The night my boyfriend Rajan took me home to meet his mother, I felt “white” for the first time in my life. Obviously, I’d been aware of my my own skin color long before we started dating, but until that night in March, I’d never had a reason to use the word “Caucasian.” Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania shielded me from myself for the same reason local hunters would advise against wearing pale colors while hunting in the snow: White don’t show up on white.
When we made the trip from our college upstate to Queens, New York, we were confronted by the harsh winds of a cold front as we departed the bus and walked into the New York City subway. I’d never ridden the subway before. In the Rust Belt where I’d grown up, people drove four-wheelers and pick-up trucks. The way the subway cars bumped along the tracks reminded me of Morse code. Dot dash, dot dash, dot dash.
Until that night, I’d never had a reason to use the word ‘Caucasian.’ I’d never thought much about an interracial relationship until I sat next to Rajan in an eastern religions class during our senior year. The first things I noticed were his hands. Everything they did had an easy, slow rhythm — the way he reset his wristwatch, the block letters he used to take notes, even the super-hero doodles he drew in the margins of his notebook.
His dark eyes and wide smile made it easy to fall in love with him. Rajan was different from the jocks whose letter jackets I wore in high school. His kindness had an honesty to it I’d never encountered before, and I found myself not only wanting to be with him, but to be more like him.
At school, the two of us fit together without much effort. I loved his childhood stories about visiting family in India and sneaking their farmyard chickens into his bedroom at night to keep them company. He playfully kidded me about my terrible western Pennsylvanian accent, the way I dropped “l” consonants in words like cold and told and let a “yinz” slip out every now and then. We’d only been dating a month when we started to talk about getting married. I was excited about a life with him, and it felt right to us. We were just one of many mixed couples on campus. The word “interracial” didn’t hold much weight when we were alone.
But family was a different story. Rajan’s mother had always hoped he’d marry an Indian woman with Indian customs. For his whole life, he’d embraced two identities his mother deemed opposite — a culture both American and Indian. Now he was bringing home a girl who was part of one and not the other. Rajan slept through most of the bus trip, but I stayed awake and bit my nails. How could his mother see this as anything other than a betrayal of the traditions she feared would disappear?
Rajan’s childhood home was nestled in a line of row houses on a narrow, automobile-flooded street. Even the house itself seemed wary of my presence, all sharp corners and darkened windows. Rajan opened the door, and I followed. Inside, the air smelled like ginger and cardamom, a scent I often caught on the edges of Rajan’s clothes. I was the first girl he had ever brought home. He’d told me that his father was aloof and not much for family matters, leaving his mother to step up as a fierce protector. Rajan and his two older sisters, who were both now in grad school, had rarely entertained friends or hosted sleepovers. His mother knew New York City was a dangerous place, and her house had always been restricted to family, to people she could trust.
Rajan called out, and a high-pitched woman’s voice called back. When she appeared, I realized I didn’t know what to call her. All of Rajan’s Indian friends referred to her as “Auntie,” but this name was set aside for their community. “Mrs.” was a term reserved for outsiders. Stranded between intimate and formal, I chose neither. “Hello,” I said. “Thank you for having me in your home.”
My self-consciousness surged as I extended my hand to this small woman, barefooted in her floral housecoat, who wouldn’t look in my eyes. Everything about me felt preppy and juvenile — my ponytail, my pink sweatshirt, the faint sheen of glitter on my eyelids. She ignored my hand, waving us toward the dining room table. The three of us sat in a triangle and shared a meal of beef curry and rice. Rajan ate with his hands, and I followed suit. Rather than push aside the curry’s sticks and leaves, I swallowed them whole. His mother pointed at me, saying something to Rajan that I couldn’t understand.
“The food isn’t too spicy for her,” he said. “Use English.”
“I was using English,” his mother said.
“No, you weren’t.”
“Oh.” She pursed her lips. “Sorry.”
We ate for an hour, and I stayed silent. Despite Rajan’s pleas of “English — use English,” his mother spoke only in Malayalam. His father had fallen asleep before we arrived, and at 10 p.m., Rajan’s mother caught my eye and shot out of her chair, declaring it was time for her to go to bed as well. She hadn’t spoken a word to me all night.
She hadn’t spoken a word to me all night. Alone again, Rajan and I moved to the living room and sat on a couch covered in a yellow bed sheet.
“Hey,” I said. “The sticks and leaves in the curry. We’re supposed to eat that, right?”
“You ate that?”
He laughed and slipped his hand into mine. I liked the look of our fingers locked together — brown, white, brown, white, brown, white.
That night, trying to sleep in Rajan’s sister’s room, I felt I’d already failed. I’d wanted to show his mother I wasn’t the kind of “white girl” she’d likely pictured — shallow, self-centered, privileged — but I didn’t know how. I wondered if I was that girl and how I might overcome it before the morning came. I could hear the train outside the window. Every 10 minutes, it rumbled at the end of the block.
Dot dash, dot dash, dot dash. A little after dawn, I pulled myself out of bed and fumbled into the bathroom. Rajan had warned me that the bathroom lock was “tricky,” and I didn’t want to trap myself inside. Hoping to finish as quickly as I could, I whipped the door shut and flung my clothes to the floor. As I bent at the waist, standing only in my socks, the bathroom door snapped open and Rajan’s mother burst in. For the first time since my arrival, she looked me straight in the eye. I froze.
My cheeks burned as she spoke her first words to me.
“Lock the door.” She whisked the door shut behind her. The lock clicked as I turned the key and slumped onto the floor. Rajan’s mother had seen me naked, with socks. It is not wrong for me to love her son. I repeated it to myself as hot water beat down my back. But suddenly, I wasn’t sure. The words didn’t soothe the shame whirling inside me — because it had little to do with being seen without my clothes. My nakedness had revealed the me beyond the performance I’d put on for the woman whose acceptance I desperately wanted. I’d hoped she’d lay aside her fears and assumptions without having to expose myself because it was safer that way.
I was performing for myself too. Growing up, I’d built myself a shield of protection by being the good girl, but my heart had suffocated inside it. Rajan and I were too different to love each other with the safe kind of love that never asked me to change. I was starting to see that I couldn’t love his mother any other way, either. Rajan did his best to show me a good time in the city he called home. He gave me a tour of the high school he attended downtown and took me to Central Park. We sat on a bench and watched pigeons peck at crumpled food wrappers.
“She’ll come around,” he said. “You’ll see.”
Bridging the Divide
On Monday, as I was packing to leave, Rajan’s mother shuffled into her daughter’s room and sat at the foot of the bed.
“Thank you for having me,” I said.
“You are both so young.” She lifted her eyes. “I don’t want you to hurt my son.”
“I love your son,” I blurted, and then wished I hadn’t. It sounded naïve and glib, even though I meant it. I reached toward honesty: “I know I’m not what you wanted for Rajan.”
Her eyes softened as she looked at me, and I found the same kindness in them that had made me fall in love with Rajan. “Whoever my son chooses will be one of mine,” she said. “That is the truth.”
She stood and hugged me hard, the kind of embrace that told me she was grieving, but that she was open too. When it was time to leave, she watched us from the doorway of her house until we disappeared around the corner of the street.
Whoever my son chooses will be one of mine.
Back at the New York City Port Authority that Sunday afternoon, Rajan and I boarded the bus. There was little traffic on the way back to school, and soon we crossed the Delaware Water Gap into what felt like “my side” of the tracks.
“I think it went well,” Rajan said as he wrapped my hand in his. “I have faith.”
He smiled and put his head on my shoulder, reminding me of why I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. He had such a contagious sense of hope. The weekend had passed in a way I didn’t expect: in singular possessives. My son. Your culture. Mine, yours. Yours, mine. Rajan’s mother came from a country I’d never visited and held traditions I didn’t understand. I couldn’t be the girl she’d always wanted for her son, and this was the chasm we stood on either side of, each needing time to gather the courage to bridge it. And in time, we would.
That was my first weekend at Rajan’s house, but it wasn’t my last. Over the coming years, his mother would send me home with wrapped packages of chicken curry and pouri. She’d take me shopping for my first sari, and she’d tailor the blouse herself. And she’d stand proudly beside us on our wedding day, even though none of her friends came to the ceremony. She’d choose to leave the church she’d attended since her girlhood after the bishop excommunicated her son for marrying a white woman.
Every time I’d call, she’d answer the phone: Hello, Molay. Hello, Daughter. I understand now what I couldn’t that first weekend we met and I thought she’d always resent me: She knew what it would cost her to love me, and she chose to do it anyway. As we traveled back upstate that first weekend, the familiar hum of the interstate highway lulled me to sleep. Outside it was cold, but spring was on its way. I leaned back, looked out the window, and breathed in. My clothes still smelled like curry.