Sonali and I met in India, on a warm day at the end of winter. She was sitting alone at a dining hall table and I joined, feeling welcome for no reason at all. As we chatted about our flights and educational backgrounds, I decided that I liked the woman across from me. From that moment on, her name called to my mind the color lavender- the only pastel shade that can stand on its own—retaining its individuality.
Do you have any role models or people you look up to?
“I feel like my mom is a good [role model]. No matter what kind of situation she has been placed in, she can arise from it. You can see how much she’s persevered through different difficulties that have come about… We immigrated from India to America. There are so many challenges that come up when you immigrate from one country to another: the language barrier, the cultural barrier, job barriers, etc. It’s just a complete lifestyle change. I know that I faced many challenges coming from India to America even knowing and being fluent in the language and understanding the cultural background. But I can only imagine how many challenges she would have faced.”
Sonali Kathuria sat on my bed with an air of comfortable politeness. She answered my question simply and honestly. The words flowed out of her mouth as if they were marching to the always consistent beat of her thoughts.
Do you have any siblings?
Do you feel any pressure being the only child?
“Oh, big time! Yeah.” Her response was immediate, almost abrupt, “I feel like my parents would say, “Oh we’ve invested so much time in you.” Plus, societal pressure is there as well. Society will look at me and say, “look at how much your parents have sacrificed for you.” But, it’s not just societal pressure. It’s a feeling from my side as well. I know the kind of sacrifices that my parents made to immigrate to America. It would just be such a letdown if I wasn’t able to do something and be a successful person.”
She spoke quickly, as she tends to do, but somehow all her words were spaced equally apart. In this way, you feel as though you can see her thoughts—little blurbs of Sonali-ness in a single file line.
Have you experienced any identity molding/self-defining moments over the course of your life?
As a twenty-one-year-old college student, much of my interviewee’s life has yet to be defined. Even still, I asked this question because unlike many people, young and old, Sonali does not appear to be missing any pieces. She is a complete sculpture that will get better with age, but she is complete nonetheless.
“Debate. I did debate all throughout high school. Debate really helped me to come out of my shell. It really helped me get in front of people, speak, and critically analyze things. I got a solid group of friends there too. Debate really had a huge impact on my high school life and even present day. I am still in contact with my coach. I was the captain of the debate team in my Senior year. Yeah. Debate was life. And it is life. Of course, I did dance for many, many years, but that was just something that became part of my culture. I wouldn’t say that I am a dancer. My mom pushed me into dance… Debate is something that I chose for myself. It really helped me become who I am today.”
As I clicked away at my keyboard, trying desperately to keep up with her words, Sonali stopped addressing me directly and began to speak to herself. She had retreated inward. She was enjoying her memories, screening them privately within her own mind theater.
“We would practice for hours every day. Practicing, researching, doing tongue twisters, giving speeches, pulling all-nighters… Oh my god it was amazing.” Her voice faded away until it was little more than a murmur, “You have no idea how much I miss that.”
Do you call yourself anything? Do you have any labels, tags, or roles that you like to refer to yourself as?
“I am Indian American.” Again. No hesitation, “That’s the one label that I really hold true to.”
“I feel like that’s my culture. I go to America and I get called Indian. I come to India and get called American. So, I feel like the middle ground is Indian American. It’s not so that I can please any and every person. I feel like it’s a nice middle ground that I have found peace with in myself. I don’t like labeling myself as things. I mean, I did girl scouts. But I don’t like to call myself a true girl scout… I did debate but I am not a debater. That is something that I do but not what or who I am… Being Indian-American is something that is carried with me at all times.
How does your country treat you?
“I like the way you phrased that. You said “my” country. You left that pretty ambiguous. But what is my country? Legally I am American. Birth wise I am Indian. I guess both are my countries. I don’t like the fact that India doesn’t consider me Indian… We have the colloquial phrase NRI. It hurts me so much when someone calls me an NRI. Officially, it means Non-Resident Indian, but colloquially it means Non-Returning Indian. Which is exactly what I am. Even when I was trying to get my student visa, which I legally I shouldn’t need, the man at the embassy told my mom and me that the $200 fee was a donation to our country and “the least we could do.” I receive a lot of negativity from super patriotic, nationalist Indians. Other times, Indians- my family included- feel like because I come from America I need special treatment. I don’t want the special treatment. It makes me feel entitled. I just want to be treated like a normal human being. Those two extreme reactions really turn me off from India sometimes. Being in America, knock on wood, my area is fairly diverse so I don’t experience the blatant racial hatred that I know exists in other parts of the country. As a woman of color, I do occasionally experience micro aggressions, but I’ve never felt that I couldn’t call America home… There’s a different feeling that I get when I come back to India. I’m like, “Oh, this is the motherland” but that doesn’t make it home. India is where I am from. India is not where I am. America is where I am. I hope to one day say that I’m from India, but that’s a long way to go.”
Do you feel your womanhood?
“I feel like the Indian woman has evolved a lot in America- especially with all the cultural appropriation and appreciation going on. I went to a white elementary school and received a lot of backlash for being a brown girl— for having thick hair, for bringing Indian food to lunch, or just knowing “Indian things”. I remember getting henna in middle school and people thinking that I had a hand disease. Now, it’s becoming a trend. I completely understand the aggravation and frustration that some Indian women have with their culture becoming a fashion trend.”
A brief perusal of an Urban Outfitters catalog can show our shared angst. Both of us, black and brown, have been similarly downtrodden by the inconsiderate gait of society.
Sonali threw her hands up and shrugged, “For me, I draw the line at religion. I don’t like it when people have religious symbols tattooed onto them if they don’t understand the significance of it. Then again, I don’t know if I’m able to judge whether a person does or does not understand religious significance just by looking at them. But, if you’re a white person and you have a symbol tattooed on you that has religious significance to me, I am probably judging you silently. I try to check myself, but there are a lot of women who have taken trends that belong to Indian women and have altered them to no extent. I’m all for globalization, but when my things are taken out of cultural context and deliberately mocked problems arise. I want my culture to spread and I want people to learn about it, but I also want it to be respected. I also know that a lot of Indian women have a problem with other women wearing bindis. I understand the religious connotations behind them, I understand the micro aggressions that many Indian women faced because of their bindis when they were younger. But if these Indian women do not know the cultural, religious significance of the bindi, then why should they expect other people to? If they are only wearing the bindi for fashion purposes why can’t someone else? I think what hits me the hardest is when I see a kurta which you can get in India for 200 rupees being sold in the States for 70 bucks… Something that they once mocked as being a backward, dirty thing, they are now taking and flipping for profit. That makes me laugh so hard inside and it hurts. But, if more people are learning about and respecting my culture then what can I do? What can I say?”
I had no answers to Sonali’s questions. I can only pose them to you, the reader.