From Colaba to Carteret: Bullying Rooted in the First-Generation Experience and the Unexpected Redemption that Ensued
By Kavita Mehra
It is the course of actions that precede us that ultimately define our future. My life’s path was paved well before I was born. In fact, it was paved almost two decades prior in 1965, with the passing of The Immigration and Nationality Act.
Through my mother’s foresight, my parents and two sisters left Bombay (or what is present day Mumbai) for the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” trading in mangos and fresh coconut juice for pizza and coffee. They landed in Carteret, NJ, a humble, industrial, working class town in the central part of the State.
But as the third South Asian family to move into Carteret, my family was greeted by a petition to bar them from purchasing a house and racial epitaphs viciously spray-painted across the front entrance. For the sin of our ethnicity, my sisters and I were targeted and attacked in school — frequently physically and sometimes violently.
Taunts and bullying began well before I even understood their meaning and progressed in their viciousness from verbal assaults to physical abuse. There was the eighth grade boy who broke a glass bottle on my head to the sixth grade teacher who announced in front of the whole class that I should “go back to where I came from.” The consistent thread weaving everything together was the herd-like mentality among my peers. I was never just bullied by one person – it was always done with a leader followed by those cheering the bully along while I was tormented.
But this isn’t a story about the impact of being a first generation American. It is a redemption story. A story that illustrates life doing a full circle and bringing closure – closure you thought you’d already taken care of.
A little over a year ago, I reacquainted with a bully from my formative years. He did not remember me or the past that we shared, having been more of an engaged participant than a lead tormentor of my childhood. As often is the case for the bullied and oppressed, I had to let bygones be bygones in order to move forward with my life with a positive attitude. Our similar professions led our lives to intersect regularly, and our interactions were always very pleasant. We even worked together a project for the Boys & Girls Club of Newark, securing funding to directly impact the nutrition and health of over 300 children in Newark.
It was astonishing that an individual who had held such a painful place in my mind had – without even knowing it – completely redeemed himself. The type of proactive kindness he’d demonstrated is not a trait of a racist bully, but of one who cares about the welfare of others. The unexpectedness and unusualness of my experience with this individual left me wondering…
Is it fair to judge a person on the worst of experiences? Would I want to be evaluated when I am not my best self? Is redemption possible if the person being redeemed is unaware of it?
As I continue to reflect on this deeply felt experience, I see so many lessons within it. Lessons in redemption’s timetable, in letting go and moving on, and the many layers to forgiveness. Lessons in what time is capable of doing. Lessons that only the pain of adversity can deliver.
And that there is the American way. Overcoming adversity. When the American way is going on as intended, it’s something we’re all doing together — bully and bullied, forgiver and forgiven, redeemer and redeemed, arm in arm. Aware or unaware. But overcoming.
Kavita Mehra is the Chief Transformation Officer for the Boys & Girls Club of Newark, the first and only individual to occupy this title out of 4,200 Boys & Girls Clubs across the Country. In her role, Kavita works directly with the Chief Executive Officer to grow and manage all aspect of the organization. Kavita has blogged for the Huffington Post, and has been featured in leading media outlets including NY1 and Meet the Leaders. In 2015, Kavita was featured in “Roshni: Emerging Indian Global Leaders” for her work in the not-for-profit sector. Kavita completed her Bachelor of Arts from New York University with a double major in both History and Gender Studies. She also holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in South Asian Studies, from Columbia University.
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. This blog post is part of ActToChange.org’s features of voices against bullying. “Act To Change” is a public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For more information, visit www.ActToChange.org.