"Welcome to America," a boy screamed in a fake Indian accent as my father and I walked past him. My dad didn't say a word, and really, there was no reason to. His flushed brown skin, red with humiliation, said enough. I wanted to talk about it, console him, something, but I knew I couldn't. We had made a silent pact to never bring it up.
I was only eight years old when that happened, but those three deceptively simple words have played a major role in shaping the way I feel about the person that I am.
My dad lived in India until he was 29, when he then moved to the States to pursue a master's degree. My mom, on the other hand, is of European descent and has lived in the U.S. her entire life. The mixed background has given me olive skin, thick brows and light eyes -- a combination that has come to spark somewhat of a guessing game for those who want to pinpoint my ethnicity.
The teenager's comment replayed in my head throughout my adolescence. Before, I hadn't even given it a second thought that my skin color was different than that of my father's. He and I had endless tournaments of tic-tac-toe. I told him stories about my imaginary friend. We played soccer in the backyard every night. He was my dad.
After the boy's remark, however, I found myself feeling uncomfortable when we were out together. I had this lingering fear that a similar situation would happen again.
Most times when my dad asked if I wanted to go to the park, I declined, never explaining why. I didn't have to. Once, though, I accepted his invitation, silently hoping that nobody else would be there. As we got closer to the playground, I saw my wish hadn't come true. "I actually don't want to go," I said as I grabbed his hand, leading him away from the happy squeals of the other children. "Are you embarrassed?" he asked. I didn't answer. "OK, let's go home." He forced a smile, but it couldn't mask his hurt.
Looking back now, I'm not sure what I was ashamed of. I guess I just hated the stares we got from people who were trying to identify our connection to each other. Even as a young child, I felt the unease of those who couldn't immediately figure out how and if we were related.
As I aged and matured, the embarrassment I had began to dwindle before eventually disappearing. It now pains me to think that I ever let people influence the way I viewed the relationship I had with my dad. The guilt gnaws at me, a sharp reminder that I made my father feel bad about who he is.
In the last few years, I have begun to embrace my Indian half. My dad and I have marathon sessions where I ask him about his childhood, the traditions, the culture. He feeds off of those conversations -- the proud twinkle in his eyes tells me so.
Recently, we went food shopping, something my younger self never would have done. While we were checking out, the cashier looked at the both of us and asked, "Is this your dad?" "Yes," I said, thinking I knew what was coming next: the confused stare followed by a painfully long silence while she tried to rationalize how that could be.
"You look just like him."