Growing up, I thought the greatest marker of my intelligence was my ability to speak perfect English.
I’d spend hours pouring over my older sisters’ books, reading Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and even some of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings until I could pronounce every word like the white kids in my school. When I could, and I did, I felt like I’d accomplished something my Indian peers hadn’t: I’d accomplished whiteness.
[bctt tweet=”I’d accomplished whiteness.” username=”wearethetempest”]
But the older I got the more I came to terms with what this had done to my connection with my Indian heritage.
In truth, I never felt Indian, I just looked the part.
Flash forward to the end of my university career, and I was convinced that the best way for me to reclaim that connection was through learning my mother tongue.
Now, my mother is Hindi and my dad is Tamil (before you ask, yes, their families were NOT happy), but I chose to study Hindi because it was the language I heard blaring from my mother’s car speakers when she came home from work.
So I set off: I approached our neighborhood’s local Hindu Society and went for my first ever lesson. I was pumped: I was finally going to reconnect with the thing I’d pushed away for so, so long.
[bctt tweet=”I was finally going to reconnect with the thing I’d pushed away for so, so long.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Armed with a notebook, secondhand dictionary, and way too many colorful pens and pencils, I made my way to my seat. I was the only person in my age group, while everyone else was over 40.
The teacher began by writing down a few symbols on the board, explaining them. I was new to the class, so I looked around, listening intently to the other learners repeating the word with near-perfect accents.
I straightened my back, held my head high and mimicked the sounds.
Okay, no matter, it was my first time, right? But the more I tried the more I found my accent getting in the way. Every word I uttered, no matter how hard I tried, just sounded so white. I didn’t sound like the other people in that class even though we all had the same skin tone, and maybe even the same life experiences. Instead, I sounded like I’d just bounced out of my first yoga class, armed with the oh-so-exotic sounding namaste.
[bctt tweet=”Every word I uttered, no matter how hard I tried, just sounded so white.” username=”wearethetempest”]
I became more and more frustrated as the class went on, that by the end of it I was close to tears. Is this who I am now? I thought, Is the only Indian thing about me my skin?
It took me a while to go back to classes after that, but I needed the time to process exactly what I had experienced. It wasn’t just that I found myself alone in a room full of people I shared cultural commonalities with, it was that I felt alone with myself.
I had isolated myself from myself.
I am now a few lessons in and honestly, it’s still a damn struggle. Ask me to say anything in Hindi and you’ll find me flush with an unhealthy mixture of heart palpitations, sweaty armpits, and glassy eyes. But I know that the more I force myself to do this, the more I will feel comfortable with it.
And I think the point never really was for me to become an expert at Hindi. I don’t believe for a second that in a year’s time you’ll find me writing epic poems in the language.
[bctt tweet=”The point never really was for me to become an expert at Hindi.” username=”wearethetempest”]
But I do believe it was a way for me to begin the process of healing. Assimilation into whiteness is not easy on your mental health. In many ways, it can be a traumatizing experience that can take years and years to work through. I have been actively trying to come to terms with it for the past three years and trust me, it doesn’t get any easier.
But I know that the more I try and put effort into doing it, the more I will feel whole again.
I’ll always be Ariana, and Ariana will always be Indian.
The journey I take to reclaim my heritage can only ever bring me more into my own, no matter how hard the path is getting there.