Sahana Surya Shah. My full name. Yes, triple S, like a snake. Sahana, meaning tolerance in Sanskrit, Shah, a common last name in Northern India, and Surya, meaning sun in Sanskrit and stemming from my late maternal grandmother. This is who I am and who I will always be.
I’m just like any other brown girl in America, but I’m also a little different. I watch Bollywood movies (https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/tv-movies/g26630891/best-bollywood-movies/) with my grandmothers, mesmerized as romantic and melodramatic scenes play out in front of my eyes. I love naan, dal, and basmati rice, and you can bet that I’ll be joyfully whipping out my dandiya sticks in mid October. I joke with some of my Desi friends that our only major representation in entertainment is Priyanka Chopra and Lily Singh, which is hardly enough. Then there is the other side. My parents were born and raised in the US, so I don’t know Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Assamese, Malayalam, Kannada, or any other Indian language you can think of. I was raised on a steady media diet of 2000’s pop hits, Depeche Mode songs, Food Network, and the sitcom Modern Family. I’m a 2nd generation Indian American, but I’ve been learning bharatanatyam (https://www.culturalindia.net/indian-dance/classical/bharatnatyam.html) since I was 6 and haven’t looked back. Even though I’ve never been to India, I feel like I’m so connected to the country.
Basically, what this lays out for you is that my identity is a little confusing. Sometimes, I rant about it, like I am now. Am I too Indian, or am I not Indian enough? Why do I sometimes feel that I am objectified and put into a box that I don’t even comprehend?
Corvallis is a predominantly white town, and although people are very nice, I sometimes feel that my pigmentation is permanently seared into me, easily seen and sticking out like a sore thumb. I’m very lucky that I haven’t been the subject of serious racist or sexist incidents, but I know that many people are. There have only been two times when I have been a little uncomfortable. A couple of years ago, my driver’s education instructor asked me questions that seemed a little ignorant, such as, “Do you eat ethnic food at home?” or “Do you speak Indian?” The other time was when I was at Home Depot, and someone asked me, “Where are you REALLY from?”, later telling me that I should “Go back to where I came from.”
These are classic incidents many minorities go through. Sharing these experiences is not meant to criticize anyone, because we all need to learn more from each other regardless of our race. It’s important to know that many people have dealt with much worse, and these experiences can very easily drain the self worth from a person.
In light of the BLM movement, it is so important to learn about other cultures and not be quick to make assumptions about people just because they are dark skinned. Melanin should be celebrated. POC should always share their stories. These tough conversations should never stop.
I’m so grateful that I was able to share a piece of me with you. I may not completely understand my identity, but I’m always proud of it.