I encountered what it truly meant to be me, a South Asian woman in the U.S., two weeks after the country elected a new “leader of the free world.” as the outdated phrase goes. It was late November in 2016, in the early hours of the morning. Okay, it was actually 11:30 AM, which was early by the standards of a sleep-deprived college senior. The crispness of the New England fall weather was not so slowly transitioning into the biting cold that would dominate the upcoming winter months. I was cold, on my way to the lab where I worked as a research assistant, and I had a full day’s worth of tedious studies to get through. On this particular Friday, I was the only person in sight waiting to cross the road to the psychology building. I nursed my Dunkin Donuts coffee cup for warmth and sanity.
There I was standing by the side of the road, waiting for a single car to pass by me so I could get to where I needed to go. The car was a silver Prius, the kind that usually dominates the campus streets during parents’ weekend, and it was slowing down as it approached me. I remember thinking that maybe the driver was a parent who needed help with directions, as was often the case around this hilly campus. As the driver rolled down the window, I cleared my throat in anticipation of giving a helpful response. What he said, however, rendered me speechless.
He looked at me – this slightly balding white man who seemed like the type to sport a portly gut – and yelled, “Go home you foreign slut.” He then proceeded to spit out of the car window towards me and zoom away.
It all happened in a span of 20 seconds. I froze. I stood there for maybe half a minute before I quickly snapped back into reality. I focused on the next task at hand: heading straight to the psychology building without stopping as I was afraid that someone else might stop me to say something else. I dropped my bags and coffee cup on the floor, and when I glanced at my lab manager, I started crying uncontrollably.
She came over, confused, and held me as I recounted what had happened through sobs. My whole body was shaking. I felt light-headed. My racing heartbeat drowned out my lab manager’s words, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. When my surroundings finally came back into focus, she told me to go home and not to worry about my shift. I walked out of the psychology building, and without thinking headed straight into the university café next door. I absentmindedly joined the queue as I stared straight ahead, numb. When I reached the cashier, I spat out my coffee order without thinking: a tall cappuccino with soymilk and chocolate sprinkles.
I proceeded over to a seat facing the window so I could people watch. From the outside, I seemed calm – I even said hi to friends who stopped by to chat and remarked to some about how happy I was that it was Friday. I even agreed to attend someone’s house party. It was an odd experience like I was the passenger of my experience. It was as if I was continuing the motions of my daily routine – like I had to stick to the normalcy otherwise I would not be able to function.
Perhaps it was the fight-or-flight response, and I was merely in survival mode. All I could do was sit, drink my coffee, and talk to people. After I finished my coffee, I walked home and finally, after an afternoon of pretending to be okay, cried into my pillow.
There is a thought exercise that posits, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Does this incident that I alone experienced have any validation, if no one around me could quite tell? Do these individual incidents that seem small in magnitude impact the greater functioning of society?
I came to Massachusetts as a Thai-Indian who had lived in Bangkok all her life. Being asked why I sounded American and being lauded on my ability to speak English well are comments I receive often. I chronicled my experience as an international student in a series of columns for the college newspaper, reflecting on the culture shock I was experiencing as a freshman from across the world.
I had come to realize that the U.S. I experienced was quite different from the vision of the U.S. my parents and I had created in our minds through movies and TV shows. We had envisioned a place where students in classrooms would easily discourse with one another, and teachers would be engaged enough to ensure everyone received proper instruction. A place where I would sit on the grass in a circle during lunch, talking about various intellectual things like politics or, as my high school biology teacher hammered into our consciousness, the mitochondria. A place where I would grow more confident in my own skin, and be happy to share anecdotes about my upbringing in Bangkok.
To an extent, our vision was right. However, it took time to get there. I discovered that Tufts students were far more forthcoming than I had expected. They seemed to already have pre-formed opinions on everything, that they shared readily, often without even being asked, on topics ranging from foreign policy to the cafeteria food. If I did not agree with them, they launched into a diatribe filled with academia speak that I barely followed and did not feel qualified to argue against. They also called professors by their first names and had a level of camaraderie with administrators that was foreign to me, the foreigner.
Most American students also assumed that everyone had a baseline level of U.S. pop culture knowledge, a fact I harshly discovered when I asked my Microeconomics professor what ‘Under Armour’ was one afternoon. The lacrosse jock sitting next to me remarked, “Wow, you really do live under a rock in Thailand, don’t you?” After that incident, I rarely raised my hand in class. I felt inadequate and stupid. Towards the end of the term, I remember thinking that Americans were brought up to speak their mind and take up space, and I had entered a country where I was to observe and listen, and in turn, stay in my lane.
In an effort to feel more at home, I joined multiple clubs and took classes from different disciplines varying from economics to film. I began meeting different groups of people, some of whom I felt comfortable enough to engage with in terms of asking questions about pop culture and sharing stories of my own. I discovered that I had a love for films, writing, and psychology. I felt comfortable having opinions on various topics like authorial intent, composition, or the interpretation of human behaviour. As these were more subjective topics, I felt as though I had room to make an argument without being rebuffed for not knowing enough facts about the world, or specifically the U.S. I grew more confident. I started speaking up more. When people made fun of me for not knowing common American knowledge, like the TV show Frasier, I politely poked back and pestered them about their knowledge of India or Thailand.
Slowly, I began partaking in lunches out on the grass in circles where my friends and I could openly talk about things without having one of us feel small or inadequate.
Then going to the U.K. for my studies brought a whole new plethora of experiences but with a different perceived identity. I was mistaken for an American when I first met people. When I politely explained that I did indeed come from the U.S., but as a student, I was rebuffed: “But you sound American… so you’re American.” My credibility as a Thai-Indian was immediately compromised because I did not sound enough like one, or what people, mostly white people, thought that one should sound like. So I spent the year compensating – I took part in a talent show with a friend and danced to Hindi songs, I became part of a Bollywood dance crew, and joined a prestigious student union to push for more diverse members and speakers. I began making friends across university organizations and within my college, and soon they began seeing me as ‘Nim’ and not the “international student with the American accent.”
At first encounter, my racial and cultural identity puzzled people. A Thai-Indian girl? Did I have an arranged marriage waiting for me when I returned to Bangkok? Did I go to school with an elephant as my chariot? Did I pray to multiple gods and was “screwing a lightbulb while petting a dog” my go-to dance move? Did my father have a turban and, therefore, was he a terrorist? To top it all off, my American accent also added to the confusion. Did I secretly grow up in America? Was I really Thai-Indian, as I claimed?
Leaving home to live in the U.S. and the U.K. was one of the scariest things I had ever done. It was hard enough to deal with the major life transition of going to university and taking care of myself, but on top of that, I also had to continuously deal with people’s perceptions of me. What I looked like, and sounded like were factors that were used against me and were beyond my control. Sometimes, I was an exotic girl with caramel skin. Other times, I was the foreign slut.
After my first year abroad, I started carrying these stereotypes around with me to new situations where I would meet new people. I almost expected people to ask these questions, and most of the times they would. It became second nature for me, when entering a new space, to have to tackle perceptions and assumptions before I am able to present my real self.
So I began speaking back.
I asserted my identity and explained why some questions can actually be offensive. I shared my background and my experiences as a Thai-Indian growing up in Bangkok. I felt that if I just shared enough, explained well enough, or articulated myself well enough, people would see me for who I actually am: someone who loves watching TV and films. Someone who is deluded enough to think she can cook. Someone who is crazy enough to try for every opportunity that comes her way, such as failing at Oxford rowing or bombing at improv in Los Angeles.
But sometimes, I can’t speak back. It has been three years since the incident in late November of 2016, and I still feel the effects of it today. In late March of 2019, I was crossing Picadilly Square in London with my twin sister when a man on a bicycle appeared out of nowhere. I admit, I probably should have looked twice and I apologized vehemently. He looked at me and began shouting: “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Look at the bloody road! Fucking tourists!” and bicycled away. I started shaking again. My twin, after screaming after him to tell him to calm down, looked at me and asked what was wrong. “The man already left,” she said. “He can’t hurt you. He was probably having a bad day.”
In theory, I knew he couldn’t, and I could tell he was already having a frustrating morning. But his words still hurt me. His actions still hurt me. They had triggered the same reaction I had from the incident in November 2016. To this day, I still get scared crossing the street. I get scared that someone will shout at me to go home, or will say something to insinuate that I do not belong.
As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with the mentality that the world is her home, I have had a difficult time grasping this idea of “going home.”
In Bangkok, I am ‘too westernized.’ In the U.S., I am ‘too exotic.’ In the UK, I am ‘too American.’ In each of these places, if speaking up didn’t work, I would try to make myself smaller so as to attract less attention.
Too western? I would resist western pop culture and way of living.
Too exotic? I would consume Western pop culture and a Western way of living.
Too American? Same response, but with fish and chips substituted for hamburgers and fries.
Each time, I inevitably fell short.
It is hard to reach the expectations of someone who is determined to see you in a specific light, no matter what you do. It is three years later, and I am tired. I am tired of explaining and presenting subdued versions of myself. I do not want to be at the mercy of someone else’s perception and expectation of who I am when they will not even take a second to let me answer that question myself – when they choose to just drive away.
My home is the space I take up as a South Asian woman, a Thai-Indian woman, a woman, and a human. Home is not a zip code, a state, a city, or a country. It is not somewhere I can go to. It is simply who I am.
To learn more about Nimarta Narang, you can reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @nimartanarang.