I was born in Austria to an Austrian mother of Czech Republican descent and a Father who was born in Punjab, India. My parents got divorced when I was a child and my father left Austria to return back to India, soon after. I grew up in a village outside of the Upper Austrian Town Linz, and my sister and I were the only biracial children that I knew of in our immediate predominantly white community. Growing up, I was aware that my skin got darker in the summer; the reactions were mostly negative. Even within my own family, the acknowledgment of my Indian heritage was connected to trauma and unresolved conflicts. My sister and I grew up thinking that mentioning our heritage and connected trauma would be met with despair. I know that was connected to the deep pain that has been caused by my father and, at the same time, I know now it was also topped with racist beliefs and ideas. I was conditioned to think a certain way about India, specifically Indian men, and I was raised to believe that I should choose the identity that “serves me better” and leave the other one behind in my own best interest.
When I was 14 years old, I got in contact with my father again, when I accidentally ran into him at a Christmas Market. That interaction awakened a deep longing to reconnect with my other home. One of the earliest things I can remember is the smell of freshly made chapati bread. I returned to India after a decade, when I was only 15 years old. My family in New Delhi welcomed me with a home cooked meal, and once I smelled the chapati being flipped around in the kitchen, it triggered feelings I have not ever felt that intensely before.
Not to say that I didn’t feel a sense of belonging and familiarity in Austria, but it was amazing to feel belonging again in India as a 15 year old teenager, curiously listening to my family talking a language I used to understand that is now lost.
There is no choice to be made. I realized I belonged nowhere and everywhere. I am in between.
A painful, magical, torn, confused and enriching journey began right at that moment. Now I am 31 years old, and after years of exploring India, living in different countries, and exploring my identity, I ended up moving to Rochester, NY in the United States in 2018.
First interactions that I have had throughout the decades in different continents have been quite similar. “You do not sound Indian.” “You do not look Austrian, you look more like…”. “Your accent is interesting, you must be…” The way people seem to need clarity around my identity based on my looks and the way I talk is deeply present in my day to day interactions, and it subconsciously contributes to the narrative that I have to explain myself.
Before I moved to the US, I had an understanding of racism that is very different from what I am learning to understand now. My whole life I have struggled with being discriminated against, mocked, judged and treated as I do not fully belong. I am aware, however that the burden of having to explain myself or choose the one identity over the other, is also a deep privilege. Black people and people of color in this country do not have the choice. Their visual appearance sets the tone of how they will being treated within a system that lacks values of dignity, respect, equality and understanding. Now I am finding myself in a position of being able to pass as white and wow, what an impactful way to learn about my identity and privilege.
I celebrate the many communities and environments I have considered myself to be part of and the great knowledge I have gained from it: a deep sense of empathy, the ability of dialectical thinking, openness, creativity and resilience. And, at the same time, I am mourning the lack of stability, lack of trust and uncertainty I am in experience every single day, that at times has also caused harm to others in my life. I am thinking about all the other humans who identify as biracial and/or immigrants whose basic need for belonging, the belief that they matter, is something that is not a given, whether it be within a family, an institution, a community or a country. I highly recommend an informative Podcast on NPR called “A Racial Imposter Epidemic” that helped me understand these mental challenges better. (here the link:https://www.npr.org/transcripts/578447949?storyId=578447949?storyId=578447949). And now more than ever, especially during this global pandemic, my heart breaks for humans who are unable to be with their beloved ones within and outside of the US.
Despite the interconnected hardships, I feel grateful in many ways to have landed in this country and on staff at the Gandhi Institute, because I feel deeply acknowledged by my colleagues and it has been absolutely miraculous to learn and grow in this community, as well as being recognized in what I am able contribute. We are finding ourselves in the middle of the biggest Civil Rights Movement in this country’s history, and despite the incredible pain and suffering from multigenerational trauma, I must say that I am celebrating the community I have found here and have been looking for a long time. I am not certain where my path will lead me next, I know that movement and change is part of my life, but for now I am glad that together with my colleagues I am able to offer online spaces that invite conversation and restorative circles around Anger, Conflict, Nonviolence and Grief. I am still trying to find the balance between listening, learning, and staying humble, while finding confidence and in my own story and trusting my wisdom and what I have to offer. Sometimes it is hard for me to know where my place is within the current movements, without doubting myself and my rights. Immigration is absolutely mentally challenging as it is. I however feel blessed that I am learning and growing within and environment that honors our humanity and works towards a mission that is of healing and Beloved Community.
I am curious to hear from folks who can relate on how this blog lands in you and If you would enjoy an offering around the topic of belonging and biracial identity. Feel free to reach out:
*Illustration by Bianca Pointner