Being Brown

girls schoolThe girls have started school. They hug and then they run off, sometimes they come back for a second hug. One of the teachers told me,”We prefer if the parents don’t linger.”So Tom and I don’t or try not to. It is hard. In Berkeley, at the same school for 5 years, we lingered and not just we, many parents. Many congregated on the sidewalk, some in the coffee shop near by. At the international school here, most kids take the bus. Those who come with their parents, walk into the school alone and do not seem the worse off for it. “Helicopter parents.” My husband once told me. “We are hovering around our children all the time trying to facilitate their lives by making sure they have enough friends, are in the classes with teachers we like and cross every obstacle on their behalf if we can.” I didn’t know other ways to be their parent. Those who were on the other side of the spectrum, busy with their own carriers, hands off about what their children ate or what their children did after school seemed callous and uncaring to me. There must be a balance; I hope to find it here.

Day four at the school. I am standing at a distance and watching the  children. I do not want to be accused of “lingering.” I realize that my children are almost hard to pick out in a crowd. They are brown among brown. Do they revel in this freedom of anonymity? Does their skin sing in harmony with the brownness of the earth and of their friends? My oldest was four when she had painted her first picture of herself- brown skinned and dark haired in a classroom of what she called “peach skinned and golden hair”girls. At their school in Berkeley, our girls were poster girls for the diversity the school wished to project about itself. And yet, the girls were asked to remove their bangles. Every girl in India, young or old wears one on her wrist. I tried to explain this to their teachers but they were not impressed. “But what about understanding diversity?” I would often ask.

Does sameness in color grant one a greater sense of belonging? I think it does. Divergent colors and backgrounds are not impediments for friendships or love but similar skin colors can be a facilitator in relationships. “An African-American thinks or realizes something about his or her color every thirty seconds.” I once heard this in a workshop in San Francisco. It is true that in America, I was often self conscious or proud of my difference, depending where I was that day. Never indifferent, never oblivious. I watch the girls play and hope they will revel in the sameness they share with this country and a culture. Whether it will help them make friendships, I do not know. For now, I hope they can forget for a while the color of their skin.

Below is an article I had  written about their schooling in Berkeley a year ago-

Navigating school

Four years ago, my daughters started their schooling in a French school in Berkeley. Now, not only was I not just an “alien” (the official term used by UCSIS for immigrants) but also I was now a Francophone alias Indian alias non American alias non French-American alien. The first few days dropping and picking the children from school were spent in the normal haze of children whimpering and crying. Ishani, the oldest drew pictures of herself brown skinned and black haired in a room full of what she still calls “peach “skinned and blonde haired. When we were called for a parent teacher meeting for Asheema who was then not even three, I joked with my to be husband, “What will they tell us that she cannot draw within the lines?” We listened in disbelief as her teacher who had just come from France sat with the dean of students explaining how she was concerned about Asheema not running in a line, of the certain tilt to her head and yes, the inability to draw within the lines. We left the meeting shaking our heads in a tizzy of fear and worry about their futures. What I had never imagined had happened! Our three year old not being able to run in a straight line or draw within lines were indicators of a serious problem.

Dropping the girls to school every morning I am caught in a more personal problem, the dilemma of not fitting in myself. The women around me whether French or American, difficult to discern from simply skin color or nose shape are all impeccably dressed. Their faces do not reveal any of the trials and tribulations of being a parent who is dropping a child to school at 8 am in the morning. Hairs and nails gleam, their perfect clothes drape their shapes in good taste. Some days I try to look like them but end up more like a mannequin at uncertain store front. You must have passed them by, these stores. They sort of have the right clothes but somehow something is wrong, it could be the accessories are clueless or the mannequin’s hair looks like an old man’s wig. In winter I am glad I can cover myself in a gigantic coat and sometimes I am still wearing my pyjamas under this coat at drop off. I am ashamed. But I am a woman of intellect I tell myself; I have numerous degrees in English and French literature. I will find women like me. I don’t find them not because they were not there but because they could not understand me. In the early days, I was so glad to finally be able to speak in French again that I spoke freely and often. “Can you speak more slowly?” A kindly mother with a French accent asked me in halting English. I tried English which I have spoken since my birth, I tried French which I spoke since I was twelve but my English and my French were too Indian for the lack of any other way to describe it. I looked longingly at moms in groups conversing in either of these languages. I never joined them.

There were some Indians in the school, not many at that time. One of the women, a professor at UC Berkeley spoke Bengali. I was thrilled- a compatriot. Other than language, we had nothing in common. She oozed self-confidence, her accent more exotic than mine. As a full time faculty at the university, she also had no time. No time, don’t fit- it was one or the other for me. Meanwhile my older daughter continued to draw pictures of herself, brown and black almost a blotch or a blob in a peach skinned and golden universe and her younger sister continued to be a source of concern to her teacher. “You should get her ears checked. Maybe she has a problem with her balance.,” her teacher said. It amazes me now to recall how quietly I would acquiesce at everything. I got her ears checked. She was just fine, my pediatrician assured me. My daughters and I continued to float in bubbles of uncertainty. I was constantly plagued by my shame and inability to fit in and when I saw that reflected in my children’s struggles I took it is my own failure.

We have now been in the French school for almost four years. The older daughter still meets the school psychologist. She is a developing artist. Her self- portraits in brown and black shine with color. I recently crossed what I considered my final American frontier and met a therapist. And my younger daughter? She is a budding gymnast on the school play-ground. Her last report card describes her as a “joy to watch on the monkey bars!”





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