For years, I’ve told the story of my transformation from a child who rejected her Indian heritage, to a child who embraced it. But until recently, I was mystified about the reason for this change.
As a child growing up in a largely white small town in Ohio, I was sometimes embarrassed and even ashamed of my Indian heritage and brown skin. I hated it when my classmates would turn to stare at me whenever we got to the “India” page of our social studies book. I cringed when my mother brought an Indian dish to a Girl Scout potluck. I refused to befriend the only other Indian girl in our school. I did not want to be singled out as a “foreigner.” I desperately wanted to be seen as a full-fledged “American” and tried my best to ignore my Indian heritage. At that time, I’d never heard of the term “Indian-American,” and I assumed I had to be either an American girl or an Indian girl. I chose American.
However, all that changed in sixth grade. We moved to a new school district in the middle of my sixth-grade year. I calmly befriended the only other Indian girl in my grade. Then, I went a step further. When required to choose a book for independent reading, I picked The Road to Agra by Aimée Sommerfelt. It was (if I recall correctly) the only book on the classroom shelf that had anything to do with India. I made a beeline for it, read it, loved it, and did an oral book report on it. After my report, the teacher said, “Well, of course, you’d be interested in this book.” He did not realize how much of a shift this was for me.
In seventh grade, I continued along my new path of embracing my Indian heritage. I proudly wore to school some pretty tunics I’d acquired in India the previous summer. Big gold Indian hoop earrings swung from my earlobes. In my spare time, I read books and comics about Hindu mythology.
What accounted for this transformation, this radical shift in how I saw myself? Why, in my sixth-grade year, did I suddenly come to embrace my Indian heritage? Until a few weeks ago, I could not answer this question.
I’ve recently been doing interviews about my childhood for my new book of autobiographical stories, These Americans. I’ve been thinking more deeply about the reason behind my sudden acceptance of my Indian heritage. And a piece of the puzzle clicked in place.
During the beginning of my sixth-grade year, before we moved, one of my teachers had been a woman from India. When I first learned that an Indian woman would be teaching me language arts and social studies, I was worried. What would the other kids think of having a brown teacher—just as brown as I was? Even worse (in my eyes back then), she spoke with an Indian accent. How would my classmates—all white kids—react to her? Would they see her as a foreigner? Would they make fun of her behind her back? Would they refuse to obey her instructions? Would they, in turn, see me as a strange foreigner too?
None of my worries materialized. The other kids treated her just as they did any other teacher. They accepted her as the leader of our class. They followed her instructions, and we all learned language arts and social studies together.
Seeing someone who looked like me as the leader of our class, as a respected adult in our school, must have given me confidence and comfort in my own brown skin. I was unconscious of her influence at that time, and for many decades after. I do remember taking a leadership role in her class by organizing a debate. And when we moved, I must have taken that confidence with me.
I now believe that having a role model who looked like me and shared my heritage changed how I viewed myself. She was only my teacher for a few months, but in those few months, my perception of myself underwent a metamorphosis. I was no longer a misfit who had to hide her heritage in order to fit in. I could accept and even celebrate my heritage, and still be considered a member of the school community. I have continued to embrace my Indian heritage since then, and when I finally learned the term “Indian-American,” I immediately claimed it for myself. No longer did I have to choose between being an Indian girl or an American girl. I could be both.
This is the power of positive role models. They help us see ourselves in a new way, and once we gain this new perspective, we also gain confidence, which in turn has a positive effect on our behavior. This is a power that young people may not even be conscious of. As adults, we may believe that we have no influence over our eye-rolling adolescents. But think again. Our influence is probably much greater than we realize.
Jyotsna Sreenivasan is the author of books of fiction about Indian Americans: These Americans (a new collection of short stories and a novella); And Laughter Fell from the Sky (novel); and Aruna’s Journeys (novel for children). For more information about her, please see JyotsnaSreenivasan.com.