I was still me

Aparna Jayaraman Lesotho
By Aparna Jayaraman
May 17, 2016

The first time someone called me “white” was November 2011. 

I was still in training, but I was visiting my assigned site for a few days, getting to know my fellow teachers and seeing where I'd live. It was finals week, and I was bored, so I offered to grade the vice ­principal’s poetry papers. As I began reading them, she took a long look at me and said, “Indians are the most beautiful white people.”

I was taken aback. I wasn’t offended, I was just surprised; no one had ever called me white before.

“Um... Indians don’t really consider ourselves to be white.”

The vice principal thought a bit and then casually said, “Oh, but you have the same hair and light skin. So you’re white.”

And there it was, my new race. I was white.

I wasn’t the only non­-white Volunteer to get that label. In fact, among ourselves, we started using it quite liberally. In Sesotho, the word for foreigner and white person were the same, lekhoa. Basotho- and Sotho-speaking South Africans used it to describe Afrikaners and, in my case, Peace Corps Volunteers. And so, in true Volunteer fashion, it became a part of my vocabulary. I'd say things like, “I was in the taxi today and there was this child that couldn't take his eyes off of me. Guess he’s never seen a white person before.”

In fact, the terminology became so integrated into my language that after earning my “R” for "returned" and coming back to the U.S. after my service, I used it a few times when I talked to my friends about what it was like to live in Lesotho. "You know, the hardest thing about being white in Lesotho....” I might begin, and they'd interrupt with, “What? You’re not white.”

At that point I wondered if I should explain why I was using the word “white” or if I should just correct myself and keep going. The latter ended up being the easier choice.

And there I was, back to being Indian again.

Race is a funny thing and I never realized how constructed it was until I was in another country. Whatever I knew about race in the U.S. didn’t matter anymore; in Lesotho I was in a new racial system, and so I adapted to it. Before Peace Corps, I would have rarely have actively identified myself as “American.” In Lesotho, though, where most Indians were wealthy shop owners, I emphasized my American identity as much as I could. I preferred to be grouped with people associated with volunteering and providing aid.

The funny thing was, most Basotho recognized that I wasn’t American­ American. You know, the stereotype of light skin, light hair, light eyes. Many Basotho would ask, “You’re Indian, how can you be American?” It was a good teaching moment and I learned to use their relationship to South Africa as a metaphor: just like Basotho go to South Africa to study and get jobs, my parents went to America. Many people I told would have that “ah-­ha” moment that teachers strive for. They would continue the conversation by saying, “Yes! And their children are both South African and Basotho.”

There’s a lot I can say about being Indian in the Peace Corps, about the complexity of race and self-­identity. But in the end, what I found was that regardless of how others identified me, I was still me. My labeled race was a tiny, tiny part of that big picture. So, while being Indian undoubtedly impacted my service, the biggest impacts were my attitude, my actions, and my relationships with the people around me. Being Indian or being white, I was still me.

Aparna Jayaraman