I did not know I was beautiful

I did not know I was beautiful when the photographer taking pre-school pictures said, “Aww.  Your hair is so long.  What a beautiful little Hawaiian girl. Say “Aloha”.

I did not know I was beautiful when I went to the beach and all of the other kids had to wear sunscreen to keep from getting too dark.

I did not know I was beautiful when it was fitness week in my fifth grade class and we all had to weigh ourselves and I weighed over 100lbs.

I did not know I was beautiful when my mother caught me looking nervously at my pre-teen reflection in the mirror and asked me, with fear in her voice,  if I wished that I was White.

I did not know I was beautiful when I was the only one of my friends who did not have a date to homecoming.

I did not know I was beautiful when my highschool boyfriend told me that he could not get too serious because I was not Christian.

I did not know I was beautiful when my Asian college boyfriend dumped me and started dating my White roommate.

I did not know I was beautiful, but I was.

So I started wearing my nose ring and the sparkle offset my eyes.

So I got a tatoo over my heart reminding me of what lies inside.

So I learned to care for my body with kindness, and attention, and movement.

So I surrounded myself with people whose beauty radiated from within.

Then my boyfriend said, “I choose you, and choose you, and choose you.

Then I heard friends say “Your daughter is so beautiful. She looks just like you.”

I did not know I was beautiful, so I made myself feel beautiful, and then people told me I was beautiful, and now I know that I am beautiful… sometimes.


Brown mustard seeds

I spilled the brown mustard seeds.  They are tiny, brown, perfectly round.  The lid was not closed tight.  The bottle fell from the open cabinet and the mustards seeds leapt and scattered in droves.  They vibrate as they roll as if being held together by static even as they are being driven by the kinetic energy of the fall.  They are free, but together. They find corners to hide in, clumped together in dozens.

I use them to cook with at least once a week.  I toss a teaspoon’s worth into oil with some other spices.  As the oil heats up, they sputter, crackle, and pop.  The fragrance and flavor seep into the oil.  I pour the seasoned oil into whatever meal I am cooking that evening.  The mustard seeds, tiny, brown, round, have seasoned the meal and also are themselves still present, still feel round in my mouth if I think about them. I usually do not think about them though.  They become one with the dish.

Now, I am overwhelmed by their numbers.  I am fascinated by their desire to stick together.  I am annoyed by their tendency to find the most inconvenient place to roll under. I cannot clean them all up.  Though I gather hundreds in a small plate and send them to the trash, so many more remain, silent but present.  A few refuse to move when I sweep them up with a paper towel.  I give up and walk away from the counter.  There are other things to tend to.  I will have to tackle the mustard seeds another day.


Going home


The kids sleep in my old bedroom.  I sleep in the guest room.  There are rooms to spare and we spread our things  across the house knowing it will take hours to find them again when it is time to leave. My parents get up in the morning and do the same things they have always done.  Dad’s arms sway up and out and down to the floor.  He stretches to get the blood flowing.  Mom lights the candle on her altar, says a quick prayer under her breath as the kettle sings its insistent song.  “I am ready! I am hot!”  She makes the first of three cups of morning coffee. Each one will be left in an unknown location in the house, two-thirds full, stolen away by the coffee elves.  The kitchen smells of incense, and cumin, and burnt toast.   The floor is cold.  My kids run around, and around, and around from the kitchen, into the hallway, into the dining room, and back into the kitchen.  Outside, I hear leaves rustling, acorns drop, birds twitter.


For the first week I am groggy. Day is night and I cannot keep my eyes open. I have never been good at dealing with changes in sleep.  The air is thick with the smell of dust, and sun, and people.  Vendors sell vegetables and hot chai. They sing their insistent songs, “Hot chai!  Ready! Good price!”  I roll out my mat to sleep on.  The floor is hard, but I soon become accustomed to sleeping this way with my cousins nearby.  I wander the streets during the day, to market and back.  I am absorbed into my uncle’s family.  We catch auto rickshaws to go to see a movie.  The roads are jammed with people and cars and motorbikes and animals. I can hardly hear myself think.


The sun pours in through our windows into our living room, amplified by the yellow of our walls.  It is a cozy apartment.  Living room bleeds into dining area into kitchen.  Two tiny bedrooms tucked away at the back of the apartment hold all our things and all our dreams.  High shelves keep cherished books away from tiny hands.  On nice days, we choose which playground to go to.  Our playground? The school playground? The far away playground?  On rainy days, the children roam the hallway in our building, imagining worlds behind doors.  Outside, birds, sirens, hammers, helicopters, and neighbors all shout for attention.  “We are here! See us working!”

La India

She called me La India.  She was a tiny brown nut of an old woman with a crinkly hard shell.  She only wore house dresses. Her silver hair hugged her head with tight curls.  She called me “La India”  because she could not remember my name.  She was right to save that space in her brain.  I only stayed in her boarding house for two weeks.

She called me La India because I was from India, and that is all she knew. She did not call me La Americana. I spent the summer of 1998 in Puerto Rico.  It was a strange trip, a trip that came together quickly and haphazardly.  I had some contacts.  Names, addresses, and phone numbers.  I had some vague, amorphous goals.  I had a plane ticket.  When I arrived in Puerto Rico,  the telephone workers went on strike.  I could not call the people I was supposed to contact.  So I wrote them a letter.  I found a boarding house to stay in and I waited.

The old woman called me La India and I called her Senora.  Two other girls were living in the house for the summer and taking courses at the University of Puerto Rico, a few blocks away.  They were friendly but busy, and my Spanish was limited.  I spent the days wandering San Juan.  I took the bus to the beach. I walked around campus. I read books and took naps in the library. I went to the market and bought canned macaroni and cheese.  I waited.

She called me La India and it fit.  In Puerto Rico, I passed for Puerto Rican.  People were surprised when my Spanish came out in fits and starts.  They looked at me and saw una India – a Puerto Rican with native blood, indigenous.  In Puerto Rico, I passed.  My head hurt from trying to understand, trying to communicate, trying to find my way around.  My head hurt, but something else was at ease.  Eyes did not pick me out and wonder.  It felt like being in India.  It felt like another home.

She called me La India, and so often, that is what I am.  I am the Indian friend, the Indian on staff, the Indian at the party.  But for a few months in Puerto Rico, I wandered the streets of another place and was just me – alone, unobserved, free.




Big City Love

I need the Big City.  I need towering spires of steel and glass glimmering in the sun. I need feet, hundreds of feet, pounding miles of cement sidewalk.  I need my feet to pound that pavement, feeling the rhythm through my soles, into my soul. I need the Big City voices, young, old, Black, White, Brown, swelling around me into the day.  I need the push, the rush, the flushed sensation, the vibration of hundreds of thousands living en masse.  I need to feel the beating heart. I need to see poor next to rich next to me. I need to smell human beings living around me.

When my husband and I were looking to buy our first home, I spent a few days in my hometown of Wilmington, DE. My mother and I chatted about their decision to buy the home I grew up in.  My mother said, “I remember the trees, and the quiet and just feeling so good and peaceful. I just loved it here .”   I listened to my mother and in that moment, years of my own internal monologue suddenly shifted.  They LIKED living here in this suburbany neighborhood on the edge of a small city limit.  They CHOSE to live here. It’s what they WANTED. 

In my mind, the silence of my old neighborhood was a vast isolation.  The quiet of the trees echoed my own loneliness, my sleepiness, and my laziness.  I never felt truly awake.  I lived to escape to the hustle and bustle of school.  I became active in extra-curriculars because to be home was to sink down into the silence, the cool oblivion of home.  It was not a bad place. My parents were loving. I was safe and cared for in my home.  So safe that I could not be fully alive. I was dormant at home.

Things were different in India. I have family in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore, all big cities.  Those trips were like a jolt from an enormous battery.  I couldn’t get enough.  I thought it had something to do with reconnecting to my roots, getting in touch with my Indian self.  Some of that was true.  Now I see that most of that feeling came from the energy I got from being in a Big City.

I got my  fix after I graduated from a small, rural, liberal arts college. With no job, I moved to Chicago, city of Big Shoulders.  Chicago was my power source.  The skyline fed my dreams.  The people moved me to play, and dance, and scream and fight.  I reached into myself and sent blazing trails of me out into the Chicago streets.  I laughed with the El train as it moved haltingly from the elevated tracks of streetscapes and sunshine down into the rumbling belly of darkness.  I peered out the window atop the John Hancock Tower and gazed at the solid grey silence of Lake Michigan kissing the controlled chaos of the city map.  I was in love with life. The Big City was my power source.

Now, I have two children.  The siren song of suburban life is everywhere.  “You will be safer.” “More space.” “Cheaper housing.” “Better schools.” “Everyone is doing it.”   I am not doing it. I now understand that my mom chose to live in a quiet neighborhood because it fed her soul. That was right for her.  She needed that space to reflect, to find solitude.  I need the Big City to pull me out of myself.  I need to hear the voice of the city calling me out onto the street.  I need to know my children will see humanity in all it’s messy glory every day. Maybe they will think I am crazy for  choosing that.  That’s OK too. When they grow up, they can find their own way, their own true home.  Until then, they will have to learn to respec the Big City. Maybe they too can feel the Big City Love.





I didn’t know,

and then I did.

I am not you.

We are not them.

This is not right.


We should fight.

We should shine a light.

We should make it right.


I didn’t know

And then I did.

I am not alone.

You are here with me.

We are all not free.

This is not right.


We should fight.

We should shine a light.

We should make it right.


I did not know

and then I did.

I am here to fight.

I will shine a light.

I can make it right.

We can make it right.


We will make it right.






My secret identities

When you see me on the street alone I am: woman, 30 something, brown-skinned, able-bodied, cis-gendered, middle-class.  If I am with my husband and kids you may also see: mother, heterosexual, and married. Hear me speak you may think: American. These categories have meaning as I walk through the world, it’s true. But I have some secret identities too. The ones that tell you who the “I” inside is.  Here they are in random order:

1. Singer of Songs: If there were still bards, I would be one. I spend one morning a month leading a Music Hour for one year olds. I can sing every word of every song in Mary Poppins, and will do so without provocation. I am the annoying person who sings along to every song on the radio, even the ones I don’t know.  I learned to play guitar just well enough to accompany myself when I sing. Song is in every cell of my body.  I am song and song is me.

2. Meddler Extraordinaire:  My favorite character on How I Met Your Mother is Lily because she cannot stop meddling AND she’s awesome at it.  Tell me your troubles and I will try to find a way to fix them. If I can’t fix them, I will find someone who can.  If you don’t know what you’re troubles are, I will tell you in the sweetest, kindest, most condescending way possible.  What can I say? I am just cool like that.

3. Accessory Navicular Survivor:  Why do museums make me sleepy before I’ve even gotten in the door? Why does shopping make me want to throw a tantrum? Why do I always say, “Is there a rabid dog chasing me? Then I’m not running.”   I always thought I was just too lazy to run, or too stupid for museums, or too unfashionable to care about shopping. Turns out, I have this extra bone in my foot that causes intermittent foot pain. I’ve had this recurring foot pain all my life. It sucked and still does, but at least now I know what it’s all about. True story.

My secret identities  are much better predictors of what I will do in a given situation (i.e. sing “The Rose” in the middle of the playground, ask about your relationship with your mother, sit on a bench at the Van Gogh exhibit) than any of those other things.  What are your secret identites?