America is changing. And I would hate for those changes to trump the telling of the real American story. My coming of age stories have to do with San Diego, where military folks and immigrants from all over the world converged on Mira Mesa, my lil hood. My friends and I grew up amidst unprecedented human diversity. We had no Lonely Planet guides to help us navigate the lonely planets of our new American family homes. Yet we managed to co-exist with much grace and true ache.
Here goes some of my story of growing up Indian in America.
Thank you for reading and enjoy.
American Cool, by Roopa Singh
im nervous. i never worn a t-shirt before. tucked in too much? too little? roll up my sleeves though? breathe.
im in the mirror. this is a milestone day. the day I wore my first t-shirt to the 6th grade. the day I tore into American cool.
tore into it so hard you’da thought I was taking a bite of beef jerkey. which I always had handy, even though im hindu.
school was always raising money for something or another and beef jerkey sales were high on the fundraiser list. I used to walk around with 30 long sticks in my jansport backpack. stultified sticks of cow flesh and fat, all gristle and flavor, one for a dollar. and i still had 30 to sell.
jessica slowly walked up to the blackboard, savoring each step. she turned, beaming. “my mom sold $120.00 dollars worth of beef jerkey at work.” she tossed her head and caught her breath, the Glory of it.
mr. bandh, our darth vader like teacher, beamed through his unnaturally stiff face. “well, we’ll put two more checks by your name jessica c.” jessica nodded majestically and waltzed back to her seat. I seethed.
why didn’t he call me roopa s.? I wanted my last initial announced too. in my culture, the more your name is declared the more respect you are receiving. mohandas karamchand ghandi. dr. martin luther king, junior. roopa s. wasn’t my fault there were 6 jessica’s in my class. goddamn this military suburb. even the filipino families were naming their daughter’s jessica. another roopa in a class like that?
i didn’t stand a chance.
fuck jessica s. jessica c. jessica d. e, f, g, and all the rest. they all had pre-fabricated bicycle license plates just waiting for them, gleaming on the rack at toys r us, looking like real California license plates, deep blue background, sun burnished letters. I used to scan those racks with my eyes, darting glances up and down the r’s, so it wouldn’t seem to any passing stranger that I even gave two fucks whether my name was on a license plate for my bike.
but I cared.
not seeing my name anywhere made me wonder Where I Was.
i walked home from school in the sun and breeze, dejected. “how am I going to deal with this beef jerkey,” I agonized. i was eating my 10th teriyaki stick that week. my jaws getting used to the cud like texture of dried beef. at the end of the month I would plead for 30 dollars from my mom.
I had no clue why I was peddling these beef sticks and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my mom to sell them at her job.
my mom didn’t go to work to be social, it seemed. she went there to get paid, get overworked, get over watched, get overly drained. and finally, she went to work to get overly mechanic.
which seemed to be exactly what this new country needed her to be.
“im not a machine!”
my mom wasn’t screaming loud, her hands working 6 ways as she deftly prepared daal, two subjis, rice and roti after work almost every day.
“I know mom.”
“I only have two hands!”
its not that she was loud. that’s not why these words always chilled me. its that her tone was directed my way.
I wanted her to be a machine?
I wanted her to have 6 hands. it was me, I did it. not her bosses. not her neglectful husband. not my ungrateful brother. not america, not brain drain, it was me. and guilt is a motherfucker.
but today, when my mom morphed her fatigue into my fear, today I felt less like drownding when she came home with that homeless blame. today i cared less about the problematic beef jerkeys swimming like dollars wasted in my backpack.
today I had graduated from button-up shirts to t-shirts. man, my button-ups were my Every Day. as every day as my waist long black braids of coconut oil gleamed hair. the first time i saw t-shirt on the frames of my white and black american friends, i wondered what the hell they were wearing, and where did you get one? who got to wear them? jessicas? davids? roopa?
my favorite button-up, thin from all the wear and washes, was milky white with brown teddy bears on it. they were going fishing. teddy bears with khaki green fisherman hats, poles, tackle. there were swirly cursive words around each bear.
today my dear button-up was hanging in the closet. I had upgraded to a t-shirt. with my sleeves rolled up, tucked in just so. I looked like a surfer.
I know I did.
stay tuned for more from your favorite political poet. bringing you heart in these cold, golden times.