So, the whole world might not know I am Indian, but I do.
I am looking at a beautiful pair of sandals in a shop in Edison, NJ, when the sales lady comes up behind me.
My older cousin dubbed me "palely" when I was 16. I remember looking at her rich dark skin and thinking if only I had that I would be better. I tried calling her "brownie" in retaliation, but my mother said that wasn't right. My sister thought that "palely" sounded too much like a real name, so "Wonderbread" was substituted. The running joke was that I was the "white sheep" of the family.
In college I went to a meeting of the South Asia Society at Boston University in my custom made kurta with jeans and sandals. Nothing. Nobody said a word to me. As I looked around I saw that everybody there already knew one another. They came to the university in their readymade cliques from high school. I was too late.
In India it was even worse. Let's face it, there people are a lot more upfront with their questions and opinions. I had many people come up to me and say, "You must be mixed!" I even remember one older lady looking up at me and asking "Why are you here?" That really hit hard. Did she mean for those words to hurt? Probably not, but they did.
Why are you here? What right do you have to be in India? Why bother? You don't belong and you never will.
Perhaps the most blatant moment in my pale life came when I went with my family to the Taj Mahal. When my darker sister went up to the gate to pay her admission she was charged Rs. 5, the "indigenous" rate. Me? Not a chance. I got the full Rs. 100 foreigners bill. It was as if the entire country looked at me and judged me unworthy. Not phenotypically brown enough to stand with the Aryan ranks.
The funny thing is that my family may tease me about my complexion, but at the same time it resists my changing it. The first time I went to India I wandered out on the patio at my Dadi Ma's house in the afternoon to get some sun. You would have thought I was trying to kill someone! My Bua came tearing after me to get inside the house immediately before I burned to a crisp. I wished! The odd thing about my pale skin is that it not only won't burn (perhaps it is the latent melanin just lurking under the surface), but it resists tanning with every fiber of its cellular structure.
It took me a long time to realize that neither other people's expectations or assumptions, nor all the tanning beds in Pennsylvania would make me Indian. I had to decide if my color was going to determine for me who I was or if I was going to make that decision.
So, the whole world might not know I am Indian, but I do. I believe in chai in the afternoon above all else. A bowl of papri chaat really can make everything better and I make a damn good alu gobi. And when I married the man of my dreams last year, I stood tall and proud in a red sari in front of the pundit. Because I know who I am.
So when a shopkeeper, like the one in Edison asks me if I like Indian things, I just smile, nod and, after looking at the price tag, walk out of the store.
As any self-respecting Indian can tell you, I can get those sandals much cheaper in India.
Anna Narissa Dhody Hager, curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, lives in New Jersey.