Throughout elementary, middle and high school, I was always looked at differently; I was always the odd one out. Being one of the few Hindus and brown-skinned girls in my school, I looked and behaved differently than the expectations and standards that all the white people held towards me. With my Hindu/Jain religion and culture, some of my habits and parts of my appearance made me stand out to other people, and not in a “good” way: the hair that grew on my face and the tradition of letting it grow, bringing traditional food for lunch with a strong scent that spread through the school cafeteria, and others’ expectations that I would be awkward and antisocial like every other “stereotypical” Indian. It was hard to endure the joking comments, harsh words, and isolation that resulted from these. And during middle school, a time when all I cared about was others’ approval and making friends, I completely alienated myself from my Indian culture and religious practices so that I could fit it with the other girls at my school. I refused to take any Indian foods for lunch; I immediately started to wax and use other methods to remove the hair on my face; I asked my mom to get products like “Fair and Lovely” to lighten my skin tone; I overcompensated to match all the latest trends, and I put on a mask everyday just to make friends that I didn’t even care about.
The summer before I entered 9th grade, I realized this was a charade. I didn’t enjoy school, dance, or hanging out with any of my so-called “friends”. I wasn’t living; I wasn’t being true to my faith, my rich culture, or myself, so I made a change. As I was entering a new school with entirely new people, I took it as an opportunity to reinvent myself, or rather to find that pride within myself that I had lost. I took the time in high school to get more involved with my youth group and learn the history and traditions that formed Hinduism and Jainism into what they are now. I gained confidence to embrace the Hindu traditions and culture that I followed, posting more social media about celebrations of different holidays, and being more open with my classmates and teachers.
Some days I still continue to struggle with my identity as a Hindu Jain in a predominantly white society. But I no longer hide it away. I have slowly grown to not only embrace it, but to be inspired by it, seeking to deepen my understanding of Hinduism and Jainism, and teach and talk with others about it.
Being the odd one out doesn’t mean I don’t belong. I belong as I am, and I have a unique role to play in exposing others to diversity and developing connections between different communities. I know that I am different than most of my friends, classmates, and communities—and I’m okay with being the odd one out.
If you have ever felt alienated because of your religious identity, what has given you the strength and confidence to maintain your identity?