By Sanjana Khusal
One day, when I was 5 years old, I covered my skin in sunscreen. I have naturally dark skin, due to my estranged Indian grandparents. It was a hot summer and the fan swirled hot air around the orange bedroom. There is an explicit contrast between my tan skin against my white, cotton t-shirt and linen shorts. At first, the sunscreen was to protect myself from the sun, from burning my skin to a charred crisp. When I think of that time, I think of Snow White: milky skin, ruby lips, ebony hair. I’d always found white skin luxurious. Snow White was my mother’s favourite Disney princess, and still is today. My mum always reminds me of the cultural legacy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, how it was the first colour film. At the time, she was a portrait of feminine innocence. So, I slathered the sun cream thick on my arms to cover my brown skin; but it smeared across my skin like a cheap foundation and kept catching on my fine arm hairs.
This memory has always been imprinted on my mind. My brown body, the white paste and the orange carpet. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I see skin darker than everyone else, like a heavy shadow that only I can see. Before anyone can hear a sound escape my lips, they see my Indian skin. My mind and soul are nonexistent. What is unquestionably existent is my sunken black eyes and pug-face frown. Being Indian is my predetermined identifier. I have always questioned the significance of my skin: If my voice came with white skin, would people be more interested in my words? I am made of monochromatic colours: thick brows, walnut lips, mahogany hair. And my voice will always come with an Indian face.
Asians have the reputation of multiplying and being obnoxious, like ravenous rats. We have been called out for being outlandish. As a child, I was called a know-it-all. My school said it was a romantic comment, charming and pretty. At the time, I didn't know how to explain the underlying sarcasm in calling someone smart. I was taught quickly that others saw everything differently to me. Others thought that being called a "smart-ass" by a snotty kid meant he had a crush on me. I never know whether these titles are an attack on my body or mind. So, I internalised this brandish reputation and I accepted it as my identity. Whenever I spoke, I would be careful to hold my tongue. I would learn there was nothing to be done, that I couldn’t avoid these comments.
In school, I had a speech prepared whenever someone asked if I was Indian: “my mum is from England, my dad was born in Pukekohe. It’s my grandparents who are from India. I’m not sure where in India.” It wasn’t until I was around 15 that people stopped asking. This was because anyone who had wanted to know had already asked. In my last year of high school, I started to struggle to recognise my ethnicity. I wrote stories about bleaching skin, anti-tanning solution, colourblind vision. I spent lunches in the classroom so I wouldn’t get darker.
I have never felt like a ‘cultural’ person. I am not someone with a deep desire to understand her own heritage. During my first year of university, I was taking a sociology course and we spent time learning about the history of New Zealand immigration. I had a strange epiphany that my mother and father’s parents were immigrants. I knew I was Indian but never thought of them as immigrants. I was curious about the significance of being where I am because of their choice to move here. My grandmother and mother both chose to move from their hometowns for a better life here. When I mentioned this to Mum in conversation, she didn’t respond. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, out of frustration, she explained that she was offended by being called an immigrant; herself probably coming to terms with the term. Immigrants referred to invasions of Asians taking all the jobs and housing, Syrian refugees dispersing across the land, Mexicans bringing drugs into America. It was like I knew this secret no one else would acknowledge: no one in New Zealand was originally from here. But nobody wanted to be an immigrant either
This is all an unspoken, internalised argument of us versus them. Me being classified as Indian has never been under duress. But in today’s generation, it is near impossible to meet anyone without a mix in culture. Our grandparents, parents, or even ourselves have moved to New Zealand and settled on this land. I am afraid to say I have not figured out ethnicity either. Over the years, my mind has incorporated the culture around me, mixing my family culture with New Zealand culture. I have had to separate my skin from my thoughts. Should I be performing my Indian ethnicity or should I embrace my new space? I am learning to acknowledge my heritage and explore what that means to me beyond my shade of colour.