “Being American” Mean?

A few weeks ago, my four-year old son, E., approached me with a thought-provoking question.  He wanted to visit my younger sister, R., and her baby boy, AJ.  Despite my East Indian heritage, E. calls my younger sister “Aunt” R., for no other reason than I figured it would be easier to manage when he was little.  But now that he’s four years old, E. has been more exposed to the existence of other cultures, thanks to a horrifying children’s show called Barney.

As a single twentysomething, I swore I’d never allow my kids to watch that mind-numbing purple dinosaur.  But since actually having children, I’ve embraced the hypocrisy of parenthood.  We were watching a Barney video about Spain.  One of the kids on the show addressed his aunt by a “different” name.

E. turned to me.  “Mama, what did that little boy call that lady?”

“Tia,” I replied.  “It means Aunt in Spanish.”

E. scrunched up his face, obviously confused.  “What about Aunt R.?  Why don’t I call her Tia?”

“Well, if we were Spanish, that’s what we’d do,” I replied.  “But we aren’t Spanish.”

“What are we?”

I smiled, because that question from an adult would aggravate me.  I refrained from saying “human,” and tried to keep my answer simple.  “Well, your daddy’s family is from a country called Ireland and my family is from a country called India.”

“So, how do they say “aunt”?”

“In Ireland, they speak English, so it’s the same word.  They would also say Aunt.”

“What about the other country?”

“India,” I prompted him.  “In India, there are many words for aunt.”

“So, what would I call Aunt R.?”

I hesitated for a moment, as I rapidly went through the long list of words for “aunt” in my head.  Since I’m a girl and R. is my younger sister, what would E. call her?  Was it Kuri?  I addressed my father’s younger brother’s wife through marriage as “Kuri.”  Or was it Pehi?  Most of my cousins on my mother’s side called her “Pehi.”  Since they are the children of her older brothers, was it a title for a brother’s younger sister?  “Mahi,” I responded uncertainly.  “I think that you’d call her Mahi.”  Since he didn’t know what the fish was, I repeated the word, exaggerating the pronunciation for him.  “Maaa-heee.”

E. was satisfied with that answer for all of two seconds.  He turned to me and asked, “So, what would cousin AJ call you?”

I groaned inwardly.  I didn’t even have to think about this answer.  My father has two older sisters who still evoke fear in the hearts of anyone who crosses their determined paths.  I admit that I’m already small and bossy.  Do I also need this title to confirm a life trajectory that I don’t want to travel?

“Well, let me talk with your aunt R. and figure that out with her,” I replied.  He nodded, before turning his attention back to the video.  I sighed deeply.  Why couldn’t I just keep things simple and stick with being called Aunt Taara?  Wouldn’t it make everything a lot easier?  But as I studied my half-Indian son with his tilted, long-lashed dark eyes, I felt a pang of discomfort.  It felt as if I was doing him a great disservice by taking the “easy” route and ignoring half of his heritage.

My parents moved from India to the United States in the ’60’s.  As in the 1960’s.  That’s a long time ago. Assimilation was the mantra of that generation.  There weren’t a lot of people of Indian descent in the metro Detroit area when I grew up.  In 1991, I think I was one of six Indian kids in a senior class that had a total of 525 kids.  And all of us were very “western” in appearance.

Unlike many of the Indian households I witness today, I grew up in a household that only spoke English.  In fact, the only reason I even understand the language of my parents, an Indian dialect called Assamese, is that they only spoke it when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying about me.  So naturally, since I always enjoyed subverting authority figures, I listened for my name and eventually became relatively fluent in Assamese as a child.  My parents had no idea that I understood exactly what they were saying each time they whispered to each other in Assamese.

But my father always drummed two mantras into my head:  “You were born in America, so that makes you an American” and “You should always be grateful to the country that has given us so many opportunities.”  Growing up, we dressed in “western” clothes and embraced everything “American.”  Unless it was a special occasion or gathering, we typically ate “American” fare like BBQ chicken, meatballs, mashed potatoes and salad.  To this day, I wonder if I am rarely taken for Indian because I’ve been so indoctrinated with the notion of “being American” that I can’t shake it off me.

So, what does “being American” even mean?  Does it mean that I have to ignore the culture of my ancestors?  I don’t want that for my children.  I want them to “be American” AND to embrace their heritage.

I looked at my son, who was still engrossed by the show.  “You know what, buddy?  Your cousin AJ should call me Jethai.”

E. glanced at me.  “What did you say?”

“Jethai,” I repeated loudly, squaring my shoulders.  I was determined to own the title.  “Like Jet.  And then Hi.  He should call me Taara Jethai, okay?”

“Like Star Wars?”

I grinned.  That didn’t sound so bad.  “Sure.  I’m a Jethai.”  And maybe one day I’ll even be a Jethai Master.

I Am The Daughter Of Foreigners

On the day I went to the Secretary of State’s office to renew my driver’s license, the room was packed with people.  I took a number and then chose the first vacant seat that I saw in the waiting area.  Most people in the room were visibly unhappy about the wait.  An older couple sitting across the aisle two rows in front of me was very vocal about it.  Their loud complaints about the “lazy” and “incompetent” people behind the counter were annoying.  I tried to tune them out by reading a book, but after a few minutes, I put the book down and glanced at them.  The man was leaning over and complaining bitterly to a woman who I assume was his wife.  The woman was in a wheelchair.

In that moment, they reminded me of my own parents.  Not because of the complaining, but because of their postures.  My father used to lean over and speak quietly to my mother during her time in a wheelchair.  Waiting at the doctor’s office in a wheelchair for her appointments had been grueling for her.

I felt a pang of sympathy for the older couple.  I wasn’t in any hurry.  My husband was watching our two small children at home.  If anything, the alone time was like a vacation for me.  So, I walked up to the older couple and offered them my place ahead of them in line.  They didn’t thank me.  The man just snatched the ticket out of my hand and threw his ticket at me.  As I walked back to my seat, they continued to loudly complain about the people who were working behind the counters.

I just shrugged off their discourtesy and went back to my book.  And that’s when it happened.

“How many of them do you think are foreign?” The woman asked.

The man glanced at the five women behind the counters.  “Two.”

The woman shook her head.  “No, the one in front of us is just black.”

“What about that other one?”  The man pointed to the lady with dark hair and an olive complexion on our right.

The woman nodded in agreement.  “She looks foreign.”

“Yeah,” the man snorted.  “She probably doesn’t even speak any English.”

“That’s why the line is so slow.  She can’t help anyone,” the woman shook her head with disgust.  “She’s incompetent.”

“Why do they keep hiring these lazy foreigners?”  The man scowled in her direction.  “They should get someone who can speak English,” he stated loudly.

A woman sitting directly across the aisle from me looked at me, eyes wide.  We both exchanged horrified glances.  The couple continued their racist tirade, completely oblivious to the apparent distress on the “ethnic” faces of the people in the room.  When I thought about my own “foreign” parents, something inside me snapped.

Oh, HELL NO.

I thought about my father and his solitary struggles as a young foreigner in a strange new country.  On good days, he had a can of soup to eat or a kind friend would invite him over for dinner.  On the bad days, he went hungry.  He worked on the assembly line and bussed tables to put himself through school.  My father ultimately acquired three degrees and became a university career counselor who helped students find jobs after graduation.

I thought about my mother leaving everything she had ever known and loved in India to come to this country after marrying my father.  An angry woman welcomed my beautiful mother to New York City by calling her an “ugly foreigner” and trying to spit on her.  My mother struggled to balance raising two children, managing our household, working and going to school for two degrees.  She ultimately became a clinical psychologist who helped the mentally ill.

I thought about my parents, younger sister and me living in a cramped 900 sq ft townhouse in a low-income neighborhood.  I remember wearing the ill-fitting clothes my mother made by hand instead of the designer clothes my friends bought at the store.  There were so many toys that I couldn’t have because we were saving our money for a small home in a neighborhood with a good school district.  After a decade of saving, we moved.

I thought about the summer days when I studied while my friends played outside.  My father gave me his own version of math homework that put me years ahead of my classmates.  When I complained, he reminded me that a good education was my ticket to better things.  I ultimately graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went on to acquire a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA.  My younger sister also has two engineering degrees.  Both of us worked as engineers in the automotive industry.

I thought about all of the struggles and the sacrifices that my foreign parents made for their U.S.-born children and I got mad.  Very, very mad.

I sprang from my seat and walked towards the couple.  The man stopped complaining for a moment to look at me.  I stared him right in the eye, trembling with rage.  The people behind him stopped talking and stared at me.  I wanted to scream at him, but the only thing I could coherently get out was, “I’m the daughter of foreigners and I just tried to help you.”  I snatched the ticket out of the man’s hand and snapped, “Maybe you’ll remember that the next time you want to spout off about foreigners.”

I turned around and stomped back to my seat.  The couple remained silent.  They were still waiting quietly in their seats when I was called up to the counter.  A “non-foreign” lady behind the counter smiled and thanked me.  Needless to say, she waived my driver’s license fee that day.  She said it was on her.