Art by André Pereira
She had always been a nervous smiler. Every day, without fail, and more often in the most inappropriate of circumstances, her mouth would twitch and then curve up into a grin that couldn’t be stopped. Whether it be awkwardly telling a friend bad news, learning of the death of a loved one, or even just simply when she was aware of enough eyes on her and balked under the attention, the smile was like an unwelcome leech that clung to her, impossible to escape.
With big doe eyes that could bulge out with a simple lift of the eyebrows, and two deep dimples that sprung up with the slightest cheek movement, it was no surprise that her face was easy to read. It’s a quality that she didn’t realize could be so debilitating until years later, when a simple glance away from the dinner table was called out by her mother who worried that she had just failed a course or an unconscious smirk after typing a funny text message was teased by her friend for blushing over a cute boy. For someone whose first instincts were to hide, to stay as far away from curious eyes and expectant gazes, it becomes painfully clear that the girl could no longer keep her cards close to her chest and was instead forced to wear her heart on her sleeve.
It slowly becomes a point of anxiety for her, a constant worry niggling at the back of her mind that her deepest feelings may be so easily and swiftly exposed to those who she did not wish to know so much about her. It is too much of a weakness, a vulnerability, and it leaves her at a loss for how to protect herself. And so, in the wee hours of the morning before going to school each day she sits in front of the mirror and practices her poker face, memorizes it with a careful calculation so that even in the most uncomfortable of situations she has a piece of armor to defend herself.
The first test of her practiced deadpan mask came in the most unexpected of places: the salty, sweat laden and squeaky floors of the middle school gym. It is 2:58 pm, her favorite time of day because it is just inches away from the sweet freedom that lay right outside the school door, seconds from the automated tone of the bell ringing through the loudspeakers signaling the end of the day and time to go home.
There, she sits crouched, trying to tie her shoelaces as quickly as possible so as to ensure that she can be the first out of the doors when the two approach her, still clad in their damp pennys. The girl, Briana, is the most popular girl in their eighth grade class, and she wears that power with a tiny smug smile and giant, overly warm hugs with every classmate she passes in the hall. She isn’t the obvious mean girls that you see in the cheesy rom coms, the ones who trip nerds in the cafeteria with their stiletto heels and run a tightly knit exclusive clique of similarly cruel teens. Instead her influence is dolled out in more quiet and subtle ways, she is practiced in the art of making everyone around her feel as though they were her best friend, being drawn in by sweet eye contact and conspiratorial giggles. The boy, Matt, is one of the queen bee’s most dedicated lackeys, who spends the majority of his days engaging in various hijinks all in the hopes of receiving a nod of approval or a flirty stare from the sought after teen.
When the pair steps into the doe eyed girl’s vicinity she suppresses a level of shock and tries to ignore the tiny thrill that runs through her at receiving so much attention from the very same people that she often stared at from afar, longingly wondering what it would be like to join their table at lunch. And when the tall and lanky Matt launches into what he had dubbed “the funniest Indian impression ever”, Shreya is so consumed by still basking in the warmth of the “popular kids” glow that it takes her a moment to process what she has just seen. She watches the freckled youngster begin to gleefully jump in a strange, pseudo “tribal” intended dance as he chants proudly, “I’ve got a dot on my head and the color is red, I’m Hindu! I’m Hindu!”
If her tanned, olive-toned skin allowed her to blush, her face would have been tinged with a fiery hot glow. Shreya’s eyes unconsciously widen and dart to Briana so as to gauge her reaction, who laughs along conspiratorially. There is a vague flop of anxiety and something else she can’t quite discern in her gut, a tightening of her stomach and nausea was trickling its way up into her mouth. She only has a few milliseconds to decide what she is going to do in that moment, as the two kids start to turn their expectant gazes onto her again, awaiting her reaction. Releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, Shreya feels the familiar twitches of the skittish smirk inch its way across her face. Resistance seems futile to her, and she falls into this smile like a familiar comfort and takes it one step further, opening her mouth into a forced and exaggerated laugh. Shreya Recognizes the glint of approval in Briana’s eyes and lets it lull her into the sense of security that she so desperately wanted. She then high fives the boy like it was the best thing she had seen all day and walks away with an empty grin still pasted on her face.
It was actually quite a catchy tune, Shreya had to admit as much as it irked her. The jingle would follow her around for years to come, nestling its way into the back of her brain and making a home for itself there. Come out randomly when she was humming in the shower or drunkenly dancing with her friends. But it wasn’t the song that would make her cringe at 3am when she couldn’t fall asleep and her mind drifted to the ugly places of all the awkward moments she spent decades trying to forget. What made her squeeze her eyes shut as tightly as possible and whisper “I’m sorry” to herself over and over again until it became garbled on her tongue was that same, vacant smile and giggle that she allowed herself to be acquiescent to.
With relatively light skin, unexpectedly pale eyes and Eurocentric features, Shreya’s ethnicity had never been something she had given much more a passing thought. Sure, she would feel the uncomfortable pause when teachers hesitated to pronounce her name and her white friends would cry about how they wished they could be as “tan” as her. But when she learned about terms like “racism” or “prejudice” in class, it never occurred to her that those could be applied to her own experience. Racism was not something she thought would ever touch her, because why would it when she felt just the same as the rest of her classmates? The scene at the gym played like a tragic drama film in her brain, during which the mirror is suddenly turned towards the girl and she shrieks in horror at her reflection that was nothing like the image that she had of herself in her head. The pretty girl was actually a monster all along? What a tragedy.
For the first time in her short life, Shreya had felt as though she were the butt of the joke, rather than in on it with everyone else. And she had let it happen, had made it okay to her so called “friends” and validated their microaggressions with an idiotic giggle. Worst of all, looking back on the bizarre moment, Shreya realized that what had actually colored her reaction was a deep sense of shame. Shame at being associated with the undesirable Hindus with the “dots on their heads”. A desire to separate herself as far as she possibly could from her first-generation immigrant parents that clung steadfastly to their chaat masala and linen kurta clothes. It is only later on in those scarily quiet night hours that she thinks to feel guilt for her traitorous behavior, for laughing along to be in on the joke at the expense of her parents, her mausis, her grandparents.
For the next few months, Shreya has a recurring nightmare in which she finds herself cutting off large portions of her skin and sewing on new, whiter skin in its place. Peeling off her overly expressive face and finding a new, prettier, stoic one that didn’t grin at the drop of a hat at the cute boy making fun of her. Become a new girl that was much stronger, much smarter and more pulled together than this ridiculous giggling mess.
In elementary school, teachers asked Shreya to do a presentation on Diwali every year for the rest of the class. Being the only Indian girl, when the holiday came around they thought it would be great to have the brown girl perform her culture for the audience. The irony was that Shreya was mostly clueless as to the significance of the holiday.
Her definition of Diwali wasn’t centered around the significance of the festival of lights and how Krishna defeated Ravana. What her nine year old brain understood about this sacred day was that it meant all the Indian food she could ever dream of eating: steaming hot bowls of it all laid across Ashoo Mausi’s kitchen counter just ready to be devoured. It meant dressing up in her one nice salwar kameez and putting on her Mom’s old bangles that were passed down from her mother. Sparklers at midnight and allegedly legal (but she’s still suspicious of this) makeshift fireworks bought in Pennsylvania being set off by Vinod Mausa while she and her younger cousins stood a healthy distance away. Mausi’s famous brownies decorated with colorful diyas in beautiful icing. Everyone gathered around the karaoke machine with wine or soda in hand, ready to deliver the best performance of the latest Bollywood soundtrack.
So standing up there in front of her slightly bored peers, she always found herself at a loss for what to say. Shreya knew what her teachers wanted from her was the textbook factual explanation on the Hindu religious epic stories or the meaning of the lights. But instead all she could ramble about was the game that she and her four cousins would play in the yard as soon as it got dark outside. Armed with two sparklers each they would (albeit dangerously) chase each other around the grass while screaming deliriously into the night sky.
The first time Shreya gets her heart broken, but certainly not the last, is at age nine under the harsh fluorescent lights and chalk dusted air of room seven in Cranbury School. The heartbreaker is fourth grade teacher Ms. Cstari. With a sarcastic sense of humor and an unapologetic loudness, Ms. Cstari had a scary reputation that preceded her in the whispers weaving themselves through the entire fourth grade that said she had told a kid last year to Shut up. When Shreya hears the rumor she bristles with a terrified kind of excitement, she loves this crazy teacher already.
Ms. Cstari played rugby for fun on the weekends and would show off the purpled splotches of bruises and scars each Monday morning with pride to oohs and ahhs. She lived by the beach and would make silly bets with the class to ease the dread of history projects and science labs. She defied all the expectations of the frumpy and persistently annoyed teacher that made Shreya dread stepping through the blue doors into school each morning.
Shreya had always been a shy, reserved student. Rather than being the first hand to shoot up with an answer to a question or create boisterous chaos during reading time with obnoxious clownery, she always preferred to sit back and observe. During most parent-teacher conferences, her instructors would criticize her quietness for ineptitude, telling her mother that she should encourage her to speak up or be squashed by the larger personalities surrounding her, and would tick off points in each subject for lack of participation. But Ms. Cstari was different. She told Shreya’s parents that she knew just how smart the young girl was, and when she asked the class a question she refused to force her to speak up because she knew that Shreya already knew the answer. She would let Shreya speak up on her own terms- without traumatizing her with the embarrassment of being put on the spot.
A few months into the school year, in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Ms. Cstari begins a unit on Native American tribes before the colonization of the Americas. Prefacing her lesson, the teacher made sure to point out just how exciting it was that they happened to have an American-Indian with them in their class right now. Sitting in the very back row of desks, Shreya watches as several heads swivel around to stare at her with inquiring eyes. She looks back at them in increasing perplexity, and then at Ms. Cstari who also has her eyes trained on Shreya. It takes a moment before it dawns on her that she is in fact the prized, token Native American descendant in question. The situation was so utterly ridiculous that she would have laughed had she not been so taken aback.
This time she doesn’t even try to fight the awkward grin, the widened eyes and lifted eyebrows of disappointed shock. Just trains her gaze down to the floor and swallows the lump in her throat; suppresses the tears threatening spill out of her scrunched up lids. She feels an ache in her chest that she is sure comes from her heart crumbling to ashes that lay in a pool at the bottom of her stomach.
The next day on the playground her best friend’s mother runs into her and calls her “Yoshi” instead of “Joshi” because Shreya is “Mexican or something, right?” and that the J of her last name should be pronounced as a “y” accordingly. Shreya thinks back to all the playdates with nachos and pool parties she had spent with Mrs. Keyser, her best friend Katie’s mother, and her right eye twitches. Her fingernails left little half moon indents in her palms.
For the next few years she would wonder: was this really all she was to the people around her? A vaguely brown Native American, Mexican, or Portuguese, “exotic” token that was more of a checklist on a diversity spreadsheet than an actual human being?
On Sunday night dinners of buttered roti, spiced rajma and chole, and chicken karahi, Shreya’s parents ask her and her younger brother Sameer how they feel about their Indian-American identity.
“What do you tell your friends when they ask you what nationality you are?,” her mom was always curious to know. “Do you tell them that you’re Indian? Do you feel like you’re Indian? Why don’t you ever seem to want to make more Indian friends?,” her dad would pipe in.
The question is always one that bothered her; one that she would roll her eyes at in annoyance and refuse to answer. The glaring truth of it was: she really had no idea. When she actually sat down and tried to think about it, she realized she didn’t really know what Indian-American even meant. In fact, when her friends would ask her that dreaded question, her first instinct was always to say “American”. Born in New York City and spending the majority of her life in New Jersey white suburbia, “American” and “whiteness” is all she had really ever known. Her second generation parents had never sought to pass down a plethora of Indian traditions, had never taught her the intricacies of Hindi or Marathi, had never taken them to weekly temple for prayers. The only claims to any sense of the “Indian” half of the “Indian-American” identity were her name, a handful of trips to her ancestral home in Jaipur, and a few spattered Kuch Kuch Hota Hai references.
In fact, Shreya spent so much time with white Americans that she had for all intents and purposes convinced herself that she was a white American as well. When her parents would whisper to themselves in Hindi on long car rides or her aunties would gossip about Shah Rukh Khan and his latest drama in the Bollywood world, Shreya would simply watch from a distance with tender affection. It was their world, one that she could never be a part of. Her world was Justin Bieber, hamburgers, Hannah Montana and Coca-cola. And for a while, that was ok. She had waded in this comfortable existence, a blissful ignorance, for years. Until Ms. Cstari called her Native American and Matt Hart did a stupid dance and all of that safety, that sweet assurance of who she was, came crashing down.
Shreya is caught between two starkly different worlds, unable to quite fit into either one. Like pieces of a puzzle, her curves and indentations couldn’t quite line up to theirs. She is an astronaut left floating aimlessly in space without an oxygen tank.
During her freshman year of college, Shreya joins a sorority instead of the Indian-American Association that her parents had eagerly suggested. It feels more comfortable for her than subjecting herself to the harsh and overly judgemental gazes of the elite “New Jersey Indians” that look down their noses if you don’t speak enough Hindi or eat palak paneer on a regular basis.
Her weekends are quickly filled up with an endless stream of parties with white blonde girls who drink vodka like it’s water and find themselves “canceled” on twitter for posting photos in cornrows or headdresses and other forms of cultural appropriation. The Greek life system maintained and upheld a historically white privileged structure, knowledge that Shreya chose to carefully file away in the recesses of her brain when she accepted a bid to Kappa Gamma and plastered on a proud smile as her chapter president pinned the signifying gold arrow onto her white dress.
This, however, did nothing to lessen the tensing of her shoulders and the knot in her stomach when her new ‘sister’ arrived at their pregame for formal in a dress imitating a sari with a bright red bindi plastered between her meticulously filled in brows and shimmering eyeshadow. She took a shot of tequila and let the warm fuzziness inch its way into her bloodstream and drown out the reminder of the vast ocean separating her from those girls.
Something was changing within her. It was becoming harder and harder to swallow her tongue and bear the subtle microaggressions with her same easy going laugh. The implications of her silence had never been more deafening. No matter how much her tired fingers tried to cling to her semblance of normalcy, each nervous grin and indifferent shrug had broken off bits and pieces of her that floated into the universe.
Sleep doesn’t come as easy to Shreya as it once did. She listens to the hum of the radiator, feels the itchy pillow case scratch against her hollow cheeks and spends hours staring out above the skyscrapers waiting for the streaks of pinky-orange sun to peek out from the horizon. No one notices the deepening dark circles under her eyes because they’d always been there, one of the many gifts passed down to her through her South Asian skin.
She takes classes on critical race theory and starts to explore what it means to be an activist. She is tired. All the time. Almost like the exhaustion of twenty years of pretending has finally caught up to her.
When she makes her first brown friend at school it is a happy accident. A friend of her roommate’s happens to be sitting in her dorm room kitchen drinking a beer on a Friday night when she stumbles in with a sprained ankle the size of a baseball and offers her a bag of frozen carrots to ease the swelling. They learn they used to be in the same kindergarten class 15 years ago and they both like the same kinds of A24 independent films.
Riya shares her Parle-G and Maggi Noodles with Shreya and they watch Bunty Aur Bubli and Devdas together on Wednesday nights over wine and ice cream and Frank Ocean. They bond over the chime of ghungroos in Bharatnatyam class and how the smell of mehndi makes them want to gag.
It’s a quiet kind of love that builds a new home for Shreya in the halls of a dimly lit Chinatown apartment with the sweet notes of “Tere Bin” drifting through the air. She is still floating but now tethered to the ground by the promise of something new and safe in the space between two worlds.
The next time a drunk frat boy approaches her at the bar and slurs out a gross attempt at a pick up line, “I bet you Indian girls like it spicy don’t you?”, Shreya doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back down. Simply stares, unblinking, no nervous grin in sight. Eyebrow raised as if to say really? and waits for the confident smirk at his own joke to shift into uncomfortable embarrassment.
It’s not perfect, not a total happily ever after. But it’s a start. Shreya has found herself, her real true and strong self, in the quirk of her lips and the crater sized dimples in her cheeks. Now when she looks at herself in the mirror her smile is brilliant and unapologetic and completely on purpose.
Meghana Joshi is a South Asian actor, writer, and creative based in NYC. Graduating from NYU, she studied identity politics and social change through film and television performance/development. She is dedicated to using her work as a storyteller to uplift and champion diverse voices with a particular focus on the South Asian experience.