By: Manjari Kannan
I asked my Amma, every year, around the time of my birthday, about what it was like when I was born. She would roll her eyes in annoyance, scolding me for constantly asking her, but nonetheless she would repeat once again, in Tamil, “On June 16th, you were born and my life had changed forever. The first person to see you was your Thatha. I remember he told me that you looked like a vibrant, round laddu! Your Appa even went around buying sweets for everyone on the street! Aiyo, just remembering those days makes me want to go back!” I would smile in content, knowing I was cherished by my family. However, she left out the melancholy parts which she knew would leave me devastated. She didn’t tell me that when I was born, my other Thatha didn’t even want to look at me, in disappointment. She didn’t tell me that my Chithi cried for her, even though my Amma was grateful for my birth. She didn’t tell me that her Appa embraced me tightly in his arms whenever guests would come to our house, in a weak attempt to stop their display of pity for my parents. She didn’t tell me that they had wanted a baby boy instead. That was when I realized that they would always view me as a disappointment.
Back then, as a young child, everyone had learned to ignore me. My relatives were getting married and my neighbors were beginning to attend school. I had learned to play with myself, because that had been the only option given. The people of Chennai cared more about my older sister, who fit all their criteria for being an impeccable child. I, however, barely fit any because I would always be a disappointment. Moving from India to America would be my chance at revival; however, it was the worst transitions that my family had went through. Choosing between languages felt like a lose-lose situation, because whichever side I would choose, I’d be losing another side of me. What kind of person did I want to be? My pretentiousness in English sounded like idiocy in our sparse and functional language. Speaking a second language, I became culturally confusing about which side I should lean towards, since I never knew which was the middle. But each time I spoke to my parents, or sat silent and embarrassed in front of a sympathetic extended family member, I could feel the vestiges of Tamil knocking against me. The judgemental eyes set dead on me, while their expectations died and my self-confidence was struck were always vivid in my memory. Once again, I had become the family’s disappointment.
On my first day of school in New York, I had trouble figuring out my locker code. Fumbling with the numbers and spinning the knob from the trembling of my hands, I was terrified about going to this particular school. Out of all the students, I was the only person of color. In actuality, I wasn’t the only one, because there was a half-Indian girl in our school but she told everyone she was fully white. I sometimes pondered over the thought of unveiling the truth, but I never did, because deep inside, I sometimes wished I would be able to do that. The American children brought out this treacherous fear that expanded in my stomach, every time I had to mutter a word to them. These creatures my own age, allegedly, with ponytails, scrunchies and lip-glossed always wore clothes that fits so tightly on their bodies, or incredibly baggy clothing that could fall of from a single blow of the wind. Even though this was all foreign to me, I had to remind myself that I was the only foreign object in this school. I was asked, “Do they have, like, schools where you come from? Do they have malls? Is Chennai, like, a village in India? Do you eat a lot of curry? Are your parents going to force you into an arranged marriage? Do they whip you?” I remember when lunch period came, I ate my traditional food but no one wanted to sit next to me. They scrambled away from me as if they were scared that my food was contaminated. The next day I ditched my traditional food and bought a sandwich with just two slices of plain bread and once slice of ham. I had never tasted anything so bland and tasteless in my life, but if it meant I could satisfy the expectations of my classmates, I’d do it.
The weight of expectations pressured me into changing myself into someone who I wasn’t. I sported sweaty, peculiar boots called Uggs, tied my hair in a high ponytail, even though my thick, black hair would refuse to stay, and always wore the same fuzzy, light blue northface jacket that the other girls wore. Because I was quiet and considerably smart, I was bombarded with stereotypes of the smart, geeky Indian girl who sat in the corner. At first, the labelling didn’t bother me because I had finally blended into the crowd as a wallflower, but soon the stereotypes slowly became the truth. My long, sea-like hair would fall to my waist and sway every time I walked. But everyday, the hair would slowly start covering my face, until I was completely hiding behind the stereotype. In India, unconsciously, our society has held an expectation for woman. We’ve been told to grow our hair long like Deepika Padukone, a famous Indian actress, because otherwise no man would look at us. Cutting your hair meant that you don’t care about your life and future. However, I interpreted cutting hair as a statement of anger against all the unwritten rules and unspoken words. Over the years, I had morphed into someone who I didn’t know. What happened to the little girl would sing all her favorite Hannah Montana songs without caring about her Indian accent? What happened to the girl who didn’t care about what clothes she wore? I decided something had to change so I went up to my mom, gathering all the courage I could, knowing she’d probably faint from me asking such a stupid question. The next day of school, I went to school with a beanie on my head and stood right in front of my friends before pulling my hat off. Long gone was the weight of twenty inches of hair. Long gone was the weight of the need to satisfy everyone. Long gone was the weight of my self-hatred. Walking into my Spanish class, I asked one of the boys in my class to please move out of my way, but he angrily spat out, “Sorry, I don’t speak to transgender people.” I should have felt angry at his comment, but I wasn’t. I realized that someone would always have something negative to say about me and there was no way I could always satisfy their expectations.
When I let go of the constant urge to fulfill other’s wishes, I found an inner confidence within myself. I will never forget the dark reality of my life, because even if I changed myself for the better, those around me will continue to pressure me with their expectation. However, I’ve broken out of those narrow expectations and these experiences has taught me to try to be less harsh on myself. One thing I have learned is that being perfect doesn’t always make you happy. You can be multilingual, the most popular girl in school, and the perfect daughter or son, but it won’t necessarily satisfy you. In my mind the perfect person is successful, happy and not stressed. The ideal type is simply a myth that is forced on you, because there is no such thing as perfect.
Manjari Kannan immigrated to the States from India, at a young age. Her goal is to bring more awareness about the lack of Asian representation and race-based crimes. She takes interest in singing, art, and writing. She has performed at many prestigious places, such as Carnegie Hall in NYC. Currently, Manjari is a highschool student and an enthusiastic learner. She hopes that she will be able to pursue her love for literature as she grows up.