Thanks, Papa: A Reflective Essay Regarding Race Relations

By: Bailey Hendricks, February 2017

I was born and raised in a county in Maryland known for its abundance of farm land and flannel wearing- tractor-riding folk. In school, I wasn’t exposed to very much diversity other than the one black person in my grade and the one history lesson we learned each year about Martin Luther King Junior to answer kids’ questions about why we didn’t have school the next day. The diversity and differing culture I was exposed to, however, came from my own home. My mom married an Indian man named Savio in the summer of 2007.

Even though he’s my step-dad, most of the time I feel like Savio’s just a close friend, or even a cool older brother. I became even closer to Savio when his father, whom we called ‘Papa,’ passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease in the summer of 2015. Being there for a family member after they lose a loved one brings you closer to that family member. Even though I grew up in a predominantly white town, going to events for Savio’s family allowed me to get a good taste for the importance of diversity, and how meaningful it can be to understand someone’s culture.

Before Papa passed away, we would go over to Papa’s house and have dinner on occasion – for Easter, birthdays. Because Savio’s mom, Amachi, meaning sweet old woman in their Indian language – Malayalam – loved to cook traditional Indian cuisine, I was lucky enough to indulge in the various types of Indian food she would make, including, naan, goat curry, rice, and vegetables from Amachi’s garden. I learned that in the Indian culture you have to eat – even if you aren’t hungry. Amachi would work hours and hours on the meal, and to not eat it – and eat a lot of it would be downright disrespectful in her eyes. Some foods, such as pickled chilies, I learned to watch out for since they could burn my mouth. To combat spicy food, though, we were taught to use yogurt, which was a common Indian custom. It was interesting to learn how people were different than me.

Savio’s parents were born in India, but Savio was born in Baltimore. You’d think Savio’s favorite food might be rice or curry, but not only would you be ignorant and racist, but you’d be wrong. Savio’s favorite food is actually spaghetti and meatballs – although he told me that when he used to have friends over to his house, Amachi would even make the spaghetti too spicy!

For bigger family events, where more of Savio’s family would be at his childhood home, I got to finally feel how they must feel on a daily basis. Being the only white person in a room was definitely a new feeling for me. This feeling, however, is one that I’m glad I’ve had – it changed my perspective and allowed me to recognize the privileges I do have. One of the first times I felt this way was at Papa’s funeral.

Savio’s childhood home was flooded with Indian women in sarees, and men in kurtas – traditional Indian dresses – all speaking Malayalam. Even though I had heard Savio’s parents and relatives speak this language before, it was one of the only times in my life where I again got just a small taste of what marginalized groups must feel. No one was talking to me because I couldn’t speak their language.

Even with our differing cultures, however, we did all come together and support each other in this tragic time. Going through the process of Papa dying, the cultural differences were more evident than ever – in church, in the hospital, at the viewing, and at the funeral. At church, I experienced different types of prayer in Malayalam, and in the hospital I saw Papa’s room flooded with loved ones. Papa’s viewing was like no viewing I’ve ever experienced. Every viewing I had been to before Papa’s was low-key and quiet – people would quietly pay their respects. This was not the case, however, at Papa’s viewing. At the viewing, people spoke about how great of a man Papa was through a microphone, and others were reciting prayers and singing songs I couldn’t understand the lyrics to. The music coming from our room of the funeral home sounded like a chant and a lullaby. Amachi also hired a camera crew to film the viewing. After talking to Savio, who was very upset by the camera crew, since he saw it as disrespectful at this sacred time, I learned this was a common practice for American Indians, since they had so many loved ones back in India who couldn’t make it to their viewing or funeral. At Papa’s funeral, his grandchildren followed his casket which was carried by Savio, his two brothers, and my brother. I was one of the grandchildren to follow Papa’s casket into the church. I felt honored to be representing Papa that day, knowing how much love he put into his community, and what a strong willed, but benevolent presence he was.

Papa was known for his kind, gentle demeanor, as well as his charitable volunteer efforts and donations to help his church. Papa belonged to the Catholic Church. Growing up in India, Papa had practiced Hindu. After meeting and falling in love with Amachi, who was Catholic, however, Papa decided to become a devout Catholic in order to marry her. Papa had a lot of faith in the Catholic Church. So much faith, that towards the end of his life in the hospital even, he decided it was unfaithful to live his remaining days “propped up,” as he thought, to machines that were only keeping him breathing. Although Papa was breathing, he said he wasn’t able to be alive anymore. I was there in the hospital that day he told the nurses he was ready to “go to Jesus,” and then said his goodbyes to all his family and friends in the hospital room. I always had a lot of respect for Papa, and had even more after this moment. It takes a person of strong faith and character to consciously make this decision.

Although am I in no way claiming to be a master of the Indian culture, I do think it’s quite frustrating when people see I’m a blonde-haired, blue eyed white girl and are quick to dismiss me as being an ignorant farm-town raised girl. Once, I was out to lunch with my former roommate, who is Muslim. I asked her about what halal meat was, and why she chose to eat that diet. Instead of taking my ignorance for what it was – ignorance, my former roommate was deeply, personally offended by me asking her about her food options. Ignorance can only be solved by educating the ignorant.

Even though I do recognize that, unfortunately, due to the color of my skin, I may have some unwritten privileges that marginalized groups don’t have, I wish people would quit putting me into a box before they even get to know me. I’m sick of people looking down on me because I’m white and assuming I have certain views because I’m white. I’m not the small-town farm girl I might appear to be.

I report on diversity events weekly for the newspaper and get strange looks for being the only white person at these events. Just recently, I went into a venue of an event marketed towards black students to report on it. When I got to the room, the person setting up the event looked at me and said “Uh, sorry, we’re having an event here.” Before she could tell me to leave, I told her I was reporting on the event. These micro-aggressions that people have towards me make me feel unwanted and unwelcome.

People need to stop giving me looks and assuming I’m there to judge them. I want to embrace diversity – so why are people constantly questioning me and looking at me strange when I’m at an event marketed towards a different race or religion than my own? Isn’t that how we embrace diversity? By sharing each other’s experiences? I will celebrate your culture if you can accept and celebrate mine.

After my experiences in growing up with an Indian stepdad, and learning about a different culture, I understand how important learning about different cultures is. It was a pleasure to be able to meet Papa, and I will forever cherish the lessons he taught me – how important it is to have faith, and celebrate each other’s differences. Thanks, Papa.

 

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