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Tanu Nagaraja

I was born in 1971 in New Milford, Connecticut, a small town near Danbury. In the late 50’s, early 60’s my dad did his residency first in Canada then came to the United States. He went back to Karnataka, India to marry my mom where they are both from. They lived in Pittsburgh, PA where my brother was born in 1967 then they moved to Connecticut just months before I was born.

At that time there were only two Indian families in the neighborhood, mine and another family where both of the fathers are physicians. I think that changed how we were treated. It’s just a hunch but our families were treated like everyone else I believe because they were physicians. There were only about 70 houses in the neighborhood and we were the only nonwhite family. A few years later a Black family and then a couple of families from Puerto Rico moved in.

A: Did you ever feel you were treated differently among your classmates?

T: In grade school it was only my friend Suma and I who were Indian. I always knew I was different because I had long hair and my complexion was darker.

I didn’t feel I was treated differently when I was younger but I only felt it later in middle school. In 7th grade, there was a classmate who became mad at me for taking a seat that he wanted to sit in during a Spanish class. This student pushed my books off the desk and called me nigger. I don’t remember exactly how I reacted, whether I raised my voice or not. The principal called me and another classmate in separately to ask what happened and afterwards we learned the boy got suspended for a week. It was the first time I overtly experienced anything like that.

When I got into college, I went to Clark University in Massachusetts where they had a diverse international student population. Before that I always hung out with white Americans. Growing up we didn’t participate in many Indian customs or holidays. My parents spoke to me in an Indian language called Telugu. I understood this language but I usually responded in English. In college, there were students from all over the world. There were some students who resided in India but came to the United States to study and attend an American university. I wanted to hang out and get to know them. I didn’t fit in with them because they saw me more as American. They called me ABCD- American Born Confused Desi. Desi means Indian. I thought I would feel a bond with them but they saw me as different because I was born in the USA and some of our beliefs and values were different.

The town where I grew up was originally a native American community where the Schaghticoke tribe lived. People thought that I was also native American and would often ask what tribe I’m from. I had to educate and help them understand the difference between a native American Indian and an Indian from India. I thought they had no clue. Instead of me feeling bad, I externalized it and it was them and not me. I didn’t feel bad for myself, I felt bad for them just not knowing at all.

People would often ask where are you from and I would say I’m from Connecticut. Their responses surprised me at first but eventually I waited for the question to come up when I met someone for the first time. People often waited for another response. I think they were waiting for me to say that I was from another country. Saying that I was from Connecticut wasn’t sufficient. It had to be more than Connecticut. I didn’t look like I was from Connecticut I guess. I always had to explain and justify and give a reason why I live in Connecticut. It becomes tiring but I think I just got used to it after awhile.

I moved to New York City when I was 22 years old and lived there for 18 years. There’s a mix of all different people so I didn’t have to explain myself. I felt that everybody was from somewhere else so I fit in more in NYC.

A: Do you identify as Asian?

T: Whenever I think of Asian, before I would think of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, or Vietnamese. But I wouldn’t think of someone from India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka as being Asian. When I think of Asian, I think of people that are different from the Indian subcontinent. Every country in Asia is so unique. I know I’m Asian because my family is from Asia but I think there are a lot of differences and that we shouldn’t be clumped together into one big group.

The same could be said for people who are white as well. Someone who is white American is different from someone who is a white British person.

A: What does the term people of color mean to you?

T: My daughter Hema who is 10 years old asked me about that today. She said we are not Black or brown. I think she thinks people of color as Black. I did too actually. The term Colored people is usually in reference to someone who’s Black or African American. I don’t think I am a person of color even though I know I have a different skin color.

A: What are some of the stereotypes and expectations of being an Indian?

T: We were expected to be smart and to be a really good student. They would ask about the red dot on the forehead. People thought all Indians had long hair and smell like Indian food like curry. In India, if you’re fairer, you are considered more beautiful. The darker skinned people were made fun of. Often times in India there’s arranged marriages and you advertise as fair skinned to get more interest. Indian culture is very different and isolating actually. The Indian community is not very inclusive. It was important to stay within the Indian community and to go outside our group was seen as a bad thing.

A: Do you agree with arranged marriages?

T: In a way I do since mine was arranged. My parents died when I was 21 so it was important for me to have my Indian identity or Indian roots and for that to be continued. I married someone who was born and raised in India. My daughter probably identifies as being more Indian than I did at her age. She participates in more Indian activities, like Indian dance and singing. She really loves the Indian dance. She’s proud of it and likes the Indian part of her. Hema has the longest hair down to her knees and wears a bindi (the red dot on the forehead) that symbolizes that you’re Hindu. Growing up as a child in Connecticut, I didn’t know anything about Indian holidays and traditions. We celebrated American holidays with other Indian families probably to feel a part of where we were. Prasad is very interested in having Hema understand and learn about the Indian culture. When his parents visited and stayed with us, we learned about the Hindu religious festivals, like Holi and Diwali.

A: What message do you want to impart to people about being Indian?

T: I would want them to know that there’s a lot more to us than what you see. You see an Indian person but who am I, where am I from, what do I believe in, is different from person to person. Just because I look Indian, it doesn’t mean I’m going to have a thick Indian accent or I’m going to eat Indian food all the time. I guess basically don’t judge a book by its cover because you don’t know until you get to open up the book what you may find inside.

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