Posted by: PG | December 16, 2009

Brown or White (Not a song by Weird Al)

My parents emigrated from India in the late 60’s to ensure greater opportunity for their children. Leaving behind their land, culture, and people, they gained an especial sensitivity towards raising my siblings and me with Indian values. As we reached school age they increasingly shared influence, however, with teachers and friends. Moreover, my parents’ intentions softened as they engaged in American life.

Indians commonly refer to Indian-Americans as “coconuts.” Brown-on-the-outside and white-on-the-inside. It isn’t derogatory–just a different mindset. Labels aside, I feel more connected to India than ever. Illustrating varying levels of connectedness over time calls for a montage!

Among the first instances in which brown and white fought for inside supremacy was my first sleepover birthday party. It featured local fave Homestyle Pizza and birthday cake. Home video of little kid antics was recorded on a cutting edge camera the size of a little kid. If I recall correctly, and I am pretty sure I don’t, marketing strategies shifted and Lou Ferrigno replaced Martin Scorsese as spokesman. Camera sales rocketed with the switch. Of course; everybody loved the Hulk. But who remembers the actor who played alter ego Bruce Banner? Google, that’s who. Instead, I Google Scorsese and learn that he turned out okay.

As the evening progressed, my friends tore open my new toys. Upset, I hid upstairs. Here’s why: 1) The brown inside me advocated dutifully regifting those toys to save family money. (My reasonably well-to-do professional parents successfully maintained the illusion of scarcity.) 2) The white inside me was with my friends, “Yea, let’s play!” (It was quite a war. I suggest picturing this as a tiny 8 year old brown me and a tiny 8 year old white me standing on the opposite shoulders of a full size 8 year old brown me, dressed in choice, fashionable hand-me-downs. They shoot each other frequent dirty looks. Lots of mudslinging.)

Regardless of inner conflict, the upshot was that they–my friends not the mini-me’s–understandably got scared and called their parents for rides home in the middle of the night. You might think that one boy saved me from a battle in the war by UNgifting a Nerf Unidentified Floppy Object (U.F.O.) and Go-Bots. But he didn’t. I had big plans for those particular toys. I wouldn’t have paid them forward. All options are on the table as I still seek distance. Drop a line if you know anything about hypnosis.

(The rainbow chip icing on the cake, if you will, is that I hadn’t yet discovered Carvel’s Fudgy the Whale ice cream cake. Ignorant of Fudgy, we tragically settled for a much, much lesser cake (hint: it had rainbow chips). Sadly, Fudgy, we were destined to meet later so that I can’t even call on you as a redeeming quality of that birthday party. Yes, Fudgy, of course I like you better than rainbow chips. No, Fudgy, I am no Marty McFly; I can’t rewrite history even if you do want the rainbow chip cake to gradually disappear from that home video.)

My first and last trips to India further the montage of my travel of the spectrum from a cocoa-ish to ivory-ish interior. Some of my first memories are as a 3 year old in India. I speculate that at that age I was about the same person I might have been had I been born in India. Pretty brown inside. But in eight subsequent trips, as I grew older and further away from early foundations, I saw India with increasingly Western eyes. This little coconut was progressing.

I took pictures which illustrated obvious differences between India and the West in my last trip here in 2004. This included: a beautiful ROYGBIV shop display of vibrant saris; heart-wrenching poverty stricken kids; the street-side art of making hot Jalebis (deep fried batter soaked in syrup); and my personal favorite, the Indian mini-van (family of 8 riding a two-person scooter-uh, yea, I think that’s another leg.). I told my mom that India was no longer me. I saw only differences. She tactfully ridiculed that suggestion.

Returning five years later, momma Goel’s wisdom shines. I feel a strong connection to the land of my heritage. I spend more time on this trip here than any other country for a reason. Reasons actually. Reconnecting with warm, loving extended family (almost all of which lives here). Learning fascinating Indian philosophy (which I may choose to study more extensively and formally when I return). Trying to gain a better understanding of rural India through work with NGO’s (have been privileged to see the great work of two, Lend-a-Hand India and ODAM). And exploring India’s rich spiritual side through its powerful places, meditation courses and yoga masters.

I offer two brief episodes from this trip to India, 2009-2010, as the last in the montage.


I start with Ananya, the adorable four year old daughter of my cousin. (I can never remember if that makes her my second cousin or first, once removed. Because I’ll forget anyway, that potential Google search is going the way of Bruce Banner.) She recently moved here from the UK where she was born, returning with her Indian-born parents. She is a tiny living bridge between East and West.

Nonetheless, shifts between brown and white can occur more rapidly at a young age. More malleable insides. My cousin Prerna laments the rapid loss of her cute British accent and manners. Still, she is the politest girl in her pre-school class, her new Indian teacher informs Prerna.

Like a few days prior, we play the game where Ananya announces the word’s initial sound, “Gah-Gah-Gah.” This time instead of animals she wants me to guess the gift she has generously decided to give me before I leave for the airport. I am stumped. “God. He will make your mind more true,” she says precociously and matter of factly as she hands me a small figurine.


It proves relevant that his terrible English is marginally worse than my weak Hindi. I barely realize it’s happening or that my actions could inspire such violent intent. He runs after me. Snarling, he unveils his red paan-stained (Betel leaf with areca nut and tobacco) teeth as he grabs a rock and raises it in pure fury. I note even in shock my good fortune that he doesn’t instead pick up the nearby glass bottle.

My body alight with fight-or-flight, I disgustedly throw the 30 rupees (~65 cents) in his face. Despite the gross insult, rage drains from the auto-rickshaw driver. He scrambles to recover the three notes. I withheld the 30 rupees on principle because of a destination mistake. Within minutes, however, I learn I am mere blocks from my phoophaji’s (respectful title for paternal uncle through marriage) home. We ultimately communicated just fine.

In my relationship with India, a new spectrum has emerged. It isn’t about brown insides or white insides. What a stupid framework. It is about polite little girls and rickshaw drivers trying to make ends meet. It is about gifts and insults. It is about God and violence. It is about true astonishment and remarkable embarrassment. No I can’t rewrite history. But I can view things through a new lens. This journey through India is my much-needed study in Truth and Misunderstanding. It’s a degree in Fudgy the Whale and Rainbow Chips.


  1. Wow – this is incredible. My favorite piece yet. I’m struck by the wise man who emerged at the end. Like your journey home, I, as your reader, didn’t know what I’d find once I got to the end. I found myself in your piece – walking through cancer to find the essence of me previously labeled and affirmed and ridiculed, free. Thank you for the poetic sentiment. I dare say the Philosophy has indeed already touched you my friend. Welcome to the existential side.🙂

  2. Hi Prashant. I was always envious of your frequent travels to India when we were growing up and not having been in so long makes me more envious still of your travels now. I think this is my favorite entry yet for some very obvious reasons and some I have not quite identified. Thank you for bringing it all full circle. LUMU

  3. LOVE this tale of self-discovery. I often battle: Yellow or White and find a new color to identify with. I like the message of this piece: humanity and respect, well, at least that’s what I got out of it =)

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