Proud of My Identity

I am a first generation Indian American, and sadly, it took me nearly 18 years to embrace my culture and heritage. Growing up in the United States with a different skin color was an emotional experience. I was called “brownie” and never understood why my skin and hair color were different. Most challenging for me, was my name “Usha.” I was called “Busha,” “Pusha,” etc. There were days where I dreaded going to school, and at home I dreaded the “colored” Indian food that is not popular such as dal (lentils) and tandoori chicken. At home, I craved American food like burgers and steak, and my parents willingly gave in to my food demands. When my mom cooked Indian food, I would open the window and throw it out.

When I went to college, I realize I missed the colored food my mom cooked, missed the Bollywood movies and music, and, most importantly, missed the Indian political discussions with my dad. I took great pride in my culture my freshman year in college. By then, I was mature enough to realize my family’s illustrious political endeavors in India, and I wanted to follow that political route.

With time, I did not care about the color of my skin or hair color. My weekend mission every Friday was to take the train to Boston to eat at an Indian restaurant. I also took great pride in my name and was patient to individuals on how to pronounce it. This was after as a child asking my parents why they could not give me a simple name like “Sheila.”

To further confuse my identity and culture, my parents and I became targets during both Persian Gulf Wars. We were mistakened as Arabs. I will never forget when a man banged on the hood of my mom’s car at the red light and spit, saying, “Go home to your country,” What country, I would ask in my mind. Because I am in my country.

To add more fuel to the fire, I will never forget the evening the first Persian Gulf War broke out, and we ate at a prominent food chain restaurant. We sat at the table, and the server took our order. As we patiently waited for our dinner on a school night, we witnessed lots of families come and go. Finally, the manager came and, giggling, indicated the restaurant ran out of food to serve us. What the manager was really meant was along the lines of, “If you are hungry, go back to your country.”

As a former Senate staffer, I continued to be on the receiving end of queries from constituents questioning my ethnicity like: “How did you get this job with a foreign name?” or “I must be an Obama supporter because of the color of my skin.”

I can honestly say that I have matured with time, and openly embrace my culture and am proud of my identity. Over the years, the verbal insults were painful, but they made me savvier knowing when and how to respond back. I am proud of who I am, and proud to serve the constituent needs.

Our community bleeds when verbal and physical attacks occur. When will this bleeding stop, and what can we do about it?

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Usha Tewari is a first-generation Indian-American born and raised in Orlando. Ms. Tewari has over 14 years of experience working for elected officials at the federal and local levels. She currently works full-time in local government managing 13 individuals and is a caregiver to her mother who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s/Dementia. In 2019, she was Orlando Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” with her advocacy efforts. In her spare time, she devotes herself to advancing Alzheimer’s/Dementia awareness at the grassroots level in her community as well as Tallahassee and Washington D.C. She serves as an Alzheimer’s Ambassador for Congresswoman Demings.

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Avatar photo Jenn Noinaj

This really resonated with me Usha. I appreciated that you shared your experience growing up and being ashamed at first – that was definitely me too. Stories like this are so important to share! Thank you.