Blacksburg, Virginia

Standing out in an American town

smithsonian.com

There aren't many places where a 5-foot-11 Asian Indian can hide in these parts. The haystacks in my Blacksburg back yard, although great perches for spying into the neighbor's barn, hardly provide full coverage from the townies passing by in Tacoma pickups. And I can't pretend to window shop on Main Street downtown and get lost in the crowd. The crowds are all scattered, thanks to the mega-multiplex 8 miles away. Maybe I could escape to Floyd, where the general store hosts flat footers and old-time musicians every Friday night, and sit quietly observing the serious faces of the cloggers as they teach the Virginia Reel to newcomers. But then I would get asked to dance, and I'd have to use the steps I learned 15 years ago, scooting my shoes backward on the floor as if scraping unwanted gum off the soles. Once, however, a local interrupted my solitude not with "Care to dance?" but with "So, where ye from?" I wondered if I should give him the answer he really wanted. So I tested. "I'm from here." Looking a little awkward and confused, he re-checked my long black hair and dark complexion before pressing on, almost in a whisper, "No, where ya really from?" That's when I gave in, saying, "Oh!" and then a surprised, "I'm Indian!" The local, pleased with the answer, rolled up his flannel shirt, exposing a well-developed forearm. Displaying a dream-catcher tattoo, he grinned and said proudly, "I'm part Cherokee, too!" Suddenly, we were family. So I don't try to hide anymore. There's no reason to. When you're an Indian from India and grow up in a small American town, as I did, you stand out. But out of sheer necessity to bond you become a local, a member of the family, a country gal. And there is something to be said for being Indian in Southwest Virginia.

Your parents speak to you in a different language, and suddenly your friends call you "beti" (daughter in Hindi) in their Southern accents instead of your name. You skip high school afternoons to go fishing in the New River or swimming in the gorge. At the end of a hot May afternoon, you end up the only one not complaining about sunburn. You're the only one smelling of onions and masala when the scent of honeysuckle hangs thickly in the air. You take weeks off to see more than 45 countries; your friends take time off to hunt. But you trade stories and trade cultures, just to get close with your community. Way before being a “Blacksburg Indian” became a controversy, my family would receive the mass distributed fundraising letters from the high school. The letters would begin with the salutation, “Dear Indian,” and I would snicker to myself, “how did they know?” I think I'm the only young professional Indian country girl alive, fully equipped with a Southern accent, a tractor and living on a 70-acre farm. And, I love my life.

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