On being brown, immigrant, queer, scholar: Part 1

When I was growing up, I didn’t really think about being brown. Well, not in the way that I think about it now. Growing up, I was quite aware that I wasn’t fair skinned, which was highly prized within the communities I grew up in. Fair-skin was the pathway to praises, sexual opportunities, relationship opportunities, it seemed. (And as I would learn later, fair-skinned was entangled in oppressive systems of caste, class, misogyny, and also an internalization of colonization.) I wasn’t fair skinned and in subtle ways, I was made aware of it.

Then, I resisted being aware of my queerness. I had no exposure to LGBT literature, terms, concepts, people. But it isn’t as if I needed all that for knowing my own desire along lines of sexuality and gender. It took time to let myself be aware of it.

I did desire to be a scholar. Which is what made me an immigrant and brought me to the USA to pursue a Ph.D. Later, I would come to realize that too as entangled with colonialism.

My parents and I went to a travel agent to book a flight to the US. Three of us friends were coordinating our flight tickets so we will be on the same flight. The tickets felt exorbitantly expensive, I think they cost about Rs 30,000 for the one way British Airways flight. When we were booking the tickets it didn’t quite dawn on me that I was taking a one-way flight. When will I ride the second half of that journey?

I had two large Samsonite suitcases, and a large backpack that I had bought two years ago during a trip to Nepal with college friends. It felt like so much stuff! We were scared of the luggage getting lost during the flight. And so, the backpack needed to have all the basic necessities for the first few days after arrival. Mom and papa helped pack the suitcases and backpack. How many suitcases would I pack on the second half of that journey? Who will help me pack it?

My parents came to see me off at the airport. My mother tied my shoes — I had always been terrible at tying shoes up until then. The shoe-tying was like a ritual between us. The one way flight required me to grow up ultimately and be more independent. Later I would learn how my mother fell sick after I departed; how my mom and papa didn’t tell me that for years after that, so I wouldn’t be emotionally encumbered by that knowledge.

I remember crying on the flight. It just felt, that I don’t quite know what I am losing, leaving behind. I was scared. I stuffed a handkerchief — I stopped using handkerchiefs in the US, replacing them with disposable tissue — in my mouth so I won’t make audible sounds as I whelped. My friend, who was in the seat next to me, looked at me with sympathy, helplessness, and acknowledgement.

The flight took a break at Heathrow airport. It was all very confusing and scary to navigate. But one feeling I remember distinctly. It was quite different from anything I had felt before. Amongst the sea of white people, for the first time in my life, I saw myself as brown, as an ethnic minority. And just the seeds of a feeling that it will never be the same again. I wasn’t alien to the feeling of not fitting in: I often did not fit in, in school, in family. (I did enjoy an enormous amount of capital since I was good at doing school, and that helped me navigate this not fitting in.) But all that was uniquely distinct from the feeling I had at the Heathrow airport. It was a moment of clarity. It felt like a realization of what is now, distinct from what was, and nothing to do about it. Just to observe that sense of being brown.

Originally published at http://blog.umd.edu on October 19, 2019.

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Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)

I do education research. Interested in emotions, ideology, epistemology, identity, values, ethics, and learning …