Short stories

A shaadi is not a wedding

Little girls in America are taught to dream about their perfect wedding day. The big white dress celebrates purity. Their favorite girlfriends in perfectly matching dresses, with perfectly paired groomsmen, stand in a cul-de-sac around the couple, eerily patterning the false perfection of our suburban childhoods.

I never seriously thought to daydream about my own wedding. Mom and dad have a mental guest list of all the aunties and uncles who invited us to their kid’s weddings and I suppose are waiting for their invitation. A mountain of  paperwork is waiting for us at the consulate so family from India can finally visit Am-ree-kah.

With a tired voice I explained to my girlfriends, Indian brides wore red and weddings are more like the chaos of sound, color, and lights of Indian traffic and less like a cooling stroll through Taj Mahal.

If I do it right, my wedding would probably be hosted in a suburban hotel that has room for a white horse in a parking lot. We could host the dinner at India House, a once grocery store, now Indian ballroom, perfectly tucked in a strip mall with endless parking and curbside drop off for women in saris.

They have the lucrative monopoly on the Indian wedding parties in the Chicagoland Area. Who else can do pure veg samosas and a chocolate fountain on the same bill? All I can hope for is an open bar, so some Indian kids with uni-brows and hairy arms can have their first drink before college.

I started answering the wedding daydream question a little differently when I got to college. “I’m not really sure. It kind of depends on who I marry,” which seemed like a perfectly logical answer if a wedding was about partnership.

My girlfriend’s eyes light up. I can see the idea of bright gems and colorful patterns swirling in their head. “You have to get married so I can go to an Indian wedding!” This is their only chance to experience a real live Indian wedding that will be soooooooo fun. I have to get married.  I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave to get married. I have to get married so they can come. Does Crate and Barrel’s wedding registry have a checkbox for down payment of a house?

“I hope it’s small. Or maybe I won’t have one.” which disappointed my friends. My ideal guest list got shorter and shorter as I got better at boundaries with my mom.

But I give her a lot of credit. As I got older, she realize my wedding might not happen in Chicago, where she lives. “We’ll have to get a tour bus so everyone can see San Francisco.”

My temperature shoots to 100 and I think steam must be blowing out of my ears like a Looney Toons character. What everyone? What wedding? What groom? What city? Who’s we? What if his family has their own wedding traditions? And a coach bus? The backpacker in me dies a little.  None of this is a factor.

“Sure,” I respond. It’s finally my mom’s chance to daydream about her daughter’s marriage. The idea of a virginal bride at an Indian wedding is kind of silly. What else would she be?

Short stories

In Capetown, I’m a white girl

I vividly remember the first black man I kissed. We met on a melting hot summer afternoon in Capetown just before New Years. He grew up in a white neighborhood in Botswana and went by the name Sydney. He had an African name but didn’t respond to that other than at somewhere like the DMV. Sydney had soft full pinkish brown lips. They were the same color as mine. I liked his booty and he liked my hips.

He tasted different than other men. Maybe it was just the lager beer. There was nothing else to drink there. Not on a graduate student budget at least. The kiss was short but intense. We were in a bar on the third floor that felt like a bungalow. Capetown was alive at night, the air was thick and hot. Our hands and arms stuck to the red plastic table cloth with floral tropical print. My friend and travel companion had gone to the bathroom so it seemed like there was only one other obvious thing for us to do while we waited.

He sat across from me with a charming and cheeky smile. We both got up and kissed from across from each other. I had to press myself up on the table to reach him. Our teeth met a little because we were smiling. His hand softly pet my kinkless hair.

Sydney and I didn’t kiss again. We never needed to. But the three of us hung out the next few weeks while in town. We talked a lot about skin color and race and hair. We talked the most about hair. The conversation was not overly academic or about politics, culture, or the Apartheid. We just talked about the way things were.

In Capetown, I’m a white girl.

“How can that be Sydney? My skin is exactly the same color as yours,” I said pressing my forearm against his. My skin got so dark after a few days in the sun.

“Darling, Nina. You have straight, shiny hair and oval eyes. Being white is not about the color of your skin.” And even more confusing and later enlightening is to learn in Botswana I was mixed race. Of course I explained time and time again my mom and dad were both born in India and all of our ancestors were from there too. My soft cafe face and lightened cheeks with a bit of pink meant, I looked more like Rhianna and less like Mary J. Blige. Rhianna was on every other Billboard in Bostwana. She was their Beyonce.

I felt like a queen traveling in Africa. My curvy body, soft thighs, carmel skin, loving eyes, and naturally shiny black hair with soft waves was the ideal. I was always moved to the front of the queue, served drinks first, and treated with a little extra grace. It didn’t happen once or twice, it happened everywhere. I was labeled by my place in society, and the names were defined by color. I was white because I wasn’t black.

I was only seriously proposed to for marriage only once while traveling around Africa. I’m still connected to the guy. I met this suitor through Sydney’s childhood best friend who then lived in Jo’burg and now a DJ in Seattle and father of two.

The African admiration I felt wasn’t so much validating as dumbfounding. I had never walked into any bar, restaurant, club, airport, or travel agency, and got treated as a first class citizen other than fine establishments where it’s in the training manual. I wondered if this is what it was like to be skinny, white, and blonde somewhere like New York.

Short stories

What are you studying?

Parents who move to a new country usually start by build a community. It’s supposed to feel like family. It’s a survival tactic.

My parents joined a group of Indian uncles and aunties who rotate hosting regular Saturday night dinner parties at their houses. It’s probably what real American families do too. Right? I eventually came to love the cold plum-colored lipstick smeared on my cheek from forceful loving aunty kisses.

The comfort of these dinner parties was the predictable and reliable schedule of the night. Ladies socialize in the kitchen preparing dinner while the men drink scotch in the living room. The kids, who really aren’t kids anymore, hang in the musty semi-finished basement watching Saturday Night Live reruns while eating spinach and daal on styrofoam compartmentalized plates. We pretend we aren’t secretly going on dates or staying up late listening to Loveline with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew. We become good Indian kids for the night. It’s part of the package.

The kids, who again, aren’t really kids, try to find something in common other than the fact our moms and dads are from India. This too, is a survival tactic. From boredom, that is. Boredom is a luxury I’m sure my parents would have loved to have. How could I possibly relate to a high-schooler from a completely different school district? Impossible.

Just as Weekend Update with Norm Macdonald is wrapping up, I take the cue from my brother to poke upstairs and see how much longer we’ll be here. If the aunties are still doing dishes, there’s at least another hour to go. I smile politely scanning the kitchen looking for mom until I shoot the can we go home now? rolling-eyes-of-death. I predictably get the look back reminding me we are guests and it’s rude to leave this early. Whoever is chatting me on AOL Instant Messenger has to wait.

So I wander away from plates splashing in the sink and aluminum foil crunching tightly around porcelain dishes of leftover cauliflower. The uncles are playing poker in the next room at the glossy oval-shaped mahogany table under a blindingly bright crystal chandelier.

I hear banter about George Bush and oil prices. My ears perk up. Finally, someone is having a real conversation. I try to keep my mouth shut and just listen for a few sound bytes. Maybe I can make sense of the streaming CNN headlines dad keeps on mute when we’re eating dinner at home.

One of uncles catches my eye and sees I’m looking for a buddy. He lets me hang on the back of his high-back chair and peek at his cards. We grin because I’m pretending to understand his hand so I can be in on the secret. Uncle looks back to me, slightly tips his cards down, and asks about my plans for college. I think we’re on the same team for a short moment.

“Indiana University. The campus is really nice…. we went a few weeks ago…it’s a really great school, a lot of choices there….I’m so excited.” He doesn’t reciprocate the enthusiasm but I can see him doing a calculation in his mind. He glances at the table. Then back at his cards. Then back to me.

“Oh?” he tries to try to ask neutrally. “What will you study?”

“Political Science” I say very proudly. I had big plans to work on human rights issues. Something meaningful and with purpose. “I’ll probably double major in Journalism …they have a good school… and I–.”

I’m ready to go on-and-on because first of all, I’m a teenage girl, and second I might actually get to talk about something interesting for the first time tonight.

“Why not engineering or medicine?” he said cutting me off as if those are the only choices and getting a liberal arts degree might as well be going to community college. Uncle wasn’t calculating his next bet, he was recounting if there were any respectable degrees at Indiana University. Because, if I can’t change schools, at least I can change majors. Uncle deflates my spirit with what he thinks are reasonable and rational question he has the right to ask.

His retort sounds like ‘Why are you throwing away your education? What good is a liberal arts degree? Do you know how hard we are working so you can live a great life in the U.S.? Why are you voluntarily earning less money? Journalism? Politics? Those are not careers for respectable Indians. 

Uncle is simultaneously competing for best-immigrant-award and trying to give my parents a hand by convincing me to switch majors. Uncle’s kid has his choice of Ivy League schools so it’s already obvious who won the bet. It certainly wasn’t me.

“Because I like writing,” I say lowering my eyes knowing the answer won’t translate. His ask was never about my personal interest, passion, desire, or life purpose. What I want doesn’t matter. Not in my career, not in my life. I realize he is preparing me for the many inquisitions Indian girls get after age 23 about getting married. Yes. Girls. We are girls until marriage.

Good girls should study engineering, go to med school, fold perfect corners, and make well-behaved offspring. Don’t get too tan during summer and try not to work more than 20-hours a week. Make the ID card in mom’s wallet that says “Alien” worth it. And for god sakes, Nina, please don’t talk politics. Not at the dining table. And not around men.

Short stories

No where are you really from?

I love late night wandering through the Castro. On this particular Friday night my happy hour faded into a barbecue, faded into a stroll home through San Francisco’s the sparkling gay district. In this story, I could have been in a taxi or buying a pack of gum, or at the gas station. I’m buying drunk pizza.

Under purple florescent lights, I crouched down to meet the slices at eye level through the smudged glass. I pointed at the melty green onion and sausage pizza calling my name. I held up a peace sign to the scruffy pizza guy with rough dust-colored skin. “Two please. To go.”

He flings the slices into the oven and we move to the register to pay while I wait. He asks me “Where are you from?” while punching numbers into the machine. I usually enjoy these kinds of conversations, I have lived in this Castro for seven years and I’m proud of it.

“Oh, I live in the ‘hood,” I say with a little grin while digging around my wallet for loose change. I realize in that moment between lipstick and an eyebrow threading punch card I’m also out of cash. I won’t have more than 10 cents to tip the guy. Shit.

“No, where are you really from?” he asks.

We trade folded bills and loose change for the sausage and green onion slices now packed up in cardboard box that matches the color of his burnt skin as my buzz deflates. I know this question and it only comes from other foreigners. He’s asking me Why aren’t you white? and Are you the kind of different I am? Did our moms go to school together? Are we long lost family-friend-cousins? In this moment I feel challenged and more American than ever. I belong here. Aren’t we in the Castro? A neighborhood for others.

I know how this kind of conversation ends because I’ve had it hundreds of times in taxis and 711s. To the cashier, this place isn’t my home and isn’t my identity. We could talk about if I have family in the States, where my parents were born, where my grandparents live, when they immigrated, how often I go back to India, and whether or not I speak the language. The longer we talk the more it would feel like a test on how Indian I am. Ultimately with a self-imposed guilt trip for eating sausage pizza. In any other circumstance, these are not the kinds of questions for any other kind of customer. But I’m the other other kind of customer.

“I grew up in Chicago!” I squeaked as I tightened the grip on my leather crossbody bag while clutching the pizza box in the other. I look up and see tan muscular men with well groomed mustaches and tight sport shorts finding togetherness in their otherness. I squeezed past them in this particular pizza spot and fly past two ladies ladies going in for their first kiss on the sidewalk. I jam my debit card into the ATM to take out some cash that’s going straight to my wallet and not in his tip jar.