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I changed my name in preschool.
I’d always thought that being an Indian in America was about being the least Indian I could possibly be. I exchanged dosas and coconut chutney for the cafeteria’s coveted French bread pizza. I hid the six-armed religious idols in the cabinet whenever my friends came over. I even changed my name, discarding Namratha for “Nam”. I thought I was making everyone’s life easier, sparing teachers the awkward fumble over the seventeen-letter Scrabble board. Even at four years old, I knew that Namratha was a curse, and Nam was my ticket out.
While I spent schooldays as Nam, I spent my family life trying to be Indian. I reserved Sunday mornings for religious classes and observed every tradition; I even slipped into an accent, rolling my ‘r’s a little. I learned to speak Tamil and write Hindi and tie a sari and eat pani puri like someone off the streets of Mumbai.
I lived a strange dual life, never fully fitting in either half. There was no escaping the occasional “Go back to your country!” or paganic computer geek stereotype at school. When I traveled back to India, my “white” accent was mocked, and I felt lost in a place that was supposed to be my home. Perhaps most jarring was when my uncle asked me “Do you even feel Indian?”, questioning what I had thought to be the foundation of my identity. It was as if all my trying had been useless. I was too Indian to be American, yet too American to be Indian.
A few years ago, the school newspaper released an infographic that changed my mentality altogether. I live in a small town with nothing more to its name than an exit off the Jersey Turnpike. On the inside though, we are remarkably unique; no race holds a majority. The students who work extra jobs share the halls with those that drive Lexuses to school, with education as the one great equalizer. I firmly believe that exposure to diversity can persuade the pickiest eater, soften the hardest heart, and open the most closed mind. So why, in a school without a norm, should I force myself into a box?
It was then when a friend persuaded me to change my name back to its full form on Facebook. It was a small gesture, but once I learned to value myself and my culture, others made the effort to show me respect as well.
Although I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, being an immigrant is an intensely complex experience that is the basis of my character. I can speak a language that some friends haven’t even heard of but I watch Sunday Night Football. I perform in our yearly South Asian cultural show but listen to eighties rock in my free time. Even the values that are so deeply rooted in my life – respect for education, service to others, and desire for self-betterment – were instilled by my culture yet reinforced by my surroundings.
Thanks to my experiences, I’ve been inspired to help those, especially children, who don’t fit the “normal” label. A few times a week, I tutor children with learning disabilities under a behavior analyst. They make my experiences seem trivial. Kids on the spectrum are often ostracized for reasons they can’t control, and regardless of how hard they try, will never fully fit in. Regardless, they are incredibly comfortable in their own skin. At Georgetown University, I hope to encounter similar opportunities that allow me to contribute to a community committed to diversity and mutual understanding, where students are not only tolerant, but motivated to promote acceptance. That’s one step closer to every Nam being proud to be a Namratha.
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