Dosa with Butter Chicken: Musings of a Culturally Mixed South Asian

Growing up as a South Asian in the early-2000’s suburbs of Dallas was an incredibly affirming experience. My parents moved to the Dallas area in the mid-‘90s and have seen the South Asian community flourish since then. My earliest memories are of shopping at the first Indian grocery store in the area that opened up a few miles from our house, and in the years since, what started off as a small strip mall store subsequently exploded into eight locations across the North Texas area. I remember being thrilled when an Indian movie theater opened up nearby — if we’re being honest, part of me was always a little scared it would be closed down every time we went. The Carnatic music teacher I used to go to lived in my neighborhood, and I had access to religious education fifteen minutes from my house. All of this to say, on paper my cultural experience as a South Asian in America was relatively picturesque.

In reality, though, I felt quite lost in my identity. Unlike most Desi parents, my parents had a love marriage, and their families are from completely different parts of India. My mother grew up in Mumbai — fluent in Marathi and Hindi, with a vast knowledge of Gujarati and Sanskrit. On the other hand, my father, who is from the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, spent a significant amount of his childhood in the US before his family moved back to Kerala, and admits that his Malayalam leaves much to be desired. English was really the only common language between my parents, and as a result, my sister and I never had the chance to become fluent in Marathi, Hindi, or Malayalam. My mom would speak to us in Marathi every now and then, and we would hear her speak with her family back home, so we picked up quite a bit of vocabulary eventually. Once my mom introduced us to Hindi movies, my sister and I would watch them back to back with subtitles at the bottom, almost as if we were making up for lost time. Over time, our Hindi vocabulary improved as well. My Malayalam, on the other hand, is almost nonexistent: I know the numbers 1-10, a few conversational words, and the names of my favorite dishes, but I so badly wish I knew more.

Within the walls of our home, it never felt like anything was missing, but as soon as I would interact with other first generation South Asians, I would start to feel alienated. Kids younger than me could rattle off entire conversations in their mother-tongue and bond over their unique cultural identities. Most people I know don’t have to figure out how to split their limited vacation time amongst families living in two different Indian states. And it certainly didn’t help that I didn’t grow up around any blood relatives other than my parents and my sister. Living as a South Asian in the US meant oscillating between my American and Desi identities, but being a culturally mixed South Asian mingling with other South Asians meant that I had to learn how to code switch even amongst my own people. Eventually, imposter syndrome would kick in and it just became easier to call myself an American more than anything else, even though I adored and wanted to push my South Asian identity to the forefront.

The first time I really analyzed what my identity meant to me was in college: I was hanging out with one of my best friends from middle school, who also happens to be Malayali, when one of his friends came by to say hi. My friend introduced me and said, “Sharada is also Mallu. Or, half-Mallu” in a mindful attempt to respect my identities. Before I even realized what I was saying I blurted out, “Oh my god, I forgot I was only half.” Even though he was right, I realized I never viewed myself as half-Maharashtrian and half-Malayali — it feels like all of me belongs to both categories. It took me decades to be able to not only feel comfortable in asserting all of my identities but to love everything that comes along with it. For example, not only do I get to translate Hindi memes for my Malayali friends, but I also get to correct people if they try to tell me that North Indian food is better. It’s a unique experience that not many of my peers can relate to, but it’s shaped me into the multidimensional person I am today.

Intercultural Conversations are Necessary to Celebrate Indian Identities

Steam rises from the openings in the lid placed atop a uniquely shaped pan. Six shallow cavities are spread evenly across the surface of the pan to cook the batter into perfect half spheres, making gundpangla, a Karnatik breakfast dish. 

Saturday mornings, when perfectly browned and crisp gundpangla were served paired with a flavorful coconut chutney, were some of my happiest. I easily polished off ten to fifteen as my mother emptied several rounds of these addictive dumplings onto the tray on the breakfast table. Bhimsen Joshi’s cassette played in the background, entrancing us in a lyric-less melody, evoking emotion purely through the rise and fall of his notes. It would occasionally be interrupted by my mother animatedly shouting in Kannada due to a poor phone connection on a line with extended family in India. 

Almost everything about these Saturday mornings and most days growing up were filled with immersive experiences into Karnatik culture thanks to my mother. The food, music, language, and way of life I was exposed to were direct nods to our roots in Karnataka, a state in southern India. Despite this rich education about where I came from, I spent most of my life hiding my colorful South Indian heritage. A lack of representation in both Indian and Western media about what it truly means to be South Indian and the scarcity of conversations around the numerous subcultures within India usually meant even my most cultured Indian friends had no idea what Karnataka was, much less what its culture entailed.

I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up in a diverse environment when my family moved to the U.S. in 2004. I was surrounded by South Asian people all through high school and college –  I took for granted how easy it was to own the fact that I was Indian-American. There were people I could share my culture with and others who were open-minded about learning so I never felt the need to hide my Indian-ness. But I did hide my South Indian-ness, particularly my traditional Karnatik upbringing because it was the lesser known side of India. The India portrayed in both Indian and Western media is usually North India and when Central and South Indian culture are represented, a mockery is made of them and the full extent of its richness and breadth is not truly captured.

Unflattering stereotypes in Bollywood about South Indians being uptight, having unrealistic, ridiculous accents, eating bland food, and shining a negative light on our studiousness kept me from ever talking about where I was from to avoid being associated with these ‘uncool’ labels. Instead, I was always first in line to talk about Hindi movies, recommend the best joint for chole puri or spicy paneer tikka and naan, or flaunt a salwar suit. Although distinctly Indian, none of these displays of cultural enthusiasm were a tribute to my own background. They were just the popular side of India, and therefore much easier to talk about. 

Seeing someone, whether Indian or otherwise, show a glint of recognition when I talked about North Indian culture because they’d seen it in a movie or tv show felt like a victory. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that my life was so different than what was shown on those screens to avoid any negative interpretations of what being South Indian meant and also because the topic never came up. Even though I grew up with plenty of Desi friends who hailed from different parts of India, there was never any curiosity about the depth and breadth of each others’ cultures, so we filtered our Indian identity to what was shown online and moved on.

I wish I’d openly talked more about holidays in my Karnatik household, marked with holgi, a sweet bread with hints of coconut, turmeric, and aromatic cardamom or kadubu, a stuffed dumpling of sorts. Or dinner parties ending in watching compilations of Gangavathi Pranesh’s stand-up, a comedian who primarily performs in Kannada. Or summers spent with countless hours in my grandmother’s closet, asking her about sari styles and watching her don those 9 yards of fabric in a traditional Karnatik kachhe drape for the temple. There was clearly no shortage of exposure to my Karnatik heritage growing up and I should’ve worn it like a badge of honor. 

It’s taken me a long time to overcome the negative messages I internalized about South India from the media and raise these intercultural conversations within my South Asian circle. I’m constantly amazed at how diverse India is and how it’s not uncommon to grow up learning upwards of four languages in large cities given the volume of individuals with unique backgrounds crossing paths on a daily basis. Why then do we avoid being curious about each other’s unique subcultures and celebrating the beauty of so much diversity? While it’s satisfying to find common ground with someone talking about India in a way that’s accessible, I owe it to my colorful upbringing to shine a light on Karnataka and all its gems. And in the same vein, learn about other cultures in India to normalize that being Indian is not one-dimensional.  Our overarching Indian identity — the values we hold close and the history we’re a product of – remains common and unchanged, but the one-of-a-kind threads we join to weave the tapestry of the country is what makes it so great. It would be a disservice not to boast every aspect of your Indian-ness and lift up others who are doing the same.

Speak Up

The list of reasons I love being Bangladeshi never ends. I can’t get enough of the delicious cha my abbu makes for me, the vibrant sea of shari’s gliding around at family weddings and the feeling when my maa helps place a tikli symmetrically in the center of my forehead. As much as I take pride in my rich culture, I am also willing to hold it accountable. The summer of 2020 awakened a beast in many of us. We felt hurt and angry at the treatment of Black people in America. And after that rage was expressed in the streets protesting, on social media and in honest discussions with friends, we were left to look at ourselves. To truly enact change, we must address the implicit and explicit biases harbored as individuals and as a community. Those conversations start with our families.

As a child, I learned about the harsh treatment my parents faced being Deshi and living in the states in the ’90s. They’d have to lug their clothes in trash bags to the laundromat from their apartment and passing drivers would yell that they were “dirty Iraqis.” No one deserves such vicious treatment. Yet my maa and abbu immigrated here from Bangladesh, not Iraq; they received hate from assumptions born out of ignorance, labeled as something they’re not because of how they look. The Islamophobia only worsened after 2001 with my Muslim family members receiving so much disdain from people not willing to accept that extremism doesn’t define an entire religious group. I figured since Deshi folks from my parent’s generation knew what it felt like to receive hostile attitudes, they wouldn’t give the same to any other community. But that turned out to be far more complex.

Once I visited a family friend’s house because their son, Raffi*, had been in a pretty bad accident. One of Raffi’s friends, who flew in from out of town to visit him, was walking up as my maa and I arrived. More guests stopped by and eventually we sat together to eat dinner while Raffi rested in the other room with his friend. As we were eating and chatting one of the uncles stated how thoughtful it was for Raffi’s friend to fly in. An auntie chimed in with “Yes, he’s one of the good Kalo boys. He’s such a good student too” I nearly choked on my torkari. Yet another auntie squealed, “That’s so rare, you know they’re naturally more aggressive.” My jaw dropped! This particular auntie was a doctor!! No wonder Black folks are terrified of not being taken seriously and receiving proper care from health care professionals.  It makes me feel ashamed that my Deshi community would perpetuate this kind of harmful stereotype. I don’t care how many times I hear these dangerous assumptions – it’s always blood boiling, if not surprising. First, they praise Raffi’s friend for his kindness, then they dare to criticize “his people.” I’ll be honest, that was one of the times I fell silent. I didn’t say something when I should have. I don’t feel good about sharing this, but I know I’m human and it takes time to find your voice. I use that moment as an everyday reminder to speak up now.

It is very upsetting, but these are sentiments I’ve heard more than a few times. They’ve bought into the stereotypes that Black people are loud, unruly, misbehaving. Nothing like us. As a teenager, I got the impression that I shouldn’t date a Black person. It felt like there was a ladder of hierarchy and they were perpetually at the bottom. The model minority myth pits “us” against “them.” White supremacy pits minority groups against one another to keep the system in place. When in reality it should be all of us against white supremacy. Solidarity among all minority groups has the power to topple the notion that marginalized communities must compare themselves to each other to be the “best.” It is disastrous when the South Asian community harbors anti-Black ideologies.

I am a light-skinned Bangladeshi but have freckles on my nose and cheeks which I adore. Sadly I’ve noticed that admiration begins and ends with me. For example, every time I’ve had makeup done for a cousin’s wedding the makeup artists ferociously insist on covering up “all these marks on your face!” Of course, I never let them, but would things be different if I was darker-skinned? As a tween who visited Dhaka regularly, I saw ads for skin lightening creams everywhere. I remember finally asking my maa if I could try one. She gave me a swift and decisive “NO.” But if she didn’t look out for me, would I want to cover my natural face? It’s easy to believe skin tone determines your worth when people constantly comment and attempt to decrease your melanin value. The colorism doled out within South Asian communities is so casual, as if someone’s noting rainy weather. Comments like you’re getting too dark, she’s fairer than you, they would be so pretty if they weren’t so dark circulate readily. I’ve often wondered how much of it stems from self-hatred instilled over generations. Generations before us were taught to praise paleness. “Bleach your skin”, “dark is undesirable”, “dark skin is worth less than pale skin.” In this kind of climate, it’s important to love ourselves and stop the cycle.

As a teen I found myself speaking up more, even if I couldn’t express precisely why I felt the need to do so. Once I was in the car with my maa and she was complaining about a man she encountered at work. He was Black and she used the derogatory word, “Kahli”, with a tone denoting contempt. I took a gulp of air and firmly said “You’re being racist, don’t say things like that.” She shot back with, “I’m not! How can I be racist?” In the next moments, I genuinely thought I would get kicked out of the car. But miraculously, I was allowed to stay and I began ruminating on that last phrase. It can be especially difficult to tackle the topic of bigotry knowing our families have had no walk in the park living in this country. To this day people are insidiously rude to my maa’s face and tell her to go “back to where she came from.” My abbu has randomly been denied permits and had to jump through hoops just to build a deck in our backyard. It is rough for any immigrant here. I started to understand that a large part of our community thinks they’re immune from displaying racist behavior because others discriminate against them. Of course, that’s not how it works. 

Millennial and Gen-Z Deshis are quick to raise their voices against anti-Black hate. While it counts for something to make a post or call out a friend, the mindset starts at home. No one has a chance to break through to the hearts and minds of your family like you do. Until we confront those who are closest to us we continue to be a part of the problem. I’m sharing these personal stories because I acknowledge it’s not easy to talk to family. Each member has to put in the work and take time to create new habits. Unlearning deeply rooted colorism and racism isn’t a linear path. Even if it’s scary I’m always really glad when I speak up. People can change at any stage in life. My family has grown over the years thanks to a lot of tough, uncomfortable conversations. They’re still questioning and self-educating, and so am I.  

Calling out colorism, Islamophobia, nationalism, caste discrimination and classism is beneficial for South Asians as well as other marginalized groups. Racism won’t end overnight, but it’s absolutely unacceptable to let it perpetuate. We need to do our part to become true allies not only to Black folks but also to the AAPI, Indigenous, Latinx, MENASA communities and more. Our vibrant South Asian cultures are not defined by their worst faults. We can make that a reality by loving our skin for what it is, standing up to the people we love the most, unlearning biases and remembering we are not alone in this fight.

* Names have been changed

If I’m proud of who I am, then others will be too

By Maisha Khan

“Mom, my friend is coming over to work on a project!”

“Is she going to eat here?”

“No, why would she eat Indian food?”

I grabbed the Febreeze bottle and sprayed the odor mask throughout the house. I even cracked open a few windows to let the fresh air circulate, only to find my mom making idli sambhar in the kitchen.

“Mom, are you serious !? That’s going to smell so much!”

This is just one of the many incidents from my childhood where I tried to hide my culture. After moving to a new school when I was 8, all I ever wanted was to fit in. I wanted to blend in with the rest of the crowd; to dress, smell, talk like everyone else at my school. However, I could neither change my color nor background; and so as an 11 year old, I did everything in my power to act “American.” I switched my hair oils for sweet scented serums and started threading my upper lip/eyebrows. I bought lunch everyday too — all as just a mere 6th grader. I was one of only three POCs on my soccer team, which created an inferiority complex that had me convinced I was unwanted. Eventually, I quit. The only extra curricular activities I saw brown people participate in (as a majority) were orchestra, band and tennis. None of which really held my interest.

I had this idea that my whole personality and identity revolved around being brown; that when people saw me, they just saw a brown girl, nothing more. But in reality, this was all in my head. By trying so hard to run away from that piece of me, I had inadvertently made it my whole identity. While all this was happening, I was also growing to be very shy and quiet, too afraid people would not accept me for who I am. I was conscious of everything I said or did. All that shame grew into something bigger and affected me long term in various aspects of my life.

This is not to say every brown girl goes through these exact feelings. Some brown girls may feel accepted off the bat and others don’t even feel they’re any different from non-brown people. Every individual reacts to situations and experiences in their own way.

Fast forward to college: A whole new ball game. I graduated from Rutgers, a university that has a very high brown population. There I saw all sorts of brown people who fit into all categories: athletes, greek life, honor societies, party-goers and more. This might sound cheesy, but I realized that people will see me as how I see myself and if I’m proud of who I am, then others will be too. I started joining diverse organizations where I proudly showed off my culture instead of suppressing it. For example, organizations at my college held events to celebrate various Hindu holidays, which even people of other cultures partook in!

Being able to talk to others who shared similar backgrounds to me or spoke the same second language as me or ate the same foods as me helped me build different types of connections. I even found people who watched the same Hindi serials as me growing up and finally had the opportunity to discuss those characters and plots with someone besides my mom. I no longer had to try so hard to fit in and instead started gaining pride in my culture.

I also realized my experience wasn’t as unique as I had thought and that many others resonated with these feelings as well. The reason diversity is so overtly important is that it leads to higher inclusion which consequently leads to better performance. Having role models and peers who I related to encouraged me to reach for my dream and kept me from constantly doubting if I was good enough just because of the color of my skin.  

Being brown is not an identity, it’s only a fraction of it. The rest of who I am is up to me!

“Where are you from?”

By Poyani Bavishi

I spun around in the grocery store last Sunday, holding 2 boxes of granola bars I was deliberating between. The voice belonged to an older Caucasian male I had never seen before. I double checked that no one else was in the aisle, confirming that he was indeed talking to me.

“I’m from Jersey,” I replied cautiously. 

He laughed in response before pausing and leaning in. “No. I mean where are you really from?” 

I internally rolled my eyes and gave him a weak smile from under my mask. “Born and raised here luckily,” I responded. “Take care now.” I left before he had a chance to say anything else. 

As I walked away, I caught myself feeling a little grateful. At least he didn’t tell me to go back to my country, I thought as I checked out. That was what was said to me the last time something of this nature had happened, yelled out of a car window on my run around the park. 

After all, this type of thing had been happening my whole life. I have been on the receiving end of countless tales from friend’s family members about their one Indian coworker or brother-in-law, unsolicited recipe reviews about chicken tikka masala (despite the fact I am vegetarian), and commentary on the intelligence of the one Indian kid in whatever math class they had taken in college. Teachers and employers have often shrugged off the pronunciation of my name, saying things like “You’re killing me here!” or “I’m not even going to try to remember that one.” As if those three syllables were inherently burdensome, inherently insignificant.

Truthfully, I had always viewed these encounters as harmless. I would laugh with my other friends of diverse backgrounds about it, and we would share the last time a similar event had happened to us. There, with others, it felt silly to think any further about it. After all, it happened to basically all of us- it must have been normal, right? 

The issue with these incidents, of course, is that they open the door to much more. Using monolithic identities to frame the way in which individuals view others has been the origin of many of our deepest humanitarian traumas. Subtleties build brick by brick to form mentalities of “otherization,” until we have formed in our minds an unidentifiable being completely unlike ourselves. Seemingly harmless preformed notions give way to concrete biases at a flick of a switch, and institutional rules and policies are never far behind. This is how marginalization seeds its ugly roots, and how we have arrived to where we are at today. 

Over the past several months, I have watched in horror along with the nation as the uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans surged substantially. On March 16, 2021 eight people were killed at a massage parlor in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian women. In an era where national hate crimes decreased by 6 percent, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 150%, fueled by phrases like “the Chinese virus,” and “Kung flu.” 

Recently, I rewatched Hasan Minhaj’s piece on “The American Dream Tax,” a term he coined to describe the immigrant experience in America. He tells the story of his family receiving death threats in the aftermath of 9/11, one of which was followed by individuals smashing in the windows of their family Camry. While Minhaj immediately attempted to find his perpetrators, overwhelmed with anger, his father calmly swept up the glass shards off the road. When Minhaj asked why he was not furious, his father simply replied, “These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That’s the price we pay for being here.” 

Through this anecdote, Minhaj perfectly embodies a generational shift of perspectives. So often, immigrants are taught to believe that it is “worth it” to endure degrees of otherization, rudeness, and hate in pursuit of a better life for their families to come. They are convinced that looking the other way is inherent to existing, that identity is a luxury that cannot always be afforded. Children of this generation, however, have been born with what Minhaj terms the “audacity of equality;” we read the words of our constitution, of the decades of reform, and we believe that it applies to us, bestowed upon us just by our citizenship. 

When I see hate crimes against Asian Americans nationwide, I feel the weight of our combined story on my shoulders. I picture all of us as children, watching our parents get up and hustle in pursuit of the lifetime they were told would be full of opportunities for their loved ones. I picture the collective sacrifice of stories woven from just those I have had the privilege to hear- careers sacrificed, families estranged, lifestyles and joys repeatedly turned down in pursuit of the dream. To think of these stories amplified to millions of individuals across this country is a weight that I cannot even bear to hold, to wrap my head and my heart around. 

With a heavy heart, I can only resolve to fight for my Asian brothers and sisters and generations to come. I implore all of us to take up space- to treat whatever institution, town, city, and country you are in as if it is your absolute birth right to be there- because it is. Dare others to treat your identity for what it is- unique and beautiful, stitched intricately for each individual through their bundles of life experiences. Dare to be different, but most importantly- dare to be yourself. 

Item Number Songs: The Dangers of a Guilty Pleasure

During this last year, I consumed and watched a ton of Bollywood. I re-watched movies from my youth and obsessively consumed the multi million and billion plus viewed videos on YouTube. The nostalgia and the addictive nature of the old songs from my childhood were a great way to distract myself from the pandemic world we were living in and helped me escape back to a simpler time. 

The love songs, ballads and outstretched arms of Shah Rukh Khan made me venture to the newer parts of Bollywood and even to some “evergreen” songs that were not a part of my upbringing. During this binge watching, however, as an adult, I did start to notice parts of this kind of media that I had never thought of as a child.

 Most specifically were the so-called “item number songs”. A marketing staple in many Bollywood films, that highlighted the bright colors, costumes, and rhythmically hypnotic beats– but most importantly, a feature woman with shaking hips who oftentimes was surrounded by a gaggle of men– think of Chikni Chameli, Fevicol, and Sheila ki Javani. There tends to be an assumption or environmental hints that this woman is a prostitute or a lady of the night in some capacity. My matured brain could not help but  gawk at the overt demonstration of the Madonna-Whore complex in Indian cinema. Some women are “good” and others are not but serve a function– a function that is basically only good for the male gaze. 

I would love to tell you that I hate these songs but frankly, they are great and some of my most played. They’re catchy and I have definitely tried to learn the choreography of more than one of them. Having lived life though, being a woman and viewing more of my life through a feminist lense, I do have to say that these songs are difficult to watch without feeling guilty or feeling a deep cringe internally the whole time. 

So, I tried to change the lens to add a more positive spin. Could this be a celebration of female empowerment? Women owning their bodies? Unfortunately, the realities in South Asia do not match that very idealistic perspective. With child prostitution, sex trafficking, and domestic violence still a lingering problem in many parts of South Asia, mostly affecting the vulnerable and disenfranchised, it seems inappropriate at best to glamorize this way of life in India. Neither Katrina Kaif nor Kareena Kapoor deal with the true and ugly ramifications of sex work while dancing in their beautiful ghagaras. 

I will probably continue to watch item number songs and sing along, feeling myself want to bust a move. I will consume this content the way I consume other problematic content for women in the American music industry and otherwise. That being said, we should collectively come together to have a conversation much like the Western world did with a song like Blurred Lines that reinforced rape culture. Hopefully, this time and uncensored conversation is approaching the Desi community soon.

An Entrepreneur’s Journey

Yvon Chouinard. Jen Rubio. Brian Chesky. Amazing founders who have built industry changing businesses. But how? Most stories we hear about them highlight the struggles later on in these founder’s journeys, once they had achieved millions in sales or once they were several years into their journey. We rarely hear about the early days. How did they come up with their ideas? What was the first step they took to start? Did they ever doubt themselves? What kept them going through the hardships?

As someone who launched her business, MOR Collections, less than six months ago, I wish I had these early day stories to refer to. So, I decided to document mine. Regardless of where this business takes me, I hope these stories help future entrepreneurs feel a sense of comfort that the good days, the bad days, the exciting days, and the frustrating days – it’s all normal. It’s all a part of the journey. 

Upon getting my undergraduate business degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up in a career that most do when they lack direction, consulting. I learned a lot, but after four years, I was waking up unmotivated and bored. Something had to change and to do some soul searching, I ended up at business school. Coming from a family of business owners, the world of entrepreneurship always fascinated me and it’s what I focused on during my two years of graduate school. I dabbled in venture capital, participated in an accelerator program trying to launch a food business, and ended up joining a mid-sized startup post-graduation. But my dream, I had realized, was to start my own business as my father had. I just hadn’t found a problem that I felt compelled to solve. That is, till the end of wedding season 2019. 

In 2019, I attended about eight weddings and at every one, women would complain about the same two things. One, finding modern Desi clothing is so difficult. Two, it’s ridiculous how we spend so much money on outfits we only wear once or twice. I resonated with both issues but kept thinking, why? These clothes are beautiful and they’re a big part of our South Asian heritage. There had to be a way to make modern versions of these clothes more accessible and usable beyond just a few times. There had to be a better way to incorporate this part of our culture into our everyday lives.

With this thought, MOR was born. From October 2019 to July the following year, I was working on my business idea on the evenings and weekends while working my “real job” during the day. During these months, I was trying to figure out everything from manufacturing, to building a website, to the legal side of starting a business. Then there came a point where I was waking up more excited to work on MOR than I was at my day job. It took a month speaking to mentors and making endless pros and cons lists, but on July 31, 2020, I quit my day job to pursue MOR full time. Fast forward to October 20, I launched MOR Collections for the world to see.  

The journey has been incredible so far, and while I absolutely want this business to be successful, only time will tell if that happens. We’ve all heard the saying, life is about the journey, not the destination. Instead of obsessing, over the destination, I hope to use this platform as a way of reflecting, cherishing, and sharing with you my entrepreneurship journey 

Till next time, 

Mayuri Baheti

Bio: Mayuri is the founder and CEO of MOR Collections and currently resides in downtown Chicago. When she’s not working, you can find her trying to whip up something in the kitchen, attempting to learn the next TikTok dance trend, or listening to a podcast while at the gym!

Business Website: http://www.morcollections.com

Business Instagram: @mor.collections

Personal Instagram: @mayuri.baheti

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mayuribaheti/

Email: mayuri.baheti@morcollections.com

My Body, My Instrument

By Kanchan Raju

POV: You set foot into the family function that you’re reluctantly but obligatorily attending. The bustling chatter of aunties and uncles and the tangy aroma of paneer sabzi fill the room. One vaguely familiar aunty approaches, and you brace yourself for several minutes of cheek squeezing and mildly invasive questioning. But rather than a mere “hello” or “how are you,” you’re greeted with the one recurring question you dread most: 

“Kanchan, is your Amma not feeding you?”

For as long as I can remember my long legs and thin stature have been kind of a staple — an essential part of who I am. I grew up with a plethora of affectionate nicknames, from classics like “Stick” and “Twig” to my personal favorite, “Daddy Long Legs.” I’ve never done anything in particular to warrant my skinniness; my DNA just happened to contain genetic instructions along the lines of “Make! Her! Longer!” But whether it was an aunty investigating my eating habits or my own best friends giving me far too elaborate nicknames, I always responded to the skinny comments the same way: by laughing and brushing them off. 

While it was fairly easy not to think about my figure in my day-to-day life, it became much harder to ignore in my dance endeavors. As a dancer of thirteen years, I’ve always thought of my body as my instrument. But when your instrument is disproportionate compared to the standard, it’s of course more difficult to produce the correct melodies. I felt constantly hindered by my body type, no matter what the dance style. In Bharatanatyam lessons, I struggled to make my aramandi (a fundamental squatting posture) extra deep in order to match the level of my classmates. In Bollywood class, my peers would nail the confidence and femininity of our Madhuri Dixit-inspired movements while I lacked the hips and curves to do the same. No matter how hard I worked on my memory, clarity, or stamina, nothing could change the fact that I just didn’t look like the other girls. 

Throughout middle school, my skinniness became even more of a sore point. I started to struggle severely with body image and for those few years I genuinely hated being in my own skin. I dreaded going to dance class, not because I lost my passion but because I just couldn’t stand how I looked doing any and every movement. How is it possible to play the right melody when you hate your instrument? 

But in the utmost paradox, the thing that fueled my negative self image the most was exactly what sparked my journey to recovery: dance. I slowly realized that dance doesn’t have to be a reason to scrutinize my appearance or a means of dictating my self worth. I could simply dance for myself. I had always heard expressions like “Dance is the hidden language of the soul” and “Dance like nobody’s watching” and deemed them cliché, but as I entered high school I felt myself truly embodying these statements for the first time. When I learned a new sequence of Bharatanatyam abhinaya (storytelling using intricate hand gestures and facial expressions), I shifted my focus from nitpicking my own body to immersing myself into my character. I never felt more comfortable in my own skin than when I captured the elegance of a gopi (milkmaid) or the might of Lord Shiva. 

On a mission to build my body positivity, I dove into a whole new realm of the artform: choreography. As I began to create my own pieces I found this invaluable feeling that I have full and total control over my body, that nothing can come between me and the music. To this day when I lock myself in my garage for hours on end, I’m transported to a safe space wherein no one’s perception of my appearance matters — free of judgment from others and myself. Throughout high school I also mustered the courage to dabble in more outgoing styles that I was once too self-conscious to try — hip hop, jazz funk, modern, and more. And sure enough, the less I tore apart my appearance while dancing, the better my execution. I wish I could see the pure disbelief on middle school-Kanchan’s face if I told her hip hop would be her favorite style just a few years down the line. 

I’d be lying if I said my body insecurities have completely vanished, and in all honesty they probably never will. I still have days where I look in the mirror and am habitually inclined to pick apart everything I see. But for each instance of self criticism, I try to remind myself how the same body in that reflection has deepened my appreciation for dance in ways I never thought possible. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. 

I’m slowly but steadily learning to value my instrument for what it is — quirks and all. For even though no two instruments are built the same, each is capable of creating its own uniquely beautiful melody. 

Bio: 

My name is Kanchan Raju and I’m a first year Cognitive Science major at UCLA. I have been passionate about dance and piano for as long as I can remember, and I’m currently a member of UCLA’s Bollywood dance team Nashaa and community service-based music club SLAM. I’m so excited to be part of this team of impassioned writers and to contribute to the conversation on South Asian representation in mainstream media. 

Instagram: @kanchan.raju 

Email: kanchanraju26@gmail.com

Caged:

Tamica Govender 

8-year-old Tamica would have described her life as a fairy-tale. My home was a castle, my family was part of the monarchy and I had everything I needed to be a happy child. As I grew older, I started to notice more things- patterns, behavior and harsh realities.

The directions that your parents give you, as a young child, shapes your view of life. As a young brown girl, my directions were very clear (and unforgettable, might I add). A good daughter was one that did well at school, was always well-mannered and always respected her elders (no matter the situation). Perfection is a requirement, no ifs or buts- you will do what is required. 

I never questioned the system and I never thought to- what was being shown to me made sense, at the time. I suppose that I knew on some level, this would cause destruction, and how could it not? Questioning a system that has ruled for many generations is bound to create waves. Many people still practice the limited system. I knew that I would face this battle as the underdog, which wasn’t something that I could face at the time.  “Don’t fix what isn’t broken, Tamica”, I would tell myself, but the system was so broken that I could not even see her cracks. So, being the good Indian child that I was, I followed the system and ignored the cracks. I did this until the system was exposed in sunlight and the reflections from the cracks hurt my eyes. 

Starting university, exposed me to many different things. Being away from home, and from the comfort that I was acquainted with, woke me up from the deepest sleep. It was as if the fog had lifted, and all I saw was the ugly truth. The world that I had lived in was not as magical as I thought, and my home was far from a castle. 

Stepping out of my home meant stepping into racism, xenophobia, sexualism and a general sense of hate. I was challenged. Not only as a woman, but as an Indian woman. All of these years, the picture of Tamica wasn’t even painted by me, but rather by the expectations of me. I was forced to find my real identity- the identity that was exposed to so much pain from the world around us. 

Stepping into my home meant stepping into unachievable expectations, harsh criticism and “tough love”. Looking back, I can’t say that I blame my parents for how they raised me, the system is broken. Our parents were raised the same way, but they never dared question it. This system is one that is running through our very bloods, and it seems that our generation is the only one who knows the content of their blood. 

Being a brown girl means feeling alone in society, but also in my own home. We are caged, but once the door is opened, we will soar high. The things that we have seen, the pain that we have felt and the battles that we have fought means that we aren’t only princesses, but warriors.