Every morning of my childhood, my mother emerged from the bathroom after a shower perfumed by a heady mix of talcum powder and baby oil. Dressed in a blouse and petticoat, the softness of her belly just spilled over the tightness of the drawstring waist. From my perch on her bed, I watched her get ready for the day ahead, following her movements through her reflection in the mirror.
Her morning preparations always took the same form: First, she mercilessly attacked the knots in her waist-length hair with a plastic comb, then used her slender fingers to divide the hair into three equal sections, which she braided without looking, only pulling the braid over her shoulder when her arms could no longer reach far enough down her back. Next, she wrapped a sari around her body, pleating and draping six yards of silk with a tailor’s precision. Last, she put on her ornaments: thin gold bangles that jangled solidly on her wrists, small gold hoop earrings, a black-and-gold pearl mangalsutra around her neck, a black mascara chandlo on her forehead.
Ensemble complete, she stepped out of our home and into the wilds of our small town in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, with its four gas stations, one stoplight, and very own outpost of Tudor’s Biscuit World. In such a foreign context, she opted to own her foreignness, rather than hide it, on our walks to school, at her job as an accountant, during her service on the board of the local library, as the troop leader for the Girl Scouts.
The chandlo was the marker of marriage for Indian women of my mother’s generation. It has many names—tilak and bindi are the two most common—but in Gujarati, chandlo is the preferred one. Placed between the eyebrows, at the site of the sixth chakra, it is said to represent the “third eye,” and the notion of hidden wisdom. Indian women in India marked their heads with vermillion powder, or with tiny stickers in a multitude of shapes, colors, and designs to match each of their saris.
For my mother, who came to the United States at age nineteen and moved to West Virginia in the early seventies, none of these options were available. There was no Indian grocery store where she could purchase vermillion, or sheets of chandlo stickers. So, she did what immigrants in America always do to survive: she modified. Bought mascara from Rite-Aid. Perfected the art of drawing a tiny black circle on her forehead with a fuzzy, curvy brush. Never left the house unmarked.
By midday, the chandlo would begin to crust, crumbled bits of mascara landing on her cheeks or chin. My mother carried her mascara in her purse. Even at the height of tax season, with its sixteen-hour work days, at first sign of crumble, she would take a moment to go to the bathroom, wash off the remains of the mascara, and re-apply, determined to keep her third eye intact.
I used to think my mother was an embarrassment. Her silky clothes and glittering jewelry contrasted so sharply with the hairspray-stiffened perms and acid-washed high-waisted jeans of my classmates’ mothers. Our brownness in a white world already marked us as “other.” Why did she need to heighten the distinction? In Jersey City around this time, white supremacists, self-proclaimed “Dot Busters,” chased Indian women down the street, beat them when they caught them. The way to stay safe, I thought, was to blend in. And my dazzling mother, dazzling in both her style and her enthusiasm for life, never blended into the bland linoleum-and-polyester environs of 1980s West Virginia.
I shushed my mother when she spoke to me in Gujarati in public, its pitch and tone so different than that of English. “Speak English,” I would demand, refusing to acknowledge her if she wouldn’t.
I curse my cruelty now, when I can’t find the vocabulary in Gujarati to communicate complex ideas. Or when I wear a sari and my mother’s stinging response is that I “look weird,” because she can’t reconcile my short hair with traditional clothing. I want to believe that my message of assimilation, pushed so strongly on my mother, was born of my need for safety—both my own and my mother’s. But this safety came at tremendous cost. My mother’s saris now gather dust in her closet, only worn on the most special of occasions, replaced by the cardigans and slacks you might find in the home of any older white woman.
Pamela Circle, the street where I grew up, was never a flag-waving neighborhood in the eighties and nineties. My neighbors’ yards in the planned development of West Gate, where every house had the same three-bedroom, two-bathroom footprint, did not boast flag poles; their porches lacked flag holders. Flapping American flags were flown in schoolyards, not front yards. Flapping Confederate flags were flown in yards in other neighborhoods that I learned very early not to trespass through—ones that, as an adult, I can now identify as more impoverished communities, marked by smaller houses and trailers. But on my street, the main morning sounds were those of birds chirping and basketballs pounding on pavement, not red, white, and blue bunting flapping in the breeze.
Until late September in 2001, that is, when my parents took a trip to Portland, Oregon. They sat in their rental car at a stoplight downtown when a group of white men approached, banged on the hood, and rocked the car. The men screamed epithets and curses, and the favorite phrase of white supremacists everywhere to hurl at those of us who are not white: “Go back to where you came from.”
The light changed. My father slammed the gas pedal, charging forward, unconcerned about whether he ran over anyone’s feet in the process.
Later that fall, on a Greyhound bus in Logan, West Virginia, less than an hour from our home, white passengers tackled an older Indian man and pinned him to the floor. They viewed his frequent trips to the bathroom as “suspicious,” instead of being the result of a failing prostate. They only removed their knees from his back when police arrived to take him off the bus.
For twenty-five years, precisely the same amount of time he had spent living in India, my father had worked to make West Virginia feel like home. He tended a massive garden and shared its fruits with anyone willing to accept a bulging bag of produce delivered to their door. He administered flu shots to neighbors, the grocer, and guys at Thomas Tire. He bridged the gap between labor and management at the chemical plant where he worked, code-switching fluidly between professional discourse and Southern drawl, though both were tinged by his Indian accent. And then, any glimmer of insider status he had gained in two and a half decades evaporated between the hours of eight am and nine am on September 11th, 2001.
After their trip, my father promptly went to Casto Hardware and purchased a massive American flag decal emblazoned with the saying proud to be an american. He taped it to our glass front door, leaving sticky residue marks of many crooked attempts before he felt satisfied that it was straight. Another flag he taped into the back windshield of his blue Toyota van. A third he placed in a holder on the porch.
Six hundred and forty miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, just a few weeks into my first year of graduate school, I compulsively crossed the street every afternoon to check on the Punjabi Sikhs who ran the gas station. Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Punjabi man my father’s age, had been murdered at his gas station in Arizona by Frank Silva Roque, a white supremacist who shouted, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!” when arrested. Sodhi’s brown skin, his turban, were all it took for him to be interpreted as a threat. As a terrorist. As someone whose murder was justified.
I did not believe my father’s flags would keep him safe, but could not ask him to take them down. I struggled with his assertion of patriotism toward a country that had only shown me ambivalence regarding my existence, and simultaneously lived in fear of what might happen to them if the Confederate flag wavers found their way to our street, which had been so profoundly apolitical and welcoming up to this point.
My parents’ professional lives as a doctor and an accountant may have buffered them from the worst of West Virginia’s ugly racism before 9/11. I, on the other hand, felt its effects from the age of six, when a chubby, rat-tailed kindergartner approached me in the schoolyard, slapped me across the face, and hit me with the ugliest of racial slurs, illustrating that in West Virginia there were only two categories that seemed to matter when it came to race: white, and not white. And again when fans of the opposing middle school basketball team screamed “Mr. Miyagi” and “Speedy Gonzalez” and “Where’s your papoose?” each time I walked onto the court, showering me with trash and epithets, then pissing on our school bus at the end of the game. And again when a high school classmate, with his heavily gelled mullet and a black Metallica tee shirt pulled over his enormous belly, called me “camel jockey” and “sand nigger” every day during shop class and our teacher, Mr. Grady, pretended not to hear him. I did not share these experiences with my parents. Like my sister before me, I did not know how to give name to the hatred in a way that wouldn’t somehow make my parents feel that they had failed in choosing to raise us in this mountain place.
Until 9/11, my parents did not question their belonging in America. America provided my parents jobs, wealth, the opportunity to live a kind of life impossible to imagine in India and to bring family members in India into its slowly growing middle class. Meanwhile I, exposed daily to the ugliest manifestations of American ignorance, received continual reminders that I did not belong. If the flag could protect my parents from this venom, and from the thick, incapacitating doubt that such venom shuttles to the brain, I would not ask them to take it down.
I can’t remember when I began to openly flaunt my West Virginia roots, to wear tee shirts emblazoned with images of West Virginia and the lyrics to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” to proudly share every historical and cultural factoid that I had collected during my time living in the state and have continued to collect after leaving. I had run from West Virginia as quickly as I could when I turned eighteen, only to realize that my status as an Indian from Appalachia would mark me as a double outsider no matter where I traveled.
I can, however, remember the first time a white man told me, Go back to where you came from. At a gas station in Sissonville in the fall of 1995, in between chugs from his forty-ounce beer bottle.
And the second time, on the side of the road in Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1996, screamed out a car window.
And the third time, at Oglebay State Park in Wheeling, in the fall of 1998, where a leering cowboy held up his hand and said, “How,” mocking a Native American greeting, asked me what tribe I was from, and when I responded that I was “not that kind of Indian,” proceeded to spit hate in my face.
And again in the summer of 2019, when the newspaper headlines announced that our white president scolded a group of brown and Black congresswomen using that very same phrase.
I hate the way my body responds to acts of racism. Where others are able to stay calm and unaffected, or angrily fight back, I simply disintegrate. My eyes blur, my temples pound, and I catalog counterarguments in my mind. But my dry mouth, the fear squeezing my chest cavity, prevents me from saying a word.
I want, in those moments, to assert my Americanness. My West Virginian–ness. To pull out the certificate detailing my birth at Thomas Hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, in the heart of the Kanawha Valley. That muddy river valley, those green mountains, those smoking chemical stacks—they are where I come from. So much so that I am writing this essay in a room in my house in Boston entirely dedicated to the state of West Virginia. The walls are decorated with a wedding ring quilt, a painting of the New River Gorge, and a map of West Virginia that dates back to the late 1880s. My light source is a lamp from the Blenko glass-blowing factory in Milton, twenty minutes from where I grew up. There is a warmth to this room that sustains me even in the coldest days of New England winter, even in the moments when I am overwhelmed by the coldness of living in a place where people don’t respond to friendly greetings when we pass on the street.
I want to show my doubters that I am an expansive encyclopedia of knowledge about West Virginia, most of which I learned in my eighth-grade West Virginia Studies course, or have memorized from the actual West Virginia Encyclopedia, my favorite coffee table book. Do you know your state bird and state animal? Mine are the cardinal and the black bear. Can you name every celebrity to come out of your home state? Chuck Yeager was born in Myra long before he flew his plane so fast that he broke the sound barrier. Jerry West was from Chelyan, our Zeke from Cabin Creek, years before he made the NBA All-Star Team fourteen times. Walter Dean Myers lived in Clarksburg before he became a phenomenal writer for young adults. Henry Louis Gates and his brilliant brain spent their formative years in Keyser. Randy Moss first played football in the backyards of Rand, and Lou Holz did the same in Follansbee. And Jennifer Garner wasn’t born in WV, but she lived there for most of her childhood before kicking ass on ABC’s Alias, where her code name on missions was always Mountaineer.
There are Americans whose ancestors have lived in the same state for centuries who don’t always know as much about their states as I do. This is a fact. And it is also a fact that knowledge is not the marker of belonging in America that I want it to be. When congresswomen born and raised in the United States are told to return to the places they came from on the basis of their skin color and their last names, I find myself questioning when, or whether, our country will ever see people who look like me, my parents, my next-generation niece, as American.
In the absence of a body that knows how to effectively respond to racism, I wrap myself in my “Home” shirt, with the state of West Virginia replacing the “o,” in much the same way that my mother wrapped herself in six yards of silken sari, or my father wrapped himself in the U.S. flag. As though fabric can protect us. As though fabric will make it impossible for angry men to see through the cloth to the skin below.