M y dad had three rules for me: tell the truth, work hard, and create good in this world. Those were the rules he lived by, and he expected me to do the same. My mother had dozens of rules, but the major ones were: do not talk to boys, dress modestly, be kind, respect your elders, tell the truth, do not curse, and never, ever get a tattoo.
My parents' rules were grounded in Islam, but they were never presented to us as religious in nature. My dad believed that each person needed to make a personal decision about what it meant to be a Muslim.
"Let your behavior speak for your religion," he would tell us.
He did not realize how difficult that would be for a child never taught the basic tenets of the faith. Or perhaps he did. I learned more about Islam in my World History class in junior high than I did from my parents. I had a vague idea of Islam, but details were sorely lacking. Most of my classmates assumed I was a Hindu.
"Where is your red dot?" a boy asked me in seventh grade.
"On your forehead. Indians are supposed to wear red dots on their foreheads," he informed me.
"You mean a bindi? Bindis are a Hindu symbol," I explained. "I'm Indian, but I'm not Hindu."
"What's the difference?"
To me there was a lot of difference, but I didn't know how to explain this to him, so I avoided him as much as I could. I wish I would have had the words to make him understand the intersection of race and religion and culture, but I did not, and I doubt that even today most people would understand.
Growing up, I was a brown kid in a mostly white neighborhood, and I tried my best to be invisible. My friends tended to be other Asians, but they were not Indian like me. They were Chinese or Hmong, and even among them, I was an oddity, what with my family being in America for generations and many of theirs arriving only in the last ten years.
Among the few Indians, too, I was different. They were Hindu, and their parents were immigrants. My mother tried to help me look for similarities more than differences, as she knew the difficulties I was facing. However, she, too, was struggling to find her place, always airing out the house so it would not smell like curry or incense.
"In India, houses are better ventilated, so the smell does not linger," she would say for the umpteenth time.
How would you know? I would wonder to myself. I understood her vigilance about the smell, always wanting to make sure that my clothes bore no odor of Indian spices, not wanting me to be set apart from my classmates.
My brown skin invited the oddest of comments from the kids sitting next to me in class, descendants of pale Europeans.
"You're so lucky to have your tan year-round," said one girl, who laid a beach towel on her front lawn and sunbathed as soon as the spring temperatures rose above sixty degrees.
I became inured to repeated questions of "Have you ever ridden a camel?" (No) and "Where are you from?" (I live one block over from you). My classmates took one look at me and thought they knew me, without even asking my name. Our differences divided us, and we were too young, too inexperienced in the world, to bridge that gap.
I used to wear my Girl Scout vest when I ran errands with my mom. It was a sign of my Americanness, and when non-Indians would give us the once-over at the store, their scowl would relax when their eyes found my green vest. It was a mark that we belonged. At one point I begged my mom to let me change my name to something I considered more American, such as Sarah, but she refused.
"I hate having to explain my name to people," I complained.
"Just because your name