Just Like You
I was fat but they didn’t care. I was also short, had brown skin, could barely catch a football, always ran out of steam in the first quarter, but they didn’t care. We formed teams under an embracing sun, atop supporting grass, and we all felt the same. We were little kids wrapped in laughs and jokes and began playing football in that park down the street that was our second home each summer.
Mike’s parents were Greek, Joe’s were from Spain, Jason’s were from India, like mine. There were kids from the next street over playing with us too. A generation removed from Persia, Africa, Israel, Europe, all the colors of the skin-rainbow showed up to play that day.
Someone ran home to get pitchers of juice and water for everyone, while another kid shyly smiled and said his mother made him bring that big bag of oranges for us all to share.
I can’t remember which team won that day. Was it our street or theirs? I just remember that feeling of perfection that seemed to waft in between each exhausting play. It seemed to be the thing making the leaves on the trees move. It seemed to be the thing filling my panting lungs.
That perfection was so easily obvious, just waiting to come up and embrace, in step with these friends and strangers having no notice or care at all of all my differences.
“Paki go home!” was the slur that shot out from a beet red, teenaged face.
My first reaction was stunned confusion, but that soon sprouted words inside. Wait a minute. I’m Canadian like you. I was just laughing with my friends at the park. I was part of a group. It felt so good. I had no care in the world. But now… how can words make me feel so alone, like no one in the world is on my side?
He got off his bike and walked up the driveway and kept getting bigger and bigger. I was a 4’11” thirteen-year-old, and he was an adult-height fifteen-year-old, skinny, his shirt off, with clenched fists pumping his chest and muscles as red as his face.
I couldn’t close the garage door in time, so I picked up a can of turpentine and twisted off the cap. It was a mute action since I knew my shaking body could never throw it.
“A Paki took my dad’s job,” he said so matter-of-factly, so monotone, after I stammered asking what his problem was.
“My dad is from India, not Pakistan…” I meekly offered.
“Fuck off, stupid fat Paki!” he shouted, crossing the garage threshold to tower over, to breathe rage at me for an endless minute before he turned and walked away.
That was the summer of Todd and his friends. A little light in me got snuffed out. I was afraid to go to the park, to ride my bike, to get milk and bread whenever my mother asked me to. Those ghouls seemed to be everywhere that summer: in the park, at the street corner, in that dark alley behind the grocery store. I don’t think I was ever afraid of them beating me up. I just hated that feeling, that aloneness and separation their shouted words would always stab me with.
Am I less than others? I wondered that summer.
“Are you going to use that Tide to wash those ugly freckles off your face?”
I was proud of my comment, replete with its mock British accent. Paul and his bigger brother, Mark, always yelled racist stuff at my group of friends, so I wanted to give it back. It had been a situation simmering since they first moved in up the street a few months back. They would tell us to “go home” or “go back to live in the trees” whenever they’d walk by our houses.
Mark was too big, older than all of us, probably in his twenties, but Paul was our age and size. Plus, that day, as Paul walked by with a bag of groceries, he was alone while there were four of us on my front lawn, so I felt brave.
It was only years later, when I thought back to that moment, did what I remember seeing crush me: Paul’s shoulder’s dropped. His fiery, red-hair seemed to lose a shade as he looked down. The smile he had been wearing fell away. He probably felt as alone in that moment as I did during the summer of Todd two years earlier.
The situation came to a head when my mother was in the driveway one day unloading her car. Mark walked by, spat at her feet, and whispered loud for her to hear, “Paki bitch”.
My mother was quiet most of the time, happy to keep to herself at home, but was also strong when she needed to be. A day later, Paul, Mark, and their mother were in our living room. I remember my mother’s voice as she phoned their house that morning: no anger, no shaking, just a calm firmness. I remember my brother and I crawling out of our bedrooms on the carpet to listen in and try not to be seen.
Downstairs, my mother explained how she and my father both grew up in poverty, their families had seen unimaginable hardships, but they had saved up, gone to school, made better lives for themselves, and rightfully came to this country and neighborhood. She herself came to Canada at fifteen for school, in the 1950s, and climbed the tallest mountains of hatred over her skin color. She did not go through everything she had gone through to have a kid spit at her feet.
Paul and Mark didn’t say anything that whole time, even though their mother was sobbing and apologetic. Paul looked like something was sinking in. His hands were folded in his lap, his head was down. Maybe he might change when he grew up, I thought, or maybe that was just my hopeful innocence. Their family moved away a month later.
Oh boy, I thought, a seat sure would be nice.
This was my first real foray out on my own as an adult. At twenty-four, I was in India to do the clichéd search for myself. And, after a couple of weeks of dust, crowds, and noise, I was exhausted. I would’ve loved to sit down and shove my head out a window on that bus. The eight hours of bumps and twists were just about to begin, but I was already feeling queasy.
Growing up, I always thought of myself as “white”. Maybe not in skin color, since when I looked down at my arms, surely I saw brown, but what else was I? I didn’t speak any of the Indian languages. My father, from years of racism in the 1960s, wanted to distance himself from his ethnicity, so he taught us nothing of his culture. My mother, even though her grandparents were from India, was from the Caribbean, spoke only English, and never knew the names of the curried dishes she’d sometimes make.
I spoke English and French, grew up in a middle-class suburb of Montreal, watched American and Canadian television, and laughed the same as my friends whenever an Indian character came onscreen with a funny accent.
India felt like such a foreign concept to me, I surely couldn’t go alone. I needed an ally. I needed another “white” person to go with me. So it became my project that winter to convince my friend he needed India as much as I did, and it worked.
“Saar, please have a seat.”
That offer snapped me back to the moment, and when I turned, a very dark man was standing beside me, and my friend was already smiling and settled into his newly acquired, comfy-looking seat.
That became the norm of travel for the real-white and imitation-white pair of friends in India for a month. Indians always stumbled over themselves to give my friend a bus and train seat, to temporarily calm their crazy queuing and let him go to the front, or to pile on free heaps of tea and sweets. All the while, I remained standing, got shoved to the back, or had to fork over a coin for my own tea.
Sometimes I’d speak up, thinking if they heard my North-American accent, they’d treat me the same pampered way, but that only got me glares and words in Hindi I never understood. At a roadside cafe one day, the Indian owner clarified it for me.
“They think you are Indian.” he said, “They think, perhaps you are putting on an accent, perhaps you went abroad to study. They think you think you are better than them.”
“But wait,” I started, then quickly caught myself. I stared at the owner for an awkward second before he shrugged and went off to deal with other customers.
I finished the sentence in my mind since I didn’t want to leave that weird feeling hanging. But wait. I’m from the West. Aren’t I indeed better than them?
What freedom. Twisty roads, sun in a cloudless blue, a day warm enough for a t-shirt, and green hills rolling up and down as a I rode past. I flipped up my visor, tasted the breeze, and just couldn’t stop smiling. A lunch break that included a motorcycle ride was always perfect.
When I got home, I passed a row of shiny cars and motorcycles, then throttled up the steep driveway to park beside an Audi and two BMWs. In the garage, a few employees were playing pool and foosball, while some were watching a movie on the behemoth TV on the far wall. This was their lunch break and they were loving it too.
Inside the house was a bustle of activities. Employees in cubicles in the living room chatted with customers on phones, developers brainstormed around whiteboards in the huge vestibule, keyboards clacked away, and the near-permanent smell of brewed coffee filled all spaces in between.
This was the life of a tech start-up in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, and I owned it all.
We were a diverse company of fifteen people: black, brown, yellow, white, and everyone got along. I like to think people were happy there, united by their love of the job and its perks, all because of me. I was easygoing, kind, kept that house carefree and fun, and maybe also kept the real world outside.
Even though I owned that house, I lived over in Oakland, in a shiny new condo high above Lake Merritt. That Saturday I checked my email, making sure everything was running smoothly back at the house, then went for an early morning walk around the water.
On the sketchy side of the lake, when two big, tough-looking black men approached from the other direction, I tensed up, moved to the side to give them room, and quickly avoided eye contact. I labeled them, assigned them as dangerous, and thought nothing of my reaction. This was normal in Oakland… wasn’t it?
That afternoon I drove over to Berkeley, to my favorite grocery store. I pulled into a spot just as an old VW camper van was pulling in beside me. Wow, what a cool van, I thought, musing on the contrast between that old classic and my just-purchased luxury car.
I got out as a young Asian kid, with the full look of Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt, got out of the van. I smiled politely, but he looked at my car, looked at me, maybe thinking I was smirking instead of smiling, and just whispered, “Rich asshole. Go back to India.”
I stood frozen as he walked into the store. It took a moment for thoughts to kick in.
Wait, I said silently, to the empty space where he had been standing, I’m a nice guy. I’m spiritual. I love everyone. I just bought this car because I liked the interior. It has so many cool buttons and lights. I’m just a tech geek. This car is not me.
But then something came over me, the intensity of which I had never felt before. I got angry. I clenched my fists and slammed my car door closed and took one step to the store.
Fucking asshole. We’re both minorities, I yelled in my own head. We’re supposed to be on the same fucking side!
I couldn’t stop the imagery from igniting. I pictured that kid coming out of the store. I pictured punching him in the face. I pictured smiling again. I pictured him falling to the asphalt and me kicking him in the head until he begged for mercy.
All the feelings of powerlessness and separation I felt as a child transmuted to vile rage in that moment, and I couldn’t stop it. Months in a Himalayan forest meditating meant nothing in that moment. I pictured kicking that kid in the head some more, as he tried to crawl under his stupid van.
How the mighty have fallen. It was ten years later, and I was living in the tiny town of Ojai, in southern California. A crooked business partner was all that was needed to collapse that company and wipe away five years of hard work and all my savings. I remember the months of liquidation, selling off the pool table, furniture, house, and my precious motorcycle. Now, I no longer leased a Lexus. I lived in a run-down cottage in someone’s backyard. I lived frugally and simply, and, frankly, loved it.
My days were filled with hiking the mountains or sitting on the brick wall behind my home and writing or programming, anything that felt creative. That particular week was also going especially well: I had gone on a couple of dates with a woman from my hiking group and we hit it off. We agreed to meet up that Thursday and walk the trails, just the two of us.
I woke up early and drove to the trailhead to wait for her. As I sat in my tiny Mazda with the windows down, I tried to get my new fitness watch set up and synced with my phone. I was just a 48-year-old tech geek, who maybe never grew up, who liked toys with buttons and screens, who sat hoping for a soon-to-come connection on a dusty mountain trail.
After a few minutes of getting lost in the watch, I felt a weird energy, a heat, a presence, off to my left. When I looked up, there was a cop sitting in an SUV four feet away, in the middle of the road, his engine idling, and he was staring intensely at me from behind sunglasses. I went back to my watch, thinking he’d drive away, but he just sat there.
There were supposedly a lot of break-ins at this trailhead, and sure enough, there were signs around warning people to lock their cars and never leave valuables inside. I knew police often drove up here to check on things, but I’ve never seen them stop and stare like this.
Does he think I’m a criminal? But… I’m just here to hike.
Two women sat in a car on the other side of the road, and he wasn’t staring at them. They were laughing, talking, loading up their backpacks, and eventually got out and started up the trail, but all that commotion and the cop didn’t break his glare at me for even one second.
I didn’t know what to do. Why do I feel so guilty all of a sudden? I dropped the watch and slowly brought my hands to rest at the top of the steering wheel.
Where was she? Why is she a couple of minutes late? If only she showed up, the cop would see I was just a normal dude waiting for a friend to go on a hike with. She’s even white, I thought in the panicked moment, so if the cop saw her with me he’d definitely realize I’m not a threat.
When the cop shut off his engine, still holding his burning glare, it pushed me over the edge. Suddenly I was out of my car, grabbing my backpack and jogging up the trail. After I passed the first bend, I stopped and realized I left my phone in my car.
I can’t even call her to tell her I’m on the trail. Should I go back?
I didn’t go back. I kept jogging. I picked the steepest trail and ran up it. My knees hurt, water from my leaky bottle splashed everywhere, I was gasping for breath, but still I kept running. I didn’t stop until I reached the large fire road at the top of the trail, then collapsed to a boulder in the shade of a dried-up tree.
I needed something to calm me down, to make me laugh, so as a game I began tallying all the racist incidents from all the cities I lived in. Not as weird as it sounds. These were the big incidents that — when they happened — tore at my soul, but from this safe, elapsed distance, they felt like only whispers on the wind. The US and Canada were neck-and-neck, at about ten each.
But the difference went deeper than the raw number. In my personal experiences, in Canada the racism came staccato, sharp outcries from individuals yelling or slurring that stood out so much from the norm.
In the US, it instead felt like a pot ever simmering, kept hidden beneath the lid, ready to boil over the moment it was lifted. It was rarely slurs or insults, but it was looks, it was changes in demeanor, it was security following you around stores, people on planes sizing you up and wondering if you were a threat. It was staring eyes behind curtains as you walked their neighborhood, even though you lived there too. It was the twisted energy of polite disdain.
I definitely didn’t have it as bad as others do. I never felt like I was in physical danger in any of these incidents. I was never beaten, targeted, or killed. I don’t think I was ever passed over for the types of jobs I applied for. The discrimination I encountered wasn’t bad enough to fully cripple me. And yet, the searing unworthiness imparted from these incidents still burned hot and long. The scar tissue, when looked for, is still deep in me.
All the pain in my life has only ever ridden in on the feeling of separation. It is the feeling of being cleaved from others, from love, from completeness, from that perfection in that park playing football with friends as a child.
And there is no more brutal way of driving in those coffin nails than honing in on differences beyond one’s control, the physical differences, like the color of one’s skin. Voices are stolen, proud postures become gnarled, smiles lose light, and lives end.
I am in awe of those who go out and fight for equality and justice. I am in awe of those who march for a better tomorrow and for basic decencies today. We live on the shoulders of those who bleed to make society in the outer world more whole.
In this specific lifestream, there were many boulders tossed in to break the free flow. Heavy, dark boulders that slowed the innocence and openness ever pouring out from me when I was younger. And I wonder how many boulders have I tossed into the streams of others? What residue have I smeared, how much light have I darkened, when I mindlessly acted from those unjust knives previously stabbed into me?
When I see the pain of the world, when I cry at the distance we are from justice, I feel it in the empty, cavernous space in my chest. In a pool somewhere in me, I see reflections of the march for love, for the longing of no separation, for the ache to remember what we are, and just for this single lifestream, I can only drown.
Zubin Mathai came across Gangaji in 2006. Diving into her books and going to retreats was a life-changer. Her teachings marked the end of a decades-long spiritual search.
During the dot-com boom, Zubin was the CTO of a few silicon valley startups, then spent a happy decade as a freelance engineer and writer. He started volunteering for the Gangaji Foundation a couple of years ago, working first on the mobile app, and then on the creation of this new website. As of 2020, Zubin is part of the GF Staff. We are delighted to have his genius, eloquence, and passion as part of our team.