A Chameleon, Unveiled by Sabrina Choudhary

Illustration by Divyakshi Kedia

My childhood memories of St. Patrick’s Day consist of my mom baking soda bread, decking me in plastic shamrock jewelry, and forcing me to wear green. “It’s the only way people will know you’re Irish,” she would explain. It was a holiday for celebrating a heritage that I knew next to nothing about.

My mom fits all of the stereotypes: red hair, blue eyes, pale skin, a billion freckles. You would never guess my heritage by looking at my face: dark brown hair, medium brown eyes, light brown skin. At first glance, my mom and I seem like an impossible pair. 

I didn’t really know what being Indian meant, either, but I knew more. My cousin and I would play dress-up in lehengas and bindis, and I couldn’t wait to wear a jewel-colored sari like the adult women in my family. I thought saris were the most elegant, glamorous things that transformed women into Disney princesses. You can’t look away from them.

Food formed an even bigger piece of my identity. Whenever we visit, my dadi cooks the rich, comforting dishes that only a grandmother can. Her house always smells like warm spices. Meanwhile, my dad makes exquisitely flavorful chicken curries in contrast with the simple meat and potato dishes that my mom grew up with.

I’m not sure if being Indian meant anything to me other than this, but it didn’t really matter. That’s what others wanted to see in me. Friends and strangers gave me credit for the Indian half of my DNA, but my Irish counterpart wasn’t as interesting to them or as easy to understand.

So, my mom endured accusations. She can tell you dozens of stories like this, but the one I remember the time we were making crafts at a community center when I was four or five years old. Another little girl at our table insisted that I was adopted because she couldn’t fathom how else we could look the way we do. How do you argue with a stranger over whether you are who you say you are?

I know a lot more now than I did when I hadn’t yet grown into my face and no stranger thought I resembled my mom. I was ashamed to realize just a few years ago that if these incidents ranged from offensive to entertaining for me, they really stung her. 

I know now that it hurts to have a kid who the world won’t let you claim, especially when your ethnicity was your identity growing up, when your parents were born in Boston and you went to Notre Dame and your life checked all the Irish American boxes. My mom has one dominant gene in her body, and the Punnett square won. (But hey, thanks to her, I can roll my tongue!) 

I know now that when my mom celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with me, she was trying to make the hidden half of me visible. That’s what St. Patrick’s Day and Diwali are to me: my visibility holidays. They’re the two days of the year that I spend acutely aware of my nebulous identity. My heritage is like reaching for something I’ll never be able to touch, but clinging to even performative traditions brings me closer. 

Tragically, this St. Patrick’s Day was different. It was the day following the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta. I spent that day wearing my green sweater and shamrock socks, caught in an identity crisis unlike the one I expect on March 17th. It felt wrong to identify with the women still under attack who don’t look like me or face the same challenges, but at the same time, who am I if not an Asian woman?

Like many people of color, I have always struggled to make meaning of my place in America’s story, but as hate crimes against Asians have skyrocketed during the pandemic, it’s become a more urgent task for me. Watching people on my Instagram feed slowly turn their attention to anti-Asian racism makes me want to scream because it has taken them this long to notice what I notice, to see what my other Asian friends live through if not what I live through. 

I ask again and again: why does it take holidays or hate crimes to create visibility?

In second grade, we were each assigned an animal for a research project. Mine was a veiled chameleon. I made a model out of clay, painted it, and hand wrote an essay to explain it – a compilation of chameleon facts, which I thought were the coolest thing. That’s when I knew I loved to write. I’ve been writing ever since, but never publicly until college writing classes and extracurriculars boosted my confidence. As opinionated as I can be, publishing my thoughts and feelings is much scarier than ranting to friends, which is a barrier that I’m constantly overcoming. 

Even as I’ve reclaimed my second-grade dream of becoming a writer, I’ve remained reluctant to recount my experiences with race and culture in print. For one thing, these ideas are personal in a way that I don’t have much practice sharing. For another, I’m greatly privileged in other facets of my life, so I never felt like my problems were the most pressing. And I never heard anyone outside of my family discuss the aspects of race and culture that affected me. With no reflection in the media or in conversation, what I might have said didn’t seem worth saying: a catch-22. 

On the rare occasions that I talk to other mixed people, I sense that they were conditioned the same way. Chameleons thrive by making themselves invisible.

In a way, writing an essay like this one is easy. As soon as I sit down to type, the words spill across the page like they were bouncing around my brain for 21 years, just waiting for somewhere to go. In another sense, writing this piece has me fighting every subliminal message I’ve ever gotten commanding me to camouflage. The thought of submitting it for publication is slightly sickening.

But as I’ve searched for cultural mirrors over the past few years, I’ve gradually realized that I can’t count on finding them; I have to create them. I can’t wait for permission to voice what weighs on me. If I want to see myself represented in media, I have to write. If I want others to see me, I have to put on a green sweater or a vibrant sari and make them look. I’ve watched too many beautiful half-Indian, half-white actors pass for something else on screen. I want them to tell their stories instead; I want people besides me to hear them. 

I’m descended from two rich cultures that are diametrically opposed in cuisine, climate, geography, and skin color. I’m proud to be a Baby Bear, the midpoint between them by the fact of my existence. I know I’m not alone in this kind of pride, and I hope that those who relate to me are getting ready to exhale instead of scream, to share instead of shut down. I hope we can finally start recognizing ourselves in each other. I hope I can be someone’s mirror.

Sabrina Choudhary (she/her) is a junior at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, designing a concentration in how narratives impact society. She’s the Deputy Culture Editor at Washington Square News, NYU’s student-run newspaper, and a member of the youth-led organization Decolonize Our Classroom (@decolonizeourclassroom). When she’s at home in Burlington, Vermont, she loves to spend time hiking, stargazing, and hanging out with her adorable pet rabbits. 

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