The Weight of Bubbles and Boxes

I sat beneath the weight of a three-letter acronym and I felt unknown. For all the countless hours spent to mold and mend my mind into standardized testing, I had no answer for the very first question in the crisp, white booklet in front of me. I fidgeted as the clock ticked deafeningly. I see the physical boxes on the paper in front of me and it’s sharp edges cut sharp corners in my round mind. They simply do not fit.

“Race/Ethnicity.”

A few identities swirl and surface before I shove them away.

“I’m half Trinidadian, half Indian; I was born in England but I grew up in New York.”

There is no box to check off there, no bubble teems to the surface. At the very best I am “other.” My identity, with its colorful exuberance and undiscovered parts, with its proud history and fierce defiance, is crammed and shoved impersonally into that small box.

Those boxes become most dangerous when we find the need to fit into them. Before I turned seven, I moved around half a dozen times within the tri-state area. I counted rosary beads in a Catholic school but silent Hindu prayers ran through my mind as each rough, red bead slipped through small fingers. I ate rose-colored candies and homemade soda bread with our fair, Irish neighbors and their beloved beagle, Mickey, with his watery, all-knowing eyes and ears that swept the floors. My big brown eyes lit up my small face in preschool when my mother agreed to “plait” my hair in two long braids just like my Jamaican friend did her wild locks. I climbed on countertops with knocked knees and a wicked smile to find “that thing,” my favorite Indian spice, before my grandmother pulled me down and sat me on her lap — the folds of her saari taking me to visit all the rich smells of her country, my country. As I entered middle school, I learned torah verses as I attended more bar and bat mitvahs (and a few b'nai mitzvahs) than I can count on my hands and feet.

In my high school years, I filled in many bubbles. From that sea of multiple-choice questions, I dove and somehow swam ashore in the Midwest — a place I, at the time, associated with cornfields and windmills, yet one that has brought me more cultural clarity than I ever could have thought. In a single day, I cross paths with hundreds of students, their story traced across campus as they run to class or schlep begrudgingly through the snow across the Diag. I learn from and about them, whether it’s laughing through my tears with my best friend in her room at 2 a.m. or making brief eye contact with a student in the first floor of the Ugli. Each day as I brush elbows, my cultural index grows. As I arrive home, the promise of New York City with its jagged buildings across the eternally lit backdrop stirs awake all the cultural magnificence there is to see. Traveling between the multicultural dichotomies of the University of Michigan and New York City provides me with endless opportunities to open my mind to the backgrounds of others. I always compare them to two different “worlds” intersecting that I hardly believe exist outside of myself.

    ***

I now trace my way through my heritage. My mother is fair skinned with light eyes and naturally wavy black hair made for the summer heat of an eternally sunny island. It puffs and swells in the humidity as if trying to capture the salty sea air. Her high cheekbones sit beneath the shadows of long eyelashes, catching the low light as she laughs, one of the most reserved of her boisterous family. My father is frozen at a permanent state of youth. His eyes glint a perpetual glee, one never subdued by the weight of the world. His trademark salt and pepper moustache sits atop an eternally lit smile refusing to bow to the bulky world.

My mother grew up the second youngest of seven, in a well-respected, well-off family in Chaguanas, Trinidad. Her medical school experience was filled with homesickness as she travelled across seas away from her family. My mother is from a ferociously proud breed of polouri-loving, cricket-watching “Trinis.” Trinis underline their lives with the emboldened red and black of their flag, never failing to showcase their pride in their country — one with less than the population of Manhattan that still manages to boast Nobel Prize laureates, multiple Miss World Titles, World Cup qualifiers and Olympic gold medalists.

My father, halfway across the world, grew up in New Delhi. At age six he saw a blind man in a rural suburb of India and, in the endearing hopeful charm of a young child, he swore to himself he would become a doctor to help him. He sewed his own repairs on his primary school uniform, hemming to the hums of the crickets in the high grass and beehives in the trees and studying to maintain his scholarship. He read voraciously to quench an undying thirst for knowledge of all kinds, tucking away information like gemstones in an encyclopedia of jewels. His hands helped his mother around the house, feeding cows dalpuri and creating jars of pickled spices, while his mind wandered over fields, across seas, through amazons, to the depths of oceans and heights of fighter planes. 

In Pondicherry, India that Trindadian challenged that New Delhi native with her quiet strength. Something about their meeting spurred three decades of marriage. They moved to England for their residencies and eventually to New York. My mother retains her strong sense of pride in Trinidad and often chance takes us to warm beaches or to the smell of doubles and polouri in Queens. Nothing quite compares to the lackadaisical days of hammocks drifting between tall coconut trees.

From plastic surgery to cardiology to published research to wound healing, my father invested that six-year-old’s promise in his passion for medicine. His upbringing in India, surrounded by immense medical resources in contrast to some of the most earth-shattering illnesses, was a major factor in his success today. He often dreams aloud of his desire to reground his roots upon the rocky hills of Rishikesh or the busy, rickshaw-filled streets of New Delhi with all the color and culture that flutters beneath his eyelids. He tells me time and again that all that man needed was a few pills of vitamin A and he would be able to see those same colors.

If I were to sit there with my pencil now on that ACT exam, I would not want to fill out “other.” All of our backgrounds are to be embraced, to be celebrated. Not just the complex ones or the misunderstood ones, but each individual’s heritage. The conclusions and boxes we jump into, we often create for ourselves. To take a moment and consider that somebody may have an interesting story is to recognize your own. Standardized tests are just that — standard. Yet we can decide to set no limits on the vibrancy of our cultured, colorful realities.

 

Mastering A Land Of Extremes

Ann Arbor has managed to master the impossible illusion of permanence. It is unwavering in its familiarity, remaining seemingly unchanging year after year. And yet, it grows just when you, and the people around you, need room to go forward.

I imagine sitting in the Big House, and I know the faces around me have masked the impossible as possible. We’ve studied our hearts and minds out, fell in love with more than one class, taken 17 credits, attended back-to-back meetings, and we still made it to Rick’s before “Sweet Caroline” came on. The University of Michigan is a land of extremes where you can pull an all-nighter for a variety of reasons — none of which are a lack of determination. The University trains and challenges each Wolverine as an individual and as an indivisible team.

I know this because I’ve watched this determination every day in the people around me — the ones I’ve encountered briefly, the ones I’ve admired, the ones I’ve envied and, most of all, the ones I’ve come to regard as family.

I watched Di learn every bodily system in the pre-med world with an infallible smile on her face and the Sunday Times sprawled across her floor, simultaneously absorbing all the weight of the world and validating my career in news. I’ve gotten lost with Jaime every time we go anywhere without Google Maps, and yet she’s securing aerospace engineering internships. I’ve capped midterm seasons by driving around Ann Arbor, judging Christmas lights with Mads, Jayne and Lains, Mcflurries in hand, a treat after a rigorous IM soccer season.

That is the University of Michigan — a land of our own carefully engineered extremes all featuring our own versions of family that we’ve pulled together from different corners of the world. The moments we mold here with our Michigan family have a special kind of nostalgic sting that pulls at your memory all at once. Not in pieces, as we so often recall the past, but in one sweeping motion that never leaves you: the long nights in the UGLi, the bitter bite of that loss to Louisville, the triumphant return of Harbaugh. All we had to hold onto in those highs and lows were the people who give shape to the place that we all entered as wide-eyed freshmen and leave as (slightly) wiser seniors.

This past summer, I landed the internship I'd worked toward for years — a foot in the door that kept shutting. Like any Wolverine, once I got it, I didn't let it go. I woke up every day at 3:45 a.m. to work two shifts around high-powered, larger-than-life CBS News personalities. After enough 3 a.m. wake-up calls, I wasn't sure if I was nocturnal or not. My apartment felt empty and the city that never slept was undeniably burning me out. That's when Michigan came to me. I found myself a couple beds short and a heart full. Kelly was making stupid jokes; Nic was cracking open wine; Cat was giving brutally honest fashion advice while trying to FaceTime Mags, Em and J; and Katherine was trying to locate Tommy, who was somehow in the East Village. And it was bursting again; the city lit up, and suddenly everything felt maize and blue.

That is Michigan. It never leaves you. You can always return to the feeling of the Big House in the fall, the Law Library in the winter, the Arb in the spring. You can tap into the fire that lights this campus and find something to propel you forward.

My hard work last summer led to my dream job, but it wasn’t dream timing. To take it, I had to miss my last semester here. I resolved myself to four months of missing out

and graduated in quiet denial that it was the end. I felt heavy — heavy to leave this place not knowing if it would ever truly be the same. Amid the excitement of spring graduation in the air, I know many seniors felt that sense of fear.

Well, I've worked almost half a year now, but being back in Ann Arbor brings a sort of magic only those who bleed maize and blue will know. The only people who truly understand how it feels to have our first snow day in over 30 years or camp out by the Michigan Union all night to hear the President of the United States speak stepped foot in the Big House for one last time all together on April 30.

I'm writing to tell you those feelings don't go away.

When everything starts to move too quickly and the ground becomes molten under your very feet, that's when you'll start to appreciate the people who remain. Those who, after not seeing them for weeks or months, take off right where you left off. As if your whole world hadn't shifted and shaped itself into a new creation during that lapsed time. As if you hadn't lost and found yourself a thousand times over. All that time will shrink and fade to a single point when you see them. And in that singularity, the ground is solid beneath your feet again.

The family we make here, those constant faces in a sea of change will keep you afloat and treading even the most tumultuous waters. As you immerse yourself in challenges beyond your imagination, limited by what you believe is possible, the world starts to reveal opportunities beyond those limits. Time simply won't allow that future to unfold while clinging to those in your past. That's when the people who can permeate past rigid pretenses of present and past emerge. In their ability to make time irrelevant, they embed themselves into your future. They allow for you to grow and grow with the security of knowing you will always have an ever-present part of your past in your unforeseeable future.