Illuminating my Indian Identity
by Maria Sunisha Sunil
(Chandler, United States)
The tears drenched my cheeks, flowing as abundantly as the cascading waters of Dudhsagar Falls. The snot ran from my nose endlessly, flowing like the Ganges river. I could feel my face getting damp from the tears and my arms getting tired from wiping them off. Sitting in the car, bawling on the way back from my best friend's Diwali party, I felt a deep sorrow engulf me. My sister who was sitting beside me looked at me pitifully, but she couldn’t understand my emotions. She couldn’t even begin to comprehend the ostracization I had felt today. I looked out the window as the car drove by, as the world passed by in a blur of lights and colors. I wondered “Why I couldn't be more Indian, why I couldn't just blend in with the rest of the crowd.”
It felt like a towering pine tree in a forest full of saplings, forever standing out, forever being different. Why did I always have to be the black sheep of the group, the odd one out? I yearned for a sense of belonging, a connection to my heritage that seemed elusive. It was as if I were a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit in, searching for its rightful place.
To my friends, referring to their parents as "Amma" and "Appa" was second nature. However, to me it was like a melodious symphony, those words danced off their tongues and painted a picture of cultural pride. A few letters or pronunciations varied depending on the language, but the essence remained. Mom and Dad were beautifully draped in the vibrant colors of their mother tongue. But for me, it was different. It was as if I were speaking a foreign language, disconnected from the roots that should have anchored me in my American existence. I always called my parents mommy and daddy, never giving it a second thought, but that day, it felt like a glaring divergence. It simply highlighted how I would never fit in, no matter how hard I tried.
At the Diwali party, a crimson hue flushed my cheeks when my friend innocently questioned why I used mommy and daddy instead of “Amma” and “Appa.” At that moment, I felt as if I were standing under a spotlight naked, exposed, and vulnerable. My response was swallowed by an awkward silence, leaving my heart heavy with unspoken words. How come my parents never told me to call them that? It was as if I had missed the memo, the secret ticket for the train of inclusion that everyone else seemed to possess.
Filled with a longing for answers, I mustered the courage to confront my parents during the car ride back home. With trembling words, I asked innocently, "Mommy, Daddy, how come I have to call you mom and dad? Why can't I call you Amma and Appa like everyone else?" I regretted
it as soon as the words slipped out of my mouth. The air grew frosty, and my parents exchanged a glance that held a world of unspoken words. My dad's response was cold as ice. "Because we're leaders and not followers," he stated, his words cutting through me like icy shards. "We don't need to do what other people do." It was an answer that left me shivering in emotional isolation, stranded on an island of uniqueness.
The teardrops rolled down my eyes, a cascade of emotions tracing its path down my cheeks. Why did my father take that conversation so personally? I still don't understand. It was as if my plea for inclusion had somehow wounded his pride. How could I explain the overwhelming desire to feel a sense of belonging?
Although the difference in what I called my parents may seem trivial, these tiny everyday words meant a lot to me. The difference made me feel distanced from my background, my heritage, and my culture. It made me feel more white-washed and less like the Indian I wanted to be. Growing up I was always different. I didn't have an Indian first name. I was a different religion than everyone else. I spoke a dialect no one else did. All these differences accumulated. My whole life I felt different, and I was tired of it.
That night, as I lay in bed, I stared at my nightlight. It was a gift I received on my tenth birthday and I had always considered it to be broken. It had a different shape and texture compared to typical nightlights. Despite its imperfections, it still lit up my room in a unique and beautiful way. At that moment, I found comfort in the light it illuminated and started thinking about the value of being different.
Amidst my contemplation, I came to realize that my choice of addressing my parents as “mommy” and “daddy” held profound meaning for me. While it may not have been considered unusual in the global melting pot that America is, within our Indian community, I stood alone in this choice. It was through these seemingly trivial distinctions that I understood what being a leader truly meant. Seeing the broken nightlight, I began to understand that it was in embracing my uniqueness that I would find my path toward becoming a leader, a beacon of light in a world that values conformity.
That day I learned a valuable lesson. I realized that being a leader wasn't about blending in, but rather about embracing one's individuality. Being different as paving and the remarkable road to greatness I would embark on. The timid tears that once flowed like streams became a raging river of determination and uniqueness. I no longer sought to fit in with the crowd but chose to stand tall, like the nightlight I considered broken, illuminating the walls of my identity. ***