The following story was shared with HOPE.
We immigrated to the United States when I was four years old from India. We spoke English – my parents were both professionals in Mumbai, and we were a well-respected family. Here, though, even at that young age, I could tell people didn’t look at us the same way. We spoke English, but everyone had thick accents, and it made people judge us right away.
When I was old enough to go to school, the other kids, I noticed, brought things like ham sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly, but my mother sent me to school with a Tupperware full of rice and butter chicken. I never thought anything of it, until one little girl looked over at me one lunch hour and made a face. “What is that smell?” she asked, in the loudest voice possible. I thought I wanted to die. At the very least, I wanted to sink under the desk and pretend I never existed. From then on, I was the smelly girl.
For the better part of elementary school, my mom continued to send me our native dishes. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and money was tight… my dad was an accountant back home, but here, he drove a cab most of the day and took on side jobs whenever he could. My mom was also an accountant in India, but here, she decided to stay home to care for the three of us kids. Sometimes she took on clothing alteration jobs, but that never paid much. Hemming pants didn’t pay a lot. So anyway, I knew how much my parents valued time, money and food, so the last thing I wanted was to spit back in their faces and tell them I didn’t want to bring butter chicken to school anymore, that I wanted to be “normal” like the other kids and bring sandwiches instead.
But you know, kids will be kids, and I would sneak into the restroom at school before anyone could notice and throw the food away, carefully wrapped in plastic bags so no one would smell it. Or at least that’s what I hoped. That’s what I told myself. I’d go home hungry. But anything was better than being labeled. I got called names little girls should never hear. As a result, I couldn’t focus on school, I was losing weight, and I became really withdrawn. I hated my ethnicity. I hated myself for being myself.
I was viciously taunted all the way through to freshman year in high school, but then we moved to a new neighborhood, where there were more immigrant families. I made friends with girls whose families came from different parts of the world, and that’s when I discovered magazines – American magazines – that taught me my looks were not weird but exotic. My dark hair was something to celebrate, not hide. I found out people paid a lot of money for great Indian food.
But it was almost too late. I had been bullied for so long, and during such formative years, that everything I was reading, everything I wanted to believe, felt and sounded like a lie. Even though my new friends tried to convince me I was attractive and intelligent and had so much to offer because of my Indian heritage and my American upbringing, I couldn’t leave those torturous playgrounds.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way; I know I’m not the only child who’s ever been bullied or abused. I know that despite my parents’ loving ways, and how my friends have supported and loved me through the years, my depression and the residual effects of such abuse continue to haunt me, despite all logic.
I’m working every day on projecting confidence and elevating my own sense of self-worth, through weekly therapy and constant education. But childhood bullying leaves a stain on a person, sometimes more than even I realize. It’s affected my sense of trust, but definitely my own sense of self – sometimes I think I don’t know who I am because I’m so greatly affected by who I was told I was.