It wasn’t until Sep. 11, 2001 that I realized my hometown was only 12 miles from New York City. They were 12 very long miles though, clogged with traffic and striated with densely packed layers of the American cake. Crowded ethnic neighborhoods squatted near buttoned-up suburbs, which butted against gated mansions. Every day, my parents commuted to Manhattan from our home in Tenafly, New Jersey. It sometimes took them ninety minutes to crawl their way across the George Washington Bridge.
But we were still only 12 miles away, so in the weeks after 9/11 we could see smoke rising into our suburban sky. While my mother drove me between piano lessons, the library and Stop & Shop, I’d see plumes gliding like wraiths above us — cresting between treetops, appearing around corners, waiting for us at the tops of hills. Once, my mother pulled over near the golf course on Knickerbocker Road and we just sat there, gaping at the gray wisps that we might have otherwise mistaken for cirrus clouds. My mom already got a prime view of Ground Zero on her daily commute, but it must have been even more stomach-turning to see the smoke from our quiet town, where housewives tended their petunias with fierce precision and the rowdiest residents were Canada geese.
Two of my classmates even swore they could smell the charred rubble. I had never been a good smeller, so I just nodded along. I did a lot of nodding during those weeks.
I nodded when adults talked about “our big family,” and “lifting our neighbors.” As a nine-year-old with reserved Indian parents, I didn’t have firsthand experience of that hyper-American, vaguely Judeo-Christian lexicon of “community.” At first it felt strange to see grown-ups replacing tight handshakes with white-knuckled hugs, treating one another with what I assumed was a very sucralose brand of sweetness. It felt strange watching our disinterested school principal give a speech that actually brimmed with feeling. I don’t quite remember what he said, but he definitely tried to stitch together a flaccid metaphor about our school being like a beehive or an ant colony.
Soon, though, even my principal’s clichés began to make sense. I had never before felt part of a community outside of my family. Now, it was strange how little events accreted to produce a pull of pleasure in my gut: a “hello” from my cooler, blonder neighbor; a snug goodbye hug from my friend’s mother; a watery smile from a typically gruff teacher. It was like my town and school had extended long woven webs, and I suddenly found myself at home in their tangles.
These local webs all fed into the big star-spangled one. Until 9/11, I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to call myself “American.” Now, in Ms. B’s fourth grade class, we were coloring pictures of the flag and discussing national security policy — neither of which, I suppose, was a particularly age-appropriate activity. In our discussions, we learned to use phrases like “liberty versus security,” which we had learned before but had never corresponded to such tangible, kill-those-men-now stakes. For the first time, I found myself thinking about America enough to realize I might love it.
We also learned a few patches of world geography. Ms. B showed us Saudi Arabia on the map, explaining that 1. We got a lot of our oil from there, and 2. That was where Osama bin Laden was from. We talked about Afghanistan as well, but our focus lingered longer on Saudi Arabia, the country we saw as Bin Laden’s true progenitor. We didn’t learn other world geography that year, so I suppose that lesson had served the purpose of demonstrating the vast, reassuring distance between us and the people who lived “over there.”
But far more potent than knowledge of the 6,528-mile distance between Manhattan and Riyadh was the image of Bin Laden’s haggard face, which now stared at us from every television and newspaper. My classmates relished the opportunity to describe how scary he looked, with his grizzled beard, his wild eyes and dark skin. He was a perfect Disney villain. It was easy to imagine his long brown fingers folded together as he hatched diabolical plans.
I didn’t talk about Bin Laden’s face. My skin was his color. My father’s beard was dark and thick. Still, I also didn’t challenge the thought that Bin Laden’s features were naturally threatening, that something about their combination had formed evil incarnate. Later, it would scare me to think how little I questioned the nature of that feeling, the fear of my own skin that had come to rest in even my own bones.
So when my teacher led us in a discussion about racial profiling, I raised my hand with everyone else to agree that sure, yeah, of course it made sense. A popular classmate had shared a story about how her father had recently taken a flight alongside a bearded, turbaned man. My classmate’s dad had ducked into the bathroom and broken federal law by using his cell phone, calling his wife and daughters to say that there was a terrorist on his plane and that he might not make it home. I said that my father had a short beard and no turban. Indians with turbans were generally Sikhs, I said. They were people from an entirely different region than my parents who practiced an entirely different religion than we did.
And when my friend and I were swinging in the playground after school and she sang out “no offense, but your dad kind of looks like Osama bin Laden,” I didn’t know how to tell her I was hurt. Instead, I told her my family was Hindu, not Muslim. That wasn’t true. My father had been a card-carrying atheist for a long time, but “Hindu” now seemed a more credible alibi.
When the only other brown kid in the fourth grade got called “terrorist,” I sat silent. He was a recent immigrant with a strong Indian accent. I didn’t defend him from the name-calling because I was confident, and mostly correct, that my pigtails and lack of an accent would keep me safe from the word. I even savored a bit of schadenfreude when it happened, remembering the time he had chased me around the playground while spitting a Hindi slur that I didn’t understand.
I was called “terrorist” a few times, too, but the group of my detractors (a few third-grade boys with stringy hair) was much smaller than the group that taunted the other boy. I was more than a match for my bullies, shooting back with retorts like “I was born here, ass-wipe,” or “I speak better English than you, turd.” My voice seethed with the coarse, deliberate insults of the American-English vernacular. Try and deny me my nationality now, you cornholes.
In the years to come, as the U.S. dropped bombs and the brown bodies piled higher, I kept pointing, like Ms. B had, to the world map. I traced the distance between India, Iraq and Afghanistan with an insistent, angry finger, railing against American ignorance in my school, in the news, on the playground. Didn’t they know the different shades of brown? Why couldn’t they tell that mine was the harmless kind? In later years I lamented the poor geography lessons that made Miss Teen South Carolina refer to “the Iraq and the Asian countries.” What I was also saying was, “Go ahead. Just leave me out of it.”
Sep. 11 jumpstarted a years-long process of re-forging my identity, of scrubbing myself a little whiter, and redder and bluer. I played down my inconvenient attributes and played up my convenient ones. I responded to every racial taunt like a bargain-ready shopkeeper. “Go ahead, you can take this skin, take this heritage, take this bearded father — I don’t need them, anyway.” Just give me my home back, even if you have to cut it with a hyphen.
In the weeks after 9/11, people planted flags like flowers — big ones on lawns, small ones in windows, mini ones on jacket lapels. I came home from school one day demanding to know where our flag was. How on earth, I snapped, had Ba and Bapu lived here for fifteen years without buying at least one?
My father, in what might be called a very “American” move, did not drag me over his knee and spank the respect into me. Instead, he promised he’d buy us a flag on his next trip to Stop & Shop. When he came home a few days later, he told me the flags were sold out. Instead, he’d bought an eight-inch vinyl decal.
I complained that it wasn’t enough but I took it from his hand anyway, carefully peeling the sticker from its plastic skin. I claimed for it the most prominent territory in our white colonial house: the exact center of our front window. When passersby looked into our living room, they might see our brown faces, but they’d see the red-white-and-blue decal first. It would be a compass, one that never pointed east.