As I sit here on Christmas Day, alone, in my apartment, looking out onto the empty streets of San Francisco, imagining people at home with their loved ones drinking egg nog, sitting around the fire, some donning Santa hats, perhaps singing Christmas carols, and preparing a Christmas meal, I realize how much this moment is a microcosm of my life. I imagine that everyone else has a perfect life, while I sit here, alone, in my non-white, non-culturally Judeo-Christian-ness, feeling very much apart from the country in which I live.
That is how I feel for much of my life - very much apart and at the same time a part of the country in which my family emigrated to more than 30 years ago.
My family, I realized not too long ago, has always been a minority in one way or another. Both my parents hail from the very un-famous place of Kutch, a little place bordering Pakistan in the state of Gujrat. My mom is from the small village of Koday and my dad's family from the more metropolitan yet still small and unknown port town of Mandvi. Even most Indians I talk to have never heard of Kutch, much less the village of Koday and the town of Mandvi.
My family name is Khatri. We are Kutchi Khatris and we are Muslim, which made us a minority in the time when my grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived in Koday and Mandvi. Today Muslims make up about 14% of the population in India, a definite minority in every sense of the word, and thanks to the current Hindu nationalist government in India, an oppressed minority.
I am sure if you go way back into my ancestry, that at one point my ancestors were Hindus. No one I've talked to in my family has any idea precisely when Khatris became Muslim, but it's far enough back that that has become our identity. So even in their homeland my ancestors were a religious minority.
Perhaps what gave my ancestors courage to emigrate to east Africa is that they were already minorities. My great-grandfather and his family sailed to Tanzania on one of the boats that are built on the shores of Mandvi even today. This was not a unique story as there was trade and coming and going between India and Africa for a long time and many Indians decided to actually leave India and settle in Africa for better economic opportunities and to escape the political upheaval of independence and the splitting up of the country. My mother's father moved his family over to Mozambique for the same reasons when she was 12. And so both my parents grew up as ethnic and religious minorities in Tanzania and Mozambique.
I was born in Mozambique, again as a religious an ethnic minority and then we moved to the US when I was 8. And nothing changed. I was still a religious and ethnic minority, but it really felt like it in a way I hadn't felt it before.
In Mozambique and other parts of Africa, life was so segregated, you mostly just hung out with and dealt with your own kind, i.e. Indians have only Indian friends and associates, blacks have only black friends and associates, whites only have white friends and associates, and so on. Despite all the drawbacks of segregation, at least you don't feel so different from everyone all the time.
When we first came to the US in 1984, my family lived temporarily in an upper middle class, very white neighborhood in my uncle's house. We moved out of this swanky area and into a more economically fitting lower-income neighborhood as soon as my dad could afford to get a place of his own.
But during those first six months in America, I went to the upper middle class, very white elementary school that came with the very white neighborhood. And immediately I was made aware of my minority status when none of the white kids wanted to hang out with me, when they made fun of my accent and the way I dressed, and my hairy arms and legs, and made fun of the way I smelled. This was my introduction to the US, and sure kids can be cruel, but it did not let me forget that I was still a minority.
Fast forward to today, not only am I a minority in the country in which I live, but I'm a minority in the culture from which I come. I'm a 41 year old woman, divorced, with no children, living on my own in San Francisco. And in my Indian Muslim culture, this is an anethema if not a downright tragedy.
A woman my age without a husband and without kids, well, you might as well give up, throw in the towel and live in seclusion because you have no worth. Understandably, because my parents and my ancestors were always minorities, they doubled down on traditional values to maintain their identity. Despite that, they also evolved and picked up a lot of the values and mores of the societies they lived in, such as education for women and more recently, the encouragement of women's careers. So my family is a weird conglomeration of hyper-traditional values and relatively modern ideas. Nonetheless, my personal lifestyle falls outside of what is considered normal in my family.
To top it all off, I work in a very white male dominated career - architecture. And so my historic minority status reverberates through my life in all facets - including the professional one.
While being a minority can be hard, it is also a super-power. I've noticed that when you're not part of the majority, you can look from the outside in and have a privileged perspective of what's going on.
For example, my perspective from my window looking out onto the empty streets of San Francisco is a very interesting vantage point to Christmas Day. And my perspective as a minority woman rising in the ranks as an architect gives me special insight into how the system is actually made for white men to succeed and others to fall to the wayside.
It is from the perspective of a minority, with its advantages or disadvantages, that I offer the writings and drawings on this website. Welcome.