unprecedented.

November 2020

Been trying to write on how I’ve been feeling/coping/breathing/stressing since the presidential election results came in on November 7, 2020. Thankfully, Black and Brown folks (majority women, of course) have illustrated the array of experiences running through my body.

So I present here 10 screenshots, in this curated order, that represent some pieces of me these days:

loss.

July 2020

I looked back on my last texts with Avis and fell into deep regret. One of the last things she said to me, in early May, was “hit me up when you slow down.”

I never slowed down.

I called my mom. They met once. I am so grateful they met that once. I sat smiling, eating a piece of pie as we three drank tea. They bonded over utilizing a wealth of resources for their health and well-being, including meditation and acupuncture. I am so grateful they met that once.

“Spending time with friends, sharing good stories about Avis is like a group meditation. Sharing the positive energy she shared with us, having it vibrate and grow between us.”

Cosmic vibrations. Avis would have loved that shit. Damn, I miss her so much.

My Amma reminded me that Avis would not want me to live in regret. To not fixate on our last interactions, but the abundance of moments in which we thrived.

I never again want someone’s last words to me to be “hit me up when you slow down.”

I must say, for my sake, that I followed that text from Avis with one saying I love her and that I want to tell her about the Octavia Butler book I was reading, Lillith’s Brood. She sent two texts back: 1) oh you got me excited, I need to read and reread her books! And 2) I love you.

Those were really her last words to me. I need to remember that.

Asian Woman.

Published in Baltimore Asian Resistance in Solidarity’s 5-Year Anniversary Zine, February 28, 2020. (Originally written December 3, 2018)

November 1834—

Fetishized and feminized

body brought to this land for

exhibition consumption degradation

White

Gaze

Capitalizing

Manufacturing

The Exotic

Asian

Woman

Placed and displaced

body brought to this land for

resilience resonance resistance

Say her name

Afong Moy

Say her name

Afong Moy

Say her name

Afong Moy

Asian.

Published in the Baltimore Asian Resistance in Solidarity 5-Year Anniversary Zine, February 28, 2020.

The round almond curves of my eyes

outlined by long black lashes

are brightened by the gold in my pupils.

The warm walnut brown shade of my skin tone

lightens to a cashew pale at my palms and

darkens to an umber in my deeper crevices.

These features dissected

in the minds of all who pass.

What is she mixed with?

Why is she here?

Where is she from?

Does she speak

English/Hindi/Telugu/Amharic/Spanish/Arabic/Swahili?

Does she know her people?

Our eyes tell us

Black/Asian/Indian

Our learning tells us

Indian/Asian/White

Curious minds forget consent.

Just ask. Always ask.

Demand to understand.

Demand an end to this racial confusion.

Untangling Hinduism: I am Atheist

October 4, 2016

No, I don’t celebrate Christmas. No, I have never eaten meat. No, Hindi is the language, Hindu is the religion. No, I am not arranged for marriage. No, I can’t name all the Hindu gods. No, Shiva is not a “chick,” but also gender is not actually fixed in Hinduism or in any reality. No, I won’t tell you my caste. No, my dark skin doesn’t “reduce my caste;” it doesn’t work like that.

I have dedicated extensive energy towards demystifying Hinduism. As all marginalized peoples, I am often put in a position of reaction; bold statements or questions are often thrown at me from deep-seeded ignorance and a system rooted in whiteness. A system that upholds a narrow perspective of the world and feeds on anti-Blackness. In this system, my identity is up to exploration and debate; Indian and Hindu are conflated. My “-American” identity is much less “intriguing” than my assumed reverence for cows. It was a lot of work, my obligation to be an expert Hindu. Especially given that I have never believed in a god.


A powerful shift occurred about a decade ago. The university Chaplain asked me to read from the Bhagavad Gita during a convocation the week of my college graduation. To perform Hinduism for my predominantly white liberal arts college. As founder of the South Asian Club, I was apparently seen as the voice of Hinduism. What the school administrators didn’t know is that I hadn’t actually read the Bhagavad Gita, or any Hindu texts. Well, not until that same semester, when I (and a slew of dreadlock-wearing white students) took a course on Hinduism taught by a non-Hindu, gay Puerto Rican professor. A deep part of me felt extremely uncomfortable about the request to do the reading. However, I let my naïve dedication to diversity overtake my actions and I performed the task.


For years that decision ate at me. Somewhere I knew that Hinduism did not connect with me on a religious level beyond cultural tradition. Playing the part of Indian Hindu did little more than fuel the perception of me as an exotic and mysterious source for white exploration. My responsibility to represent Indian people in spaces where we are often ignored had come at a price of my own personal identity. Therein lies the insidiousness of white supremacy. It causes peoples of color to fight so hard to be seen, we end up fighting ourselves, and often losing.


Inevitably, I came to recognize that I do not believe in a god. This did not come to me in any particular Earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting moment. I was just tired. When I began to claim my atheism, I caught a glimpse of liberation and I ran with it. For much of my life, clinging on to religious Hinduism had been a survival tactic. Rooting in atheism is a way for me to thrive outside of racist motifs or prescribed dharma. No human or deified creation can claim my role in this one and only life.

Telugu Hospitality in Addis Ababa

Published in A Side of Rice: Volume 1, Issue 00 on September 12, 2016 (originally written May 2016).

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I am eating a plate of mind-warming charu, chole, and lemon rice. The three children also sit silently in their individual single-seater armchairs facing the giant HD television, stuffing their faces with these delicious Hyderabadi dishes and ignoring my presence. The Telugu film about a 20-something man with intense sexual intimacy issues is far more entertaining than a strange dark-skinned woman with a shaved head visiting their home on a weekday afternoon. My “American” accent and obvious inability to fully understand Telugu also give away that I don’t belong there and will likely not be staying long.

I wish these children would interact with me, if only to distract from the barrage of opinions happening at me from their overbearing father. Once again in my life, I am forced into a quiet rage by an Indian man. I often don’t find myself quiet for long under such circumstances, for the desire to keep the veins in my eyeballs intact is a bit more pressing than cultural respectability politics. However, I am a stranger in a strange land, and these are my people.

Three days prior, I was in another home of strangers, eating food cooked by a woman with whom I could not directly communicate, trying to modify my body posturing to ease the brown masculinity of others. That, however, was a more welcoming environment that filled my heart with warmth instead of a boil. On that day in Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia, I had met two teenage boys, Thomas and John. Thomas and John travel a day’s walk once a week from their family’s small farm in the countryside to attend school in Lalibela. I met them as I was walking back to my hostel from a two-day tour of magnificent churches built into mountains in the 12th century.

The boys walked along with me to practice their English skills. They were fascinated by my skin color and curious about which country I call home. They guessed Kenya. I explained that I am Indian-American, with a hyphen, a concept that may have been a bit nuanced for this particular conversation. We chatted about India and the U.S., and their perceptions about Indians valuing education. I politely nodded to keep the conversation moving, avoiding my usual diatribe about the model minority myth. They told me they wanted to go to university in Addis but their father would rather they stay and work on the farm.

The Ethiopian boys then invited me to a traditional coffee ceremony at the home they rent in Lalibela, which led to a modest home-cooked meal of ingera bread and berbere. In that 200-square-foot home in a neighborhood of aluminum-siding structures atop a rocky mountain range, I felt more at ease than in the household of Telugu Pride in Addis Ababa.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I am now learning that he is apparently a staunch advocate for raising children with a traditional Telugu upbringing. The Uncle sends his children to Hyderabad every year for continued education in the summer. He finds the ways in which first and second generation Indian-Americans live in the United States to be abhorrent, which he only describes to me as generalized statements of fact, so proud that he never took a job in the United States. At no point does he directly acknowledge that I, the woman sitting before him, am a second generation Indian-American.

As the anger swells in this body (born and raised in the United States), I think back to the moment three days ago, sitting on a pillow in Thomas and John’s home. I felt so well-received by them – a “wanted” guest. I was not put in the position to defend my identity or my upbringing. Yet, in both circumstances, I was challenged by being seen as an American. While the Uncle placed assumptions of American-ness onto me, Thomas and John were fascinated by the mere fact that I even exist.

Over the course of the three days between Lalibela and Addis Ababa, I traveled by minibus with over a dozen local commuters who took little notice of me.  I managed to blend in amongst the Amharic-speaking peoples by covering myself with a scarf and playing to my seemingly ethnically ambiguous features. I found this covert operation to be very comforting because I was not asked to explain myself to anyone. No one asked me where I was from or verbally stated their assumptions about me to me. It was only when I opened my mouth to speak English to Bimels, a young bilingual Ethiopian man who noticed me writing in my notebook, did our fellow passengers realize I was not family.

At our overnight stop in the town of Dessie, I was suddenly terrified by an overwhelming sense of feeling out of place. I may share some features with the local folk, but my sense of being is deeply rooted outside of that place. Everyone I came across spoke Amharic to me and was confused at my inability to respond. If it were not for my new friend, Bimels, I cannot say for sure if I would have found my footing in that bustling transit town. He directed me to the same budget motel he always uses when he travels to Addis Ababa. I paid my 75 cents for the dingy room next door to my new friend and cried myself to sleep, homesick and wishing for something familiar.

Little did I realize that by agreeing to meet with my Babai’s old friend, the Uncle in Addis Ababa, I was to find a strongly familiar feeling. Not the familiarity I hoped for, but a feeling that is inherent to my upbringing. Inherent and obligatory.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I try to focus my attention to the sexually-troubled momma’s boy singing on the television in order to drown out the Uncle’s ramblings about the American Ego. In this moment, I regret putting myself through this pain. Again. Throughout my life, I have experienced multiple levels of shame, guilt, and internalized oppression as a result of interactions with Indian Uncles. Telling me what is wrong with my parents for the choices they have had to make in the United States. Expounding opinions about the politics of the nation I call home. Forcing me to dig deep for some semblance of American Pride, of which there is little but I fake it out of stubbornness. Feeling a right to comment upon, and even touch my body without my permission. Ignoring my presence and directing all questions and conversation to my brother instead of to me.

If I had taken this trip with my brother, older and more appropriately sensitive to the obligations of Indian-ness, we would have planned a portion of our time in Ethiopia around visiting family friends who had made their homes in this country. If my brother had to sit and listen to the Uncle’s judgments, we would have cut this visit pretty short due to an uproar of brown men demanding respect. I wished my brother was with me.

Then, I remembered that this situation I had found myself in was pretty spectacular and that I am a remarkable woman. Not in a million years would I have ever expected myself to be taking my dream trip to eastern Africa – a solo woman-of-color backpacker, doing the damn thing. On top of that, I am allowing myself to endure Uncle-isms all alone in a country where anyone else I knew I had met only that week.

When I began my trip to Ethiopia one week ago, the Uncle got ahold of my local cell phone number from my Babai. The Uncle called me incessantly while I was laying around a bamboo hut on stilts over-looking Lake Babogaya about an hour from Addis Ababa. As I listened to his voicemails, I methodically considered my next steps regarding this stranger. Do I respond and shut him down? Do I say, I don’t know you but I imagine that this will be more stressful than I would prefer… so thanks but no thanks? Do I say, yes I will meet with you under the conditions that you respect all of my intersecting identities and the choices that my family and I have made to survive and thrive in this world? Or do I let him keep calling…?

As the phone continued to vibrate, I pondered my options to the melodic sounds of native bird life and the warm glow of the sun reflecting off the glistening water. I answered. Not quite sure why or how I answered. Maybe it was muscle memory. Upon accepting the call, I was ambushed by a blare of Telugu at my head. I had to ask him to speak in English. It began from there. The polite shaming mixed with a demand that I accept his many complimentary offerings. I was ready to decline. I looked upon the water and thought, I took this trip for me. Not my Babai or to make the Uncle feel good about himself.

The Uncle owns a hotel in Addis Ababa that caters mostly to Indian businessmen, at which he insisted I stay for the night at no cost. Being that I was an unemployed backpacker with months ahead in a trip around eastern Africa, I strongly considered this free stay in a hotel with a hot shower… but if not monetary, what price would I have to pay? I could not decide if I should accept his offers.

Then the Uncle shared that my father’s childhood friend was also living in Addis Ababa, working as a professor at the university. The Uncle told me that he is close with the Professor, and could connect me with this man who was so eager to meet me. My heart fell as swiftly as it rose. A connection to my father’s childhood so close to me. I was immediately filled with anxiety, curiosity, and apprehension, all at the same time. A familiar combination of feelings in my life. The sense of obligation kicked in; my father would be disappointed if I chose my preferred route of avoidance. I agreed to take the Uncle’s offers for a hotel room, dinner, and car rides. Less than 30 minutes later, I received a call from the Professor. A pleasant man, he was thrilled to hear my voice and welcome me to Ethiopia. While he also expressed slight judgment at my limited ability to communicate in Telugu, the Professor was extremely excited to meet up and hear about my father’s life since they both left the motherland decades ago. A personal connection was made outside of just Telugu obligations, and I had to lean into it.

Four days later, when I got in to Addis Ababa from my two-day minibus adventure from Lalibela by way of Dessie, I met up with the Professor for dinner. Warm and nostalgic, he was satisfied with quiet time in each other’s presence, much like my dad. Just the two of us, we enjoyed a Hyderabadi buffet dinner overlooking a view of downtown Addis Ababa from atop the Sai Baba Hotel – another complimentary offer from the Uncle. We laughed as the Professor affectionately shared anecdotes about their childhood days. He commented that their circle of friends thought of my dad as a quirky fellow, always preferring book discussions to playing cricket.

Rather quickly, the Professor asked me about the severe arthritis that my Bamma told him my father was battling. I was taken aback—almost to the point of laughter—and clarified that it is not arthritis, but that my father lives with mental illness. The Professor was not very surprised by the truth. I shared stories of my father’s growth, my mother’s strength, my brother’s accomplishments, and my own preference for book discussions over playing sports. The Professor beamed with joy. He was thrilled to hear directly from me that, contrary to the gossip he heard back in Hyderabad, my father was living his life and continues to be a charmingly quirky man.

The Professor also expressed pride in the fact that my father and mother had raised such a strong young woman who had the audacity to travel alone just because she knew she could. I would not have been able to make this bridge across lands and time if I hadn’t answered that phone call in my bamboo hut by Lake Babogaya.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I struggle to hold my tongue as he spouts vitriolic anti-Black prejudice about Ethiopian businessmen and makes racialized comparisons to violence in Black American communities. Much like my desire to understand and speak Telugu in these circumstances, I also crave the ability to articulate powerful anti-racist demands at the level of Angela Davis. Instead, I inform him that I do not share his perspective and change the subject. Suddenly, I am overcome with the contentment that, although I must endure this terrible interaction with the Uncle, it is because of him that I was able to meet the Professor.

In this moment, I finally recognize the price I had to pay. Not just for accepting the single hotel room on the ninth floor. Or for the mouth-watering Hyderabadi cooking by his wife (although that meal did take me to a new flavor high). I paid the price for being a Telugu person visiting a city where few Telugu people exist. This is the nature of my people and our relationship to migration, forced or otherwise. We are everywhere. We are connected. We have strong opinions about the places in which we have each decided to call home. We must make some form of contact with each other if we are to maintain a link to our ancestral land.

The Uncle, children and I finish up our meals. Auntie finally appears from the kitchen with her own plate of food ready to sit and watch the finale song of the Telugu film from a faraway corner of the room. I speak up to be heard across the house, thanking her profusely for the delicious food. Uncle looks at me sternly, motioning to not speak to her, let alone thank her, and especially so loudly. I ignore his motions and say it again. Even louder. She smiles coyly and nods her head. I look to my watch, thrilled to see that it is about time I wrap up this trip through Little Hyderabad.

Only one week ago, I had arrived in Ethiopia from Baltimore, about to embark on a two-month solo trip around eastern Africa, with no plans to dissect my relationship to “the Telugu Uncle.” The week in this beautiful country caused me to push the constrained ways in which I and others perceive me. Thanks to Thomas, John, Bimels, the Professor, my family, and myself, I found the strength to endure the vulnerability of these moments on this white pleather couch.

The Uncle sends me with his driver, who will take me to the airport. I say goodbye to his children who continue to ignore my presence, thank the Uncle for all of the hospitality, lace up my hiking boots, carefully strap into my backpack, and head out for the next leg of my journey—the Kenyan coast.

Flow Auntie Visits for the Holiday

July 2014.

She was an 11 year-old. “Fucking hell.” She was an 11 year-old who sneaks into her living room at night to watch Showtime and HBO after her parents go to bed. “Goddamn fucking shit hell.” She was an 11 year-old who just got her period. “Fuck. This. Nasty. Ass. Shit.” 

Well, she thought, I guess I need a pad or diaper or something.  She had suffered through the “so you’re becoming a woman” adolescent health day in fifth grade, about six months ago. As a child obsessed with being a good student, she paid attention to every word her extremely awkward Science/PE teacher shared about anatomy and the menstrual cycle. As a child uncomfortable with her body and unsure of her sexuality, she was not interested in this new development. Not interested at all.

Many of her friends were thrilled about getting their periods and boobs and all the things that made them into what they thought women should be. She disagreed with her friends. “A period is an annoying reminder that girls and woman are usually seen as baby making machines. I don’t want to make babies. I am going to be a fancy business lady in a power suit. Like Maxine from Living Single.” She was a smartass brown 11-year-old in 1996 who found solace in Black sitcom television.

She couldn’t find her mom’s pads. “Well damn.” She did not want to have to call her mom… and have to describe the circumstances. She was annoyed with this entire ordeal, and slightly embarrassed. She better not ask me any questions. Or say anything other than directions to where I can find these stupid things. 

The phone rings. “Hello, psychiatric clinic, can I help you?” 

Her mom is the medical assistant at a psychiatric clinic. A busy medical assistant with very little time to chat about her daughter’s blossoming body…  or at least I hope she is too busy right now, the 11 year-old thought.

“Hi Amma. I need something please…”

“Hello baby! How are you? Did you do your homework?”

“Amma, it’s July. I don’t have any homework. But Amma I nee–“

“Well read a book. Or go outside. Turn off the TV. Eat something. Did you eat? I left you some–“

“Amma! I ate. I need something. Medical I guess. I am… bleeding.”

“What??!! Where is your brother?? Why aren’t you at the hospital? I am coming home.”

“Amma! No! It’s not like that. I… it’s a girl thing. There is blood in my underwear. I need a pad thing or something.”

“Oh. Ah. Bathroom closet, in the basket on the bottom shelf. Use the large one just in case. Do you know what to do?”

“Um… stick it like a sticker in my underwear?”

“Yes. Take Advil if you need it. Drink water. Have a nutty chocolate bar. I’ll be home soon.”

“Oh…ok. Cool. Thanks, Amma.”

“Yes yes. I love you. Take care.”

“Love you, too.”

Well damn! That was cool!  She was surprised by how casual her mom was being about this whole thing. Like, really casual… maybe too casual. She was pleasantly surprised by the fact that her mom didn’t ask her any questions about this or give her a talk like white people do to their kids on sitcoms.

Now all she wanted to do was lay around with chocolate ice cream and Power Rangers reruns, but alas, it was July 4th. U.S. Independence Day. A holiday for which all the Indian family friends roll out, no matter how connected they feel to this country, because Indian people love fireworks. Her mother wouldn’t let her get out of this one, no matter how much her uterus was rebelling against her.

She settles in the Toyota Corolla next to her 16-year-old brother. A caring and gentle giant, her brother was aware that his little sister was in no mood for any of this business. He didn’t know what was exactly going on with her, but he didn’t need to know.

“Hey dude, how you doing?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry about the Aunties. I’m sure they’ll be fine. I’ll try to distract them with college talk so they won’t hassle you.”

“Ugh the Aunties!” She didn’t even factor them and their intrusiveness into this mess.  “Amma, can I please stay home?”

“Baby, you love fireworks. This will be nice.” She said nicely but with the stern tone indicating that no one was escaping this car until we all reach the park together. Her mom also hadn’t mentioned the “big news” since she got home that evening… and this was not the time to test her. Plus her mom was right. She does live for fireworks.

Her brother set up the blanket just behind the three families her parents called friends. She rarely knew how to interact with these families. There were lots of hugs, cheek-pinching, and sly comments about her shapely tummy… but also a sweet familiarity that helped her feel at home. Her parents didn’t socialize much with anyone else, so she knew she had to keep her cool in this crowd.

“Dude, you want to grab some cones? We gotta get the swirl!”

Even though her brother didn’t know that on this day she was starting to become a woman, he knew just what she needed to hear. A vanilla/chocolate swirl soft serve ice cream cone was essential in this moment. She found a new form of bliss at that ice cream truck each summer. As she stood there, eating up the melting goodness, reveling in this bliss, she started to feel that maybe this menstruation thing wasn’t so terri–

“You’re on your rag!”

A warm heat took over her entire head.

“Gross!! That better not be contagious.”

She stared in disbelief at the boy laughing at her. He is the son of an Auntie and Uncle her parents have known forever. A boy with whom she was supposed to be friends. A boy who has destroyed her life in one cackle.

“Ok, leave her alone, dude.”

Her brother comes to the rescue, trying to maintain a chill in a moment of realizing that his only little sister was blossoming before his eyes… and that he had no way to relate to what she was going through.

“Shut up!” She yells while flailing back to the blanket, hoping to find solace with her understanding mom. As she plops down on the blanket, an Auntie approaches her.

“I cannot believe our little girl is a little woman!” She pinches the now-dubbed-little-woman’s cheeks. “Welcome to womanhood, Beta. Maybe you will start to wear little dresses and bangles, huh?”

The warm heat in her head has now consumed her entire body. She was on fire. A fire of embarrassment. She searches for the source…

“Oh nothing will get her in a dress! Don’t you think I try?” Her mother shouts through her giggles.

“Amma!”

Her mother smiles and pokes her tongue out the side of her mouth. The 11-year-old stuffs the rest of the ice cream cone in her face, lays down on the blanket, impatiently awaits the suburban fireworks show, and tries to drown out the sounds of her Amma and the other Aunties giggling uncontrollably about the now-dubbed-little woman’s bleeding uterus.

Got nothing else planned

June 2014

“Sudanese?”

*smiles* “Um, no. Guess again.”

*booming laughter* “Ah, a game! Kenyan?”

“I’ll give you a hint. I’m not African.”

“We are all African!”

“Good point. My family is from India. I was born and raised in the States.”

“Ah an Indian from America! Do you work for the CIA? Because you should! You are the world!”

“Ha, well, I’d have to support U.S. military first… which I don’t… so I’ll stick with fighting racism in the U.S.”

*booming laughter*” Ha! I like you. You shall come with me to the pyramids. Come now, the car is waiting.”

Silence.

“Do not fear, my Indian beauty! I am a Nigerian. We are harmless.”

Pause. 

“Eh, screw it. Got nothing else planned.”

*booming laughter* “You are funny! Yes! Let us go!”

Hands clasped tight

March 2011

Hands clasped tight,

he struggles to pull apart the intricately tangled knots in

his mind.

He is in desperate search

of a sign, a talisman

to prove that he exists.

Deep breaths.

Eyes closed.

He is in there somewhere.

His mind ferociously fights against

his attempts to de-tangle years of

twists and turns. 

With every inhalation

slowly taken

into his weakening lungs,

and every slight twitch

of his heavy eyelids,

he searches.