To-may-to, Not To-mah-to

A graduate student’s reflection on moving across the world to pursue her dreams.

By Shrishti Mathew

I was convinced that living in America was going to be a breeze. But nobody prepared me for being a minority in a classroom. 

Being bi-religious, I was always a minority in India. A society smeared by its history of segregation and stratification, people found it hard to understand how I could recite the Lord’s Prayer and Vedic chants in the same breath. But I was lucky and privileged enough to go to a school and move in circles where it defined but didn’t exclude me. I wasn’t your conventional Indian student being packed off for a Master of Science or doctorate with the expectations of the entire family heaped on my shoulders. Nor was I your typical Indian girl being sent to her expatriate husband. 

I was a well-adjusted, easygoing person who would fit into American society quite easily. I had read enough books and magazines, watched enough TV shows and movies, and spent enough time on social media to think I would fit right in. 

Or so I thought. 

Shrishti Mathew (second from right) with her new friends at Newhouse. Photo courtesy of Shrishti Mathew.

I believed America is an easier country to live in compared to where I was before. I moved into a fully-furnished apartment, where my landlord would not care about my religion or ethnicity. I just had to pay my rent on time. My professors were willing to look at re-written assignments, and my grades were private and remained between my professors and I. They weren’t put up on a public notice board for all and sundry to see (and judge). 

The classroom, however, was an entirely different ballgame. It was where I had my first culture shock. There were refreshing changes like being allowed to use the restroom as I wished without having to spend an hour in agony. I’m also allowed to eat freely as opposed to surreptitiously sneaking bits of food into my mouth behind a book. But there were also changes that took time and, three months later, are still settling in. 

Being a minority in America meant that very often, I sat at a table where I looked and sounded different from my peers. There were small hiccups like how I said tom-ah-toes and not tom-ay-toes and larger ones like having to explain everything I said and feeling the need to prove that my education (though from another country) was every bit as valid as theirs. Group critiques were especially confusing because you didn’t know whether the criticism was constructive or given because someone thought you weren’t as good as them and didn’t deserve to be here. 

“Do you even know what a food magazine is like?” a classmate once asked me, making me doubt my undergraduate degree, my first master’s degree, and my previous editorial roles in various publications. It was only later in the day, after talking to another peer, did I understand that it was simply because of the way I looked and not a valid critique of my education and abilities. 

I learned how to handle such situations. To inform the uninformed and ignore the badly intentioned. But what I didn’t think to handle was homesickness. 

Mathew with her parents back at home. Photo courtesy of Shrishti Mathew.

Once the thrill and exhilaration of moving across the world had settled, the realization of what I left behind hit. I watched from afar as festivals I would celebrate at home were continuing without me. I sat in class as friends and family dressed in new clothes and danced to celebrate the ceremonial homecoming of the Hindu goddess Durga. I ran out of class to watch my grandmother perform rituals on FaceTime. Ordinarily, I would be next to her, ringing the bell, passing her flowers, fruit, and incense. 

I learned to celebrate what I could, my way. I went shopping, not for sarees and jewelry, but sweaters and boots. I passed around packs of Twix, as opposed to the hampers of sweetmeats we’d give and receive back home. One had to improvise. Toasted tortillas for rotis. Sour cream for homemade yogurt. Halloween for Diwali and Dussehra. 

It is still hard to think that I won’t be home for more than a year. That it will be a while before I can pet my cat, hug my parents, or eat a meal cooked by my grandmother. There are clothes that I don’t wear or wash because they still smell like home. It’s hard, but we’re organisms. 

Made to adapt. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s