S A R I S H A K U R U P
Someday I want to know the autumn America—the one Jack Kerouac writes about in Big Sur. I want to see America the way that Jack and the Beats saw her, like one great vast sweeping expanse that was theirs to chart. Instead I walk the streets of my Northern California birthplace apologetically, like I am only half American. I used to love Ginsberg’s poem America and I never really knew why, but later I understood that it was the way that he called out America’s name, as though he knew her and he had some right to ask these questions of her.
I want to be able to cry out, exalt for America without the creeping doubt of whether this is my right. I grew up in the Silicon Valley where, arguably, the most successful Indian population of this country resides. I go to a high school that is as expensive as many private colleges, and most of the students who attend are Indian or Asian, and their parents are wildly successful, as they can not only pay the tuition but drop their kids off in a Tesla and live in big, Gatsby-esque houses in the hills. It would make sense that the children here would not be embarrassed of their heritage. They have so many immediate examples of success in the Indian community, and the stereotype of the “Indian cabdriver” is entirely foreign. To us, “Indian” does not bring up gas station vendors or restaurant owners, it calls to mind perhaps the purest vision of the American dream—our hardworking immigrant parents who now sit in glass offices and want us to someday do the same. It surprises me that even here, there is a deep-rooted self-hatred towards our culture and the color of our skin.
I hadn’t noticed it before our junior year, when we all read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The novel deals with the perceptions of race within the black community, the way that the white media has infiltrated their minds and caused them to hate their own identity. The book had just been added to the curriculum this year, and I doubt the English department knew how much their students would connect to the novel. Class discussions often turned into personal accounts of how race colored students’ world views and experiences. A dark haired, dark skinned friend of mine turned to me one day, mid-way through the novel, and admitted “I always did want light eyes. Blue or green. I think if I could change my race today, I’d choose to be white.” When she said it, I was vividly reminded of my first-grade self on Halloween, dressed as Cinderella, tearing open the blonde wig my parents had bought me at the costume shop earlier that week. I slipped it on and walked to the bathroom mirror, and it was the first time that I ever looked at my appearance and cried. I cried because it didn’t look right and I didn’t understand why but there was some sinking understanding in me that I was not and could never be the Cinderella I wanted to be.
It's not that we were desperately unhappy with our appearance, but there was always that knowledge, buried somewhere, that we were not the best. In a place of natural cutthroat competition like the high schools of Silicon Valley, it still nagged at us sometimes—that this was something we couldn’t change with hard work. Our parents instilled in us that we had every opportunity at our feet, and that we just have to want them enough to work for them. Now we were starting to realize that there was a psychological perception towards white people that would always evade us. After reading The Bluest Eye, all the instances of us trying to appear less Indian, more in line with what we say on TV and in magazines, surged up like the high tide at Big Sur.
Do you like this dress? Does it make me look too Indian? It was a common phrase, uttered by so many of us when we went shopping together and tried on anything that looked vaguely bohemian. We were terrified to look “fobby” (fresh off a boat) the way that some of our parents, despite their success, always seemed to look.
Why is it that white girls always look better in Indian clothes than we do? A Facebook comment, written on a white cheerleader’s profile picture, after the entire team had dressed up in Indian clothes for a Diwali event. Even when dressed in our own culture’s clothing, we defected to the idea that pale skin and blonde hair wore it better than we did.
I can’t get a nose piercing. I’d look like a child bride from India.
Shhh! Turn it down, I don’t want everyone to know we are listening to Indian music.
Have you heard her accent? You’d tell me if I sounded like that, right?
Hey, back me up, isn’t it just true that white girls are the hottest? Like, just be honest, man!
I swear to God, I’m going to marry a white girl.
Why is she wearing that foundation? It makes her look so brown.
My accent in Spanish class always sounds super Indian, so I just say the words in the whitest way possible.
Indian girls with white names are just, like, automatically hotter.
Every day we proclaim America a melting pot, but every day so many of my friends and I look at our skin color with shame. It’s a shame so silent and deep that most of us forget it’s there. We parrot the idea that race isn’t important without realizing how much it subconsciously matters to us. We attend a well-known, premiere prep school, and every day our teachers remind us that we are the future of this country. Not only because we are simply the next generation, but we, specifically, have been given the resources that almost guarantee that we will be in positions of power when we are older, the heirs to the Silicon Valley technology empire. And despite the fact that we are such an integral part of America, we find ourselves unable to sing America the way the Beats did, the way that Whitman did. Somehow we still don’t feel like America owes us anything.
I’m not sure it’s a problem with a solution. If white superiority is too deep rooted in our culture that even the children of the most successful people of color would still rather be white, perhaps we can’t really change it. But maybe that’s too dim a view. So many students at our school love Broadway’s Hamilton, in part because it makes them feel like the color of their skin might in fact be what makes them most American. This unapologetic celebration of America as a land of not just racial coexistence but racial cooperation and love—a Puerto Rican man lifts up a country, supported by his African American brothers and Chinese American wife—allowed me, for the first time, to look back on my memory of that botched first-grade Halloween and be just a little bit pleased that the flaxen wig did not match my brown skin. Maybe works like Lin Manuel Miranda’s are meant to bridge the divide between the America that the Beats cry out for and the America my friends and I are trying to understand today. In the penultimate song of the musical, Miranda too calls out the name “America,” and it’s a line that could easily have fit into Ginsberg’s poem. That similarity, despite the two authors’ differences, is what makes me hopeful that my friends and I may someday lay claim to the same America that we have read about and wanted without losing the identity that the color of our skin grants us.
Kerouac dedicated his 1960 novel Visions of Cody “to America, whatever that is.” I hope, one day, to be able to do the same. To give America a piece of my work as though I am worthy of her, even if inevitably, like Kerouac, I do not fully understand her or my place in her varied and ever-changing landscape.