Living in Limbo [Creating Space]

Creating Space

Creating Space is a 5 part series that will be featured on Hugs & Lattes every Wednesday through the month of November. This is the 4th installment. To view last three posts, see here and here and here. Please note that the interviewee’s experiences are their own; they cannot speak for anyone and everyone in their circumstances. While stories may be similar, each individual has their own perspective. 

I have no idea how I first came to follow Divya’s blog, but as I noticed her posting pictures on her Facebook page, I realized that a lot of the background scenery looked eerily familiar – like – she was living where I grew up. Let me tell you, friends, coming from small town East Tennessee, you never expect to find someone on the Internet who lives where you are from. I reached out to her about a year ago and we compared notes about life in rural East Tennessee. I have loved following Diya’s blog; she has so many wise observations about the world, self-care, and life. My all-time favorite post is one of her most recent posts where she recaps her sister’s wedding in Cancun. And now I am determined to somehow be invited and/or crash an Indian wedding one day because oh. my. word. They know how to party! I’m glad that I have the opportunity to introduce you guys to an amazing blogger who is sharing her experiences growing up in America and transplanting to East Tennessee. (Which, let’s be real, is like being in a whole ‘nother country for some of y’all.)

Creating Space

Tell me About You

Tell me a little about yourself, your family, where you grew up, etc. 

I spent 30 years of my life as a resident of California. (Seriously. Moving day was ON my 30th birthday). I grew up in Southern California, attended UCLA for college, and then, after I completed my Masters and credentialing program I moved up to the Bay Area to begin teaching up there. I’m a special education teacher and I absolutely adore spending my day figuring out how to connect with little ones and identifying how to best meet their needs.

What has it been like to move from California to a small town in East Tennessee with a small minority population?

In June of 2016, I moved across country to rural Tennessee so my husband could pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. From spending most of my life in a big city or the surrounding suburbs, I went through quite a bit of culture shock when I moved out here. Not to mention, I look a whole lot different than the average resident.

I was fortunate and found a teaching job almost immediately and spent the months between August-March teaching as a 4th grade inclusion teacher at a local elementary school. In March, I decided to quit. It was really difficult to be an outsider coming in and suggesting changes being made to a pretty cemented system. I figured I could be a better advocate for my students if I wasn’t an employee of the county. Now, I’m temporarily working an administrative job at the university my husband attends school at.

Tell me about your faith and why it is important to you. 

My faith. Oh, my faith. It’s a tricky thing to explain to people. I grew up in a divided household. Both of my parents were born Hindus. My mom continues to practice her faith and my dad identifies as being somewhere between Atheist and Agnostic. Because Hinduism is so much more than a religion – it’s got a bit of culture tied into everything – I grew up practicing a lot of the traditions and participating in the prayers because it all blended together. It’s hard to really categorize each holiday or celebration as being “religious” or not.

My mom has a mandir (a shrine with statues and images of all the gods and goddesses) both upstairs and downstairs in my childhood home. And – from the day I popped out of her womb – she has been committed to praying once in the morning and once in the evening. She would make us stand at the mandir before an exam or before a big presentation. And she would make sure we repeated the Gayatri Mantra (a sacred chant) before we were allowed to open our eyes and step away from the mandir.

My father, on the other hand, believes that religion is so much more than standing in front of a deity and praying. He believes religion is in your day to day conduct. Your behavior. Your ability to stand in front of a mirror and say, “Was I the best possible person I could possibly be today?”

My father grew up in India at a time when the Muslim/Hindu riots were at a really high, stressful point. He was just a child, but he can still vividly remember homes being burned down, people dying, and horrible things happening. Because of religion. So, needless to say, he hasn’t been a big fan of the whole religion thing.

So, it’s hard to really know what MY faith is when I grew up in a divided, confusing household. I feel fortunate that neither one of my parents pushed anything on me or my sister. They gave us room to figure it out on our own.

Today, I identify as being a Hindu. And in the Hindu religion, we have many gods and goddesses. It is an all-inclusive religion. Hindus believe there is a single eternal path, but do not believe that any one religion is the only valid religion. The “eternal path” is seen reflected in all religions. And that kind of acceptance and love for all is what draws me to identifying with being a Hindu.

Creating Space

On Identity

How has growing up in America shaped your identity?

I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood and was one of the few minority kids at my elementary school and high school. I, naturally, gravitated toward the other Asian kids. But despite my friend group, I still felt as though I stuck out. Sure, the color of my skin. But in other ways that were a little less obvious. When my friends came over, I would apologize that my house smelled like masala. When it was lunch time at school, I shamefully kept my sandwich inside my brown bag as I tore up piece by piece so my friends didn’t have to see that my mom had thrown in the Indian leftovers in between two pieces of toast. When my grandparents called on my cell phone, I would step away from the crowd I was with so they didn’t have to hear me speak in Hindi. It was a really challenging time to grow up in a place where you felt so different. I didn’t quite feel 100% Indian. But I didn’t quite feel 100% American. I was in limbo. And it was really, really confusing for my young brain.

Do you have any pivotal memories growing up that strengthened or weakened your perception and identity of who you are?

When I went to college and met other people who looked like me, grew up like me, celebrated the same traditions as me, I started embracing my culture. Surprisingly, I didn’t gravitate toward the Indian crowd the way other Indians tend to do in college. It was nice to know that they were there. But I just sort of observed them from a distance while I found a good group of friends through the organizations I was involved in. Because there was SO much diversity in college, I felt way more comfortable talking about my culture, sharing my Indian food that I brought from home after the weekends, etc.

What do you love about your culture?

Something I love about the Indian culture is the community. I spent my entire life calling random strangers “Aunty” and “Uncle” and, when I was younger, I genuinely thought I was related to every single person that came over to my house. But, turns out, that’s just what we do. It feels like family when I come across someone who is Indian because we know the same language, we eat the same foods, we celebrate the same holidays. And we’re loud and rambunctious and obnoxious. But when you’re in the midst of all the chaos, it just feels good to look around and feel at home.

Creating Space

Racism in America 

What are some microaggressions you have experienced in the US?

Most of the microaggressions have been due to a lack of understanding and (hopefully) not malevolent. I’ve been called Mexican quite a few times. Anytime we had a substitute teacher, I would cringe when I heard the sigh and then the lack of effort as they started to spell out the name. Since moving to the small town in Tennessee, I’ve had a number of people ask me why I’m here. Because I stand out. Again, none of these situations have made me feel unsafe. It was just me coming across people who were confused and/or curious.

What has been your response? 

Before this year, if anyone made a comment or a general judgment about Indian people, I could feel my blood boiling. I got really defensive and angry and wanted to throw it right back in their face. I remember – so vividly – an interaction with someone who was born and brought up in rural Tennessee. We were celebrating a co-worker’s birthday and he popped his head into the room and said, “Do they celebrate birthdays in India?” I was so taken aback by the question that I immediately fired back, “No. We’re all monkeys out there. We don’t really understand the concept of a birthday.” Everyone around me laughed. Most of them realized I was joking. And this man joined in on the laughter, but I could tell he felt a little uneasy. Like maybe he wasn’t sure if I was telling the truth. Like maybe he couldn’t tell if he offended me. It wasn’t until I went home later that evening that I realized that he probably didn’t know. He was asking a question. An honest question. And, instead of using it as an opportunity to share things about my culture, I just shot him down. I was pissed at his ignorance. But I didn’t offer a way out of that ignorance. I could have very easily opened up the channels to communicate about our different cultures, but because I was so defensive and uncomfortable at being viewed as different than the majority here, I just got angry.

How do you reconcile your faith in your religion/faith in humanity with the racial tension we have witnessed this past year?

I’m learning. Living here has been one of the greatest opportunities I have been given. Because it’s forcing me out of my California bubble. It’s forcing me to feel uncomfortable and move in closer to people who may have never met an Indian person in their entire life. It’s teaching me that I don’t have to blend in. That I can stand out. Even if it makes me feel awkward and unusual.

What is one thing you wish the white community could understand when it comes to race and racism in America?

I’m finding that I am living in fear more than anything else. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of feeling disconnected. Fear of criticism and judgment. Fear of thinking that people will be threatened by the color of my skin. And, with the current climate of our country, I worry that someone is going to view me as a terrorist. I don’t think this is something that is in the forefront of my mind all the time. I don’t fear walking into our local grocery store. I don’t fear going out to dinner. It’s just this dull fear that lives in me. All the time. That forces me to assimilate and acclimate to the culture around me so people don’t think that I’m any different. I notice myself doing it when I’m at the airport. When I’m sitting in the exit row in an airplane, I think to myself, “Make sure you give a verbal “Yes” with eye contact and a friendly smile so they don’t think you’re going to take this plane down.”

It’s small things like that. Where I alter my behavior so that I don’t even give someone the opportunity to question me.

Creating Spcae

Unity

What does unity look like to you?

I’m currently reading Brene Brown’s, ‘Braving the Wilderness’ and it’s shining light on all the things that we, as a society, are doing to make us more and more divisive over time.

This quote speaks to me. So much. And I’m hoping that, with time, this stuff comes to me naturally. But I’m so grateful for the opportunity – today, tomorrow, and the next day – to keep showing up and trying.

“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. If we are going to change what is happening in a meaningful way we’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up and join, and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.” – Brene Brown

Divya Mathur is the blogger behind Eat Teach Blog. A recent transplant to rural Tennessee from sunny California, she is currently struggling with how to dress herself when the temperatures drop below 65 degrees. She experienced her first snowfall in January of this year and she is loving this new adventure in Tennessee as her husband pursues his dream of becoming a doctor. She loves reading, experimenting in the kitchen, and going on long hikes. She’s also a self-proclaimed wine connoisseur and – if calories didn’t count – would live off of french fries and froyo!
You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook 

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