Growing up, my complexion was never light enough, my hair was never straight enough, my B.O. was never fresh enough, and my name was never pronounced easily enough. I was the only lanky, brown girl, placed in the midst of people I couldn’t identify with. Some people referred to me as just “that Indian girl” when they should have at least called me, “that Pakistani girl.” I never felt like I could relate to friends who were simply “American.”
I felt as if I was an unwanted clove, forcefully sprinkled throughout a traditional South Asian rice dish: it’s alright to have them on your plate, but everyone pushes them around from corner to corner until eventually they’re left alone on the plate with the rejected rice.
Then it hit me: What was my purpose as that unwanted clove?
Apparently it was to season the life of my fellow students because my teacher once told me that I added “flavor” to the class, just like the clove added flavor to the rice. That seems like a compliment; except, I barely raised my hand in class because I was still taking ESL lessons. So I didn’t even participate in discussions to add anything to the class. Being the single, brown girl was like an incentive for Mr. Jones; he was at the liberty to think the classroom was diversified at my expense. While school wasn’t exactly the source of my fondest memories, my South Asian culture further complicated both my identity and the answer to the question, “Where do I fit in?”
One word explains it all: Bollywood.
It’s like Hollywood, except for the outbursts of song and dance mid-conversation. This behemoth of standards and expectations turned my nightmarish life into a parody for the world to laugh at me. Seeing the fair, smooth complexion of the women of Bollywood, I went through a “Fair and Lovely” phase, which was a cream meant to lighten my skin like toothpaste lightens the stains on your teeth. To transform my locks into a sleek and shiny texture like the actresses have in scenes after they’ve just awakened, I ironed my hair more often than I ironed my clothes. Yet another detail that irked me was how the names of actresses could be shortened into cute nicknames or resembles English words. “Aishwarya” can conveniently be shortened to “Ash”, “Kareena” is pronounced pretty much like its spelled, and even if you butcher “Preity”, it sounds at best like “pretty.” My name isn’t equipped with any of those superpowers. It’s just four letters, so it can’t really be shortened, nor does it resemble a word in English. Well, my friend’s niece did call me “hairy”, but it doesn’t have as nice a ring to it.
The dilemma was that my concept of valuing my identity stemmed from superficial aspects of what I heard people around me define as “beautiful.” When I discovered that I could never attain numerous details of that cultural ideal, my self-esteem shrunk faster than an extreme shopper’s patience on Black Friday. This shallow model of perfection was like a moist bar of soap that kept slipping out of my hands the more I tried to grasp it. I would fall and land on my ego each time; bruising it worse than the time before. Thankfully, that all changed after watching a few episodes of The Office.
Aside from the humor and awkward moments that I could relate to, Mindy Kaling was the reason I identified with the sitcom on a personal level. Not only was she a featured character in a hit TV show, she was a woman of South Asian descent who didn’t try to hide her skin color under heavy makeup or her curves, or her jagged wit. In fact, her contribution behind the scenes as a writer, editor, and later producer of the show proved to be a valuable asset to the show’s success. She was to me in a word: real. Her physical appearance was not the sole factor that defined her persona because as an individual, she had various talents to offer. There were several reasons I was drawn to her in a “big-sister-I-never-had” kind of way.
For example, although she is professionally known as “Mindy Kaling”, her birth name is Vera Chokalingam. You may think that “Vera” isn’t a difficult name to pronounce. Let me direct you to her surname: Chokalingam, which I imagine has posed a challenge. Also, her complexion is a closer shade not only to mine but frankly, it’s a more accurate representation of South Asian women. Granted, some women are fairer than others; but having visible brown pigmentation is more of an indication that I’m going to be referred to as “that Indian girl” compared to my light-skinned counterparts. Instead of shying away from the topic of skin color, Mindy embraces it as a valuable part of her individuality and identifies as a woman of color. While South Asian mores regarding beauty are still restrictive for women like Mindy and I, I feel more comfortable knowing there are successful women like Mindy who aren’t afraid of changing social standards and being beautiful for more reasons than just having a “Preity” face, literally and figuratively.