Growing up in the “Bay Area” region of California, I was the only girl in our suburban elementary school who couldn’t easily identify her origins. I grew up around the traditions and customs of my family, while at school, I integrated into the norms of my school environment. When curious minds asked about my background, my answers flip-flopped between being Indian, South Asian, American, Fijian, Pacific Islander and a cousin (Islanders think we are all cousins). “Which is it?,” they would ask when I gave them more than one answer. My multiculturalism meant I didn’t fit in any one category, that my roots couldn’t be explained by checking one box. My identity is complicated – an Indian girl born in the United States to parents from the little Fiji Islands.
In elementary school, I was treated as the “Indian girl.” Classmates would often call me “Gandhi dot,” referring to the red dot usually placed on married women and on the forehead of Indian Hindus after a prayer ritual. As I got older, I’d get the oddest questions like “Why do your parents arrange your marriage for you? Isn’t that against the law?” At the time, I was still learning the ropes and wasn’t prepared with a meaningful answer. My best retort was to inform the inquirer that, despite this tradition, Indians continue to have a lower divorce rate than Americans. Over time, I became wittier and even watched Indian-born comics include arranged marriage jokes in their sets. I’ve since learned an array of smart ass comebacks.
My family and friends might be surprised to know that I still face these kinds of challenges. It turns out that, in some places, Indians from Fiji still face classism and casteism from those from India. Unfortunately, there are some Indians from the motherland who ignorantly view Indians from Fiji as second class. To them, we are not to be socialized with nor should we be allowed educational and employment opportunities. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first-hand. A suitor’s mother once casually told me that “no reputable Indian man would marry a girl from Fiji.” Recently, an Indian actually turned down my job offer simply because he did not feel comfortable working for someone from Fiji. These experiences have definitely given me pause and made me reevaluate my moral compass as well as that of those around me.
When I was growing up, diversity and inclusion weren’t part of the curriculum at school. I don’t recall a book, TV show, or elder providing me with advice on how to explain my culturally rich background in a manner that wouldn’t be confusing to the uninformed. Integrating into American culture was often simpler than trying to explain who I am and where I come from. While this made everyday life a little less complicated, my brown skin and Pacific Islander features meant I would still always be viewed as different.
As it does for everyone, life went on and I landed this job as an agent, which has been a time of great learning and awareness. I’ve immersed myself into the world of Student Affairs, leading to exposure and friendships with people at many different colleges and universities – people who spend their days educating and spreading awareness about inclusion and diversity. Through this network, I have been able to make some sense of the inadequacy I felt and now have closure from that time. Most importantly, I’ve been empowered to help and educate so many others who feel as if they don’t fully belong.
Ironically, it’s the values embraced in Fiji, a small island in the Pacific Ocean where my Indian parents hail from, that has helped shape my understanding and compassion for myself and everyone around me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually taken on even more facets to my identity – wife, mother, business owner. I now welcome these different labels and have learned to cherish and be proud of all the characteristics that uniquely make me who I am.
While I may not have realized it when I was younger, I now know I’m lucky to have such a diverse background. I celebrate American, Indian, South Asian, and Fijian holidays. I watch Bollywood movies and sing Hindi songs. I have beautifully embroidered clothing and glittery jewelry. I eat cassava and listen to my family share stories around a bowl of kava. And, we even partake in the chaos that is Black Friday and Christmas shopping. All of these rich and rewarding experiences were made possible for me because I am an Indian born in America whose parents are from Fiji.
-Contributed by Joyce Jiawan
Owner/Regional Account Manager