It was the year 1999 when I stepped inside my very first nail salon in NYC. “Did your mommy mix daddies?” the Korean owner at the nail salon enquired. “You too white to be Indian.”
My jaws dropped as my mom’s face appeared in front of my eyes — bindi on the third eye, talcum powder in the creases of her neck, and neatly pleated cotton saree draped around her jiggling belly button. I avoided the question and picked out a bright color for my feet. The owner followed me around. “Red look good on you. Light skin. You sure mommy no mix daddy?”
I wanted to tell her, “Babies are not like cake mixes from Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker where you can blend pineapple flavor with a box of chocolate mix and have a gorgeous cake of color ready.”
Forget biology, I didn’t know how to explain to the nail salon owner that my mother — like the majority of Indian women from her generation — was homogeneous like Basmati rice in a sack. She didn’t see her husband (aka my dad) until the night of their wedding. For a woman who wore her saris and traditions and never openly questioned arranged marriages, “mixing” daddies was like asking a Mozart fan if they knew what Kanye West’s latest song release was all about or how low can they go when they twerk?
It was the year 1999. There was a discussion at work about formulating strategies for a new client. As the storyteller and marketing communications lead for the project, I said, “This weekend? Too soon. I can’t do it.”
I pronounce “can’t” as car with nt on the end. This man — Joe, a middle-aged balding, short IT consultant with perpetually wet forehead and penchant for ill-fitting shirts, with streaks of grey hair on his chest peeking out unabashedly, sounded baffled by the fact that (1) I spoke fluent English. (2) My spoken English and pronunciations were different from his.
Joe from work asked, “Where did you learn to speak such good English?” Mind you, he wasn’t conceited.
For someone who had never stepped outside of the tristate area and believed foreign countries were all about exotic locales and subservient women and spicy foods and snake charmers and voodoo, he was plain curious. In the ‘90s, there was no Netflix streaming to empower or broaden horizons of those who had never had the opportunity to engage or interact with the world outside of the United States…or sometimes, even outside of NYC.
I grew up across three countries and continents, between my boarding school in the Indian Himalayas (which was originally run by the British government…until India kicked their butt in 1947 and got her freedom), to the land people are utterly terrified of these days — Libya, and finally the city where dreams come true — if you survive the subway rodents: NYC.
Naturally, different “accents” have accompanied me on my journey.
When my parents moved back to India in the 90s — I was in college — one of the aunties said to my mother, “No problem getting Sweta married. She is a “gori ladki” (meaning light-skinned girl in Hindi). Arrey, anyone will marry her.”
Was it a comforting-welcome-back-home-to-the-motherland message for my parents? Or was this backhanded-compliment an attempt on the auntie’s part to make me feel secure, “Beta, some boy will like you even if you didn’t grow up at home and your parents abandoned India.”
When I moved to New York City in 1999, I ate my body weight in chocolate cookies and Tropicana’s orange juice. Lack of sunlight on winter days made my cheeks look like I had rosacea.
At the supermarket one day, a Russian-speaking grandma holding her groceries and hustling a stroller with her grandchild trying to jump out…scolded me because I didn’t respond to her. I didn’t understand why she was so upset with me until one of the people working the cash register helped sort out the confusion. And explained to this elderly woman that I wasn’t Russian.
“I am Indian,” I added my two cents.
The Russian grandma addressed me in an unapologetic, heavy, and confused tone, “But you don’t look or sound Indian.”
This wasn’t going to be the last time I would hear the surprise proclamation about my ethnicity or get scolded for not responding in a language I didn’t speak, or be discussed in public space — like I didn’t exist.
I politely explained to the Russian woman that most Indians from middle-class or upper middle-class families, study in English-speaking convent schools. In my case, I had a single, very strict and very tall lady as our headmistress, Ms. D’Souza. The Brits left her behind to safeguard their accent. In case you are wondering, she grew up outside of Jaipur in Rajasthan and chose to adapt the British accent despite growing up in free India.
On our first visit back to India after moving to the Big Apple, I was reintroduced to the colorism of my desi roots.
My parents had hosted a grand party at home. This was so my husband and I could meet with the extended family and family friends. I decided to get my hair colored the day before the party. I was in luck (*insert sarcasm*) because the colorist picked the same color for my hair as the orangutan in Singapore zoo. With mildly orange hair, I tried to not make eye contact with aunties who were around for the gossip at the party.
One of them whispered — not really since I heard every word that came out of her kebab-filled mouth — in my mother’s ears, “Sweta has become more gori after moving to America. With that hair, she doesn’t look Indian any longer. So beautiful. But how come no American accent she has? She is sounding like one of us only.”
In India, owning an American accent and being light-skinned can open unexpected doors for you in both professional as well as personal situations.
I am asked by some of my American friends why I don’t react vehemently to people questioning my accent or commenting on my ethnicity. First, I like to believe that like my colleague Paul, most questions stem from a place of curiosity. Second, it’s only after moving to America that I was allowed to say, “Matrimonial columns in India bragging about their misogynistic write-ups — ‘Wanted tall, FAIR, virgin, convent-educated girl for thrice divorced bald man in his forties,’ are also racist.” I am new to understanding the nuanced world of global racism.
Truth: I have seen racism in India. This disease of judging people based on their skin color is not an American phenomenon. Sure, in India, racism is tightly wrapped under layers of misogyny. Indian women are reminded that fairness/paleness is beauty.
I have interviewed women who, when pregnant, ate foods like saffron so they would produce light-skinned babies. Mothers make ubtan, a homemade blend of ingredients to exfoliate skin, remove hair, and brighten up the face. Bollywood celebrities endorse bleaching creams.
A few years ago, I watched a commercial for an Indian hygiene wash called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash. This skin-lightening product promised Indian women “fresher” and “fairer” private parts. The commercial shows a woman clad in trousers, looking all sad and serving a cup of black coffee to her partner. The partner continues to read his paper and doesn’t notice the woman.
The commercial conveys that the woman is sad because her nether parts are dark, like the cup of coffee in her hands, and as a result, her partner is disinterested. But as soon as the woman goes for a shower and uses the Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, she looks much happier — an animation of a hairless and whitened feminine crotch is shown.
Post shower, once the animated female parts are lighter-colored, the woman appears in a pair of shorts. To communicate that she is available and boasts lighter tinted-nether parts, she picks up her partner’s keys, jumps on the sofa, and stuffs his keys inside her shorts. The guy seems attentive to his woman and takes her in his arms.
Be it India or the US, of course I get upset when people are targeted and profiled based on their skin color. It’s beyond degrading to the human spirit. But in America, despite all the political mayhem and racial profiling, most people of color take pride in where they come from, their skin color, and their heritage. Thanks to the British Raj, many Indians (I am talking about the ones who grew up in the subcontinent) have learned to revere light skin and bemoan dark skin openly and think less of their Indian accent.
I refuse to fulfill any stereotypes. I carry my Indian-pride with me wherever I go. It’s the legacy of my ancestors and root of my stories. It’s the country where my mother’s ashes and wishes are. It’s the land where I was born.
Comments about my ethnicity and accent make for good stories, they don’t break me. NYC — my home and most favorite place in the world — has taught me that you can hold on to your individual identity even as you become a part of the melting pot. Because different accents and races and ethnicities, much like aromas, make life less mundane. Assimilation doesn’t mean embracing everything new and abandoning where you come from — be it my accent or my roots.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an award-winning author of 11 books, mindfulness writing coach, wellness columnist, and certified yoga and Ayurveda holistic health practitioner who helps writers elevate their productivity. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press, 2018) is her debut U.S. novel. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.