Note: This essay was originally published in the Yale Herald.
When I am a young, slight, brown baby girl in Pennsylvania, I learn my ABCDs. I like the tune, the singing. I like the way it is always followed by crisp warm apple pie and vanilla ice cream. My parents packed dal and rice, the food of our people. The daycare advisor liked to dip her fingers into my food. “Too spicy,” she complained to my father. So she took the packed food away, presented me with apple pie and vanilla ice cream. At the time it seemed just swell to me.
In Chinese school, we learn a different song to the same tune. I learn my Bo Po Mo Fos quickly, but struggle to not intermix the two languages as I sing: Bo Po Mo Fo E F G. They are basic, beautiful sounds. At the time it seemed like the knowledge of all beautiful things were packed into those two languages, like I understood every edge of the universe. There was no other register necessary.
Many years later, in the Yale Class of 2021 Facebook group, a South Asian boy asks if he should start a group for ABCDs. The song starts in my head, intermixing with the Mandarin. I have heard the term before, from the ABCDs of my youth, but this can’t be what they mean. Luckily, I have urban dictionary to educate me:
Stands for “American Born Confused Desi”
A derogatory term used for Indians who have grown up in the United States and who act “American”
The endless cycle of song stops in my head, the sweetness of my childhood naivete hitting me like whiplash, a parasitic stone in my belly, sinking to the floor.
It is strange to grow up “confused” in America, to be racialized at 13, to know that you’re inferior but not know the margins of your inferiority because no one has cared enough to tell you. These are the margins that will determine the quality of your life, the extent of your successes, the expanse of your isolation.
In economics, I learn that decisions are made at the margin, with the minute experiences: A police officer threatening my mother with arrest after she asked when the Williamsburg Bridge opened so she could take me to school, my father randomly checked by the TSA, Balthazar customers touching me and colloquializing me as a terrorist. Decisions are made at the margin.
It is confusing in history class when people call them American-Indians or sometimes just Indians, confusing when you learn about their genocide, to wonder “Are those my people?” You eventually realize that they are your birthed people, as they are born in the same country as you, assigned the identity “American”, but that they are not “your people” as the language is used in America. While people have known this for generations, they refer to these vastly different cultures by the same name, which is to say that they do not care enough to differentiate because neither of you matter, which is to say that the prejudices passed down from Christopher Columbus are alive and well.
How strange to join the other ABCDs at Yale and remember some mention of Elihu Yale’s money coming from India, to learn that he was the governor of your father’s hometown, to discover that he bolstered the enslavement of your ancestral people, that the education you have been parched for was birthed in a deal behind your back in blood.
How tantalizing to be called confused by urbandictionary, a proclamation made by some societal force that says : You are lost, go back to your country, go back to where you came from, which is a pretty way of asking me to leave my home and my birthed people, my people on the Upper West Side and Williamsburg, my people in Bed Stuy and State College, Iowa, and Albany.
I sing my ABCDs, my clear crystal sound unwavering.
I have been marked in-between, without place, without home. Coconut, I am called, populations feasting on the fruits of my body while it is trendy, though I recall with clarity my childhood friend wrinkling her nose and telling me repeatedly that I smelled like curry.
I may be hurt by this rejection, but I am not confused.
The American discomfort is not mine. I will wear this culture, or rather our culture, the culture of America, that porridge of pillaging, oppression, privilege, and pretension, when and how I want. It is the culture of my people, our people, and I will apologize and learn when I need to to make us stronger. This is the most patriotic service I could do for my country, for its woes.
I will attend Yale and think hard of my people, my ancestral and birthed people. I will visit Capitol Hill and think hard about the bitter, angry resentment I hold towards that college I so love. I will visit Washington and the White House and think hard about my people who are not my people, the people that knew chains and the sore feeling in my belly in magnitudes inconceivable to my young mind.
I will romanticize and love my country and its big, beautiful greatness, and I will try my best to apologize and find restitution for its terrors. But I will not be, never have been, confused.
I will wear henna and red high heels when I go to prom. I will wear green paisley embroidery and a wool pea coat, I will wear gold in all its iterations. I will dress in a sari but still be American, because I know who I am. I will not become disoriented. I will not be confused.
I love my body, my self, its patch work of colors and cultures, just as I love the textures of chicken and vegetables in my father’s homemade paprika chicken soup. The taste is made better, stronger, more complex by variety.
I won’t choose one or the other. I will not deny myself a good dinner or nourishment. I am not confused about what makes for good soup, a strong body, and a beautiful country.
You are uncomfortable that I can be more than one thing, don’t like that I am not limited in my conceptualization of self. Why? Perhaps you understand America differently, associate our identity with violence and rules. You want to keep me out as you were kept out, feel that I have not paid for my place in America.
You would like a sacrifice, something to prove that I am truly American, not a confused export of India that needs to be sent back with a UPS return label. Your ancestor, whatever origin you may be, gave something. They gave freedom, they gave money, hope, home, family, and fortune. Sometimes, often, they did not give. Often, it was taken.
But I am here to say that I have made my sacrifice at the altar of America. I do not know if I gave it or if it was taken. All I know is that I can’t take it back. I tried to take it back when Donald Trump was elected, when the votes came in from Wisconsin. I told myself that I could move away, far away, told myself I could leave and never look back. I told myself that there was no point in staying in a country that clearly didn’t want me.
But the truth is, I can’t leave. I can’t turn my back on America, because I am deeply in love with this country. America is in my blood, in my soul. I grew up in a household unaligned to a certain god so the only time I pressed my hand to my heart was during the pledge of allegiance. My hymns were the songs that proclaimed the beauty of our land, its richness, its gentle spirit, its kindness. America has taken my heart, so though I may want to leave, go to China and France, though I may consider retracing the steps of my mother and father to return to India, I know that some part of me will always be left here. About this, I am not confused.