Written by Nidhi Chanchlani
Graphic by Maya Martinez
Boxes. You can only check one.
Check the box that ‘applies’ or check other. But people don’t know, they don’t slip between the spaces like I do. They don’t ever switch between or even ditch parts of themselves and they never, ever have to make the compromise of which. Which part of me goes away so that I may belong today? Which facet of my life, my personality, will camouflage the most and provoke the least? Because I need to work and succeed and make sure that my voice is the one that people heed. Most days when I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself, I see a switchboard of traits, with the ability to change my fate. With the flip of a switch, today I can be the perfect Indian daughter or I could be that whitewashed brown girl at school, more American than the bald eagle. Or perhaps I’m feeling rebellious today. Maybe I don’t want to be who the world wants me to be, maybe I don’t want to fit into the boxes that society tells me I must. But no matter what I choose, I’m always an imposter, unwelcome even in my own life.
So I check boxes, willing these boxes to be true. Willing myself to fit so perfectly into a box, to explain my identity with a single word. But the box is empty. It sits there, staring and glaring, daring me to just choose. Pack myself into one. But I’m an expert at boxes. My whole life can be packed into a box, fit neatly inside, and I’ve got it figured out, down to an art. I can pack my identity into a box in under an hour, throwing away the parts that people don’t like, the parts that shock and offend, and aren’t so easily accepted. Because where there’s roots, there’s acceptance and power. But not for me. Not me, you see, I’m all topsoil. Topsoil packed into boxes, ready to be carried from country to country. I can never just check a box but I carry myself in a neat little box from door to door.
When people ask me where I’m from, there’s no simple answer. I’m forced to say that I’m from a little bit of a lot of places because I have no roots, just topsoil in too many different places. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve tried to spread my roots, and just when I think I may have cracked the secret, I’m uprooted and all that’s left behind is a lingering memory. So I spend my life remembering places by the roots I left behind and the box of memories that I take from each place because it is these very boxes that build the foundation of me. But that’s not the kind of box that people ever ask for. Because even when I fit into a box, it’s never the right kind of box. So many rules in the book, so many cans and can’ts.
I ponder that question a lot, where am I from? I’ve come to realize the places don’t define me, the people do. The experiences do. The laughter does. I am from the humour, grit, and sacrifices of my parents and their parents before them. I’m from old family photos, and hidden gems kept safe in my dadi’s drawers and possessions. I’m from subtle revelations so that we may never forget where we came from or how we got here. I’m from staying strong no matter what and seeing the world as a beautiful place. I’m from the front porch where we’d catch lightning bugs and where I read a thousand books with the twilight sun. I’m from reading a book in a silent room, my mind a slave to words. I’m from traveling the world and teary family reunions that I will remember for years to come.
I belong in the spaces in between. Check all that may apply.