News

Act to Change News, Features, and Events

A Good Hmong Man

By Kham Moua

In 2013, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a Hmong college student leadership conference. It was an incredible opportunity, especially considering that I was only 23 and in the audience were state senators and individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping my community. Below is my speech in full. Of course, I ad-libbed during the actual speech and made it a bit funnier, but none-the-less, my speech: 

What makes a good Hmong man? As the oldest son of six children, I am expected to be the pillar of my family’s heritage and lineage and name. My role includes finishing college, obtaining a job, marrying a Hmong woman (or failing that, any woman), having children, and becoming the unifying chain that would hold my family together and bond us with other families within the Moua clan.

However, at 16, I came to the realization that I do not neatly fit this Hmong ideal. At 16, I realized that I am gay. But I didn’t know how conflicting my gay and my Hmong identities were.

During the 2004 presidential elections, I heard my mother scream at the television and say (in Hmong) “that gays are more vile and disgusting than dogs and should never be allowed to get married.” This was the first time I can remember anyone talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.

At the time, I didn’t know how to react. But her words stayed with me through my adolescence. On the day that I admitted my sexuality to myself, her statement was the first thought that popped into my head. The next thought was how I had failed as a son. I locked myself in my room, closed all the curtains, turned off all the lights, and cried. And I felt like she was right, I felt like I was no better than a dog.

I am gay. It is something that I cannot change about myself. I can never marry a woman nor have children the way my parents envisioned. I felt that instead of upholding my parents’ ideal of a perfect Hmong man, I had unknowingly tarnished my family’s name, lineage, and heritage; unwillingly disregarded cultural norms; and unintentionally broken traditional practices. I thought that no matter what I did, nor how hard I tried, I would never gain my parents’, my relatives’ or my community’s acknowledgment or respect. I felt that to them, I would never succeed. I was different, a failure. I was no good.

At 17, I realized that I could not change my sexuality, and I hated myself. I thought myself better dead. And because of that, I tried to kill myself by drinking a bottle of Pine-Sol. But I couldn’t go through with it. I was scared. Although I hated who I was, I didn’t want to die. After sitting in my bathroom for two hours, holding that toxic bottle in my hands and contemplating suicide, I promised myself that I would live my life. I wanted to show them that different can be good – that despite the fact that I am gay, I would be successful.

I chose to live – in spite of my differences, in spite of my family, my community, and my society telling me that who I am may be wrong.

When I was 20 – my aunt married her partner of seven years. My aunt is a lesbian, and she wed. My extended family was furious. They conducted a witch hunt to out all the gays and lesbians. And it was during this time that my cousin decided to tell her parents about me – the only one who was remotely comfortable with his or her identity. In her words, she thought that by disclosing my sexuality to her parents, my family would come to better understand, accept, and love the other potentially queer people in our family. She martyred me when I was only beginning to come to terms with my identity.

I found out about this when my aunt called me at work and said, “Kham, your parents know about you.” My heart plummeted as soon as I heard her utter those words. I couldn’t continue the rest of my shift. I was so scared – all my fears suddenly came to fruition. I thought that I would lose my family. I thought that I would be disowned – alone with nowhere to go.

At the time,  I was working as an intern in the morning and as a community organizer during the afternoon and early evenings. For a week, I hid from parents. I lived out of my car and showered at my friend’s house when I could find the time. Eventually, my brother told me that my parents were leaving for a camping trip with my other aunts and uncles. As soon as I heard that they had left, I went home, packed everything I owned and left for my apartment at college.

When I came back home, my parents had returned. They stayed up all night to talk with me. The first thing my dad said to me was, “Kham, do you know what’s worse than murder? Being gay. At least when you kill someone, you serve your time. You can change. But gay? What do you do about that?” He said “Do you know how embarrassed we were when we found out one of our children is gay? We thought it was your brother. But to find out that it was you, our oldest, that was the most the most disappointing part.”

My dad said that my mother wanted to throw me out. She had piled up all my clothes and belongings, but he stopped her. I didn’t sleep for a week because every night, I would come home from work and argue, scream, and yell  at my mother. And my dad, he would just sit on the couch and wait it out. Every night, a relative stopped by to lecture me on the consequences of my identity. My uncles, my aunts, even my grandmother stopped by to tell me that I – the oldest; the son that my parents put all their hopes on; the grandson and the nephew that my family thought would be most successful; the only one that everyone knew was gay – was the biggest disappoint to my family.

My mother said, “Kham, you are perfect in every way. You are smart; you do well in school; you are handsome. But you are gay. And I will never accept you. You will never be successful to me or your family. If you become a lawyer, I will try my hardest to make sure no one visits your practice. I will tell everyone what a shame you are and ruin you. When I die, I do not want you at my funeral.”

I didn’t know how to reply because I while I was grappling with my sexuality, I was also finally beginning to accept my heritage. For two years, I spent hours working in my community in order to learn about my identity and about people. I wanted to help my community, but more importantly, I wanted my mom and my dad to be proud of me, to love me despite the fact that I am gay. I made the Dean’s every semester in college because I wanted to prove that I could be successful, that I would be the most established man in my extended family in spite of my sexuality, that I could be good. And in that moment, in that conversation with her, I realized how fruitless all my actions had been. All I wanted to do was to prove to my parents I was worth something, and in the end, I was still seen as worthless – less than a dog, less than dirt, less than the gum on the bottom of their shoes.

A couple of weeks later, my parents took me to a shaman to fix me. I went because my dad pleaded to me. He said, “Son, if you let us do whatever we feel necessary, and if nothing works, then we have no choice but to accept you as you are. Let us do this.” So I went. The shaman had requested a bottle of water. When I got there, he took the water, waved it over a fire, and gave it back to me.

“Have you ever tossed a pebble in a body of water?” He asked me. I nodded, of course. “When you did that, a water spirit entered your body. And its the reason why you’re like this.” He then instructed to wash my face with the water every morning and every evening in order to cleanse myself. It didn’t work. But I pretended it did. My parents wanted to take me to temple – $300 for a bottle of my water from the shaman and $1000 to be fixed at the Buddhist temple. And that number would just keep increasing. I didn’t want to be a financial burden, so I lied.

Three years later, and I finally understand. My parents were just as trapped in the idea of good and bad as I was – this was just as much a process for my mom and my dad as it was for me. My parents had given up everything to come to the United States. My dad was an orphan, all he had was my mother, my siblings, and me. In us lived all his hopes and his dreams – we were his American dream. I, his oldest son, was where placed all those ideals. My mom came from an affluent family and lost her title, her wealth, and her sister in the war. Her upbringing had taught her to place her future on her children, on me. And when they realized that I could not have children the way that our culture desired, that I would not marry a woman, and that I would never become a full fledged man in my community – they lost all those hopes and all those dreams.

I may never be accepted as a good person by my parents but that’s okay. I’ve come to learn that Hmong culture is fluid – it changes with the youth. Our culture looks different now than it did 50 years ago, a hundred 100 years ago even. In fact, you might even be able to argue that it looks different now that it did just last year. I may not good man by the standards that my parents know, but I am a good Hmong man by the definition set forth by myself, by my peers, and by my generation.

Hmong culture has changed as we have migrated and moved. Our language has adopted phrases, idioms, and sounds originating from the mountains of China to the hills of Laos and the plains of the American Midwest. Our culture, like our community, is dynamic, not static. And we should not be afraid to call out the wrongs in our culture, in our tradition, and in our stories. We are not be defined solely by our culture; rather, our culture is reflection of who we are. And it should liberate us from oppression, not act as a chain around our necks.

I’ve been taught my entire life that being a Hmong man meant living a certain way, acting a certain way, loving a certain way. And how I should have been has chained me for a long time, made me hate myself for a long time. I was caught in an idea of what it meant to be good, even when I realized that I didn’t fit that definition – I ached to be recognized as such by my parents and their perception of good.

I am now 23 years old, and I am a proud, gay, Hmong man. My parents are not entirely okay with my sexuality. But they have come terms with the fact that I am gay. Sometimes, my mom will unknowingly mention my sexuality or one of my “friends,” before she quickly recognizes her language and corrects herself. Its a process, and the three of us are going through it together.

I am no longer the pillar of my family, nor am I the adhesive for my family within our clan. I cannot change my sexuality, nor would I change my sexuality if given the chance. It is as much a part of me as my name, my lineage, and my heritage. What makes me different is also what has given me perspective and a lens for social justice. Through my experiences as a gay Hmong man, I have witnessed and experienced firsthand the way that rigid cultural norms have led to depression, heartache, and the brink of suicide for many Hmong youth.

This is what lead me to social justice, to question what I have always believed to be right, and to demand and fight for change within our community, to make sure that we and those that come after us have a brighter future.

Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, to question what we’ve been taught growing up – who to be, how to be, what to be.

So what makes a good Hmong man? Well, a good Hmong man, a good Hmong person is whatever we decide.

Kham Moua is Senior Policy and Communications Manager of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a civil rights organization dedicated to advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian Pacific Americans. OCA is one of the supporters of #ActToChange. 

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.

Youth Voice: Growing Up Muslim in America

This post was originally published on StopBullying.gov.

“During the 23 years that my family has lived in America, my parents and I never faced verbal abuse or harassment until recently. I remember my dad coming home angry one day. When I asked about what happened, he responded with a pain in his voice that a lady asked him if he was Muslim. He said yes to the woman, only to see her start ranting about how Muslims are invading and destroying this country. She insulted him about his faith, nationality, and immigrant background. My dad tried to be respectful to the woman and tell her how this country is his family’s home. He also told her he immigrated here to give his daughter the best chance at life. But it was clear that these words meant nothing to her.

“What disturbs me even more is how the current climate is affecting young children. As an educator, it hurts me to hear a sixth grade student say that she didn’t think she could be the first American Muslim president because she thought too many people hated Muslims. I believe children and adolescents are constantly accepting the information they hear and read through various forms of media.

“Educators need to support their Muslim students in a time when people are judging and blaming the Muslim community. My favorite teachers were always those who respected my Muslim identity and encouraged open discussions in the classroom. As an educator, my students deserve a classroom culture where their diverse experiences and backgrounds are valued. This is exactly the kind of mindset that needs to extend beyond the classroom doors and into other spaces.”

To learn more about what schools and communities can do to help protect children from different ethnicities and faiths against bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov Who is at Risk and Consideration for Specific Groups sections. Additionally, you may want to read the AAPI Bullying Prevention Task Force Report, developed by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Bullying Prevention Task Force.

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.

U.S. Department of Education Release Joint Fact Sheet about Combatting Discrimination against Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) and Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian (MASSA) students

Cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Newsroom

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Educational Opportunities Section, and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders issued a fact sheet that includes examples of forms of discrimination that members of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) and Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian (MASSA) communities commonly face.

  • The fact sheet in English PDF and in other languages about combating discrimination against Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) and Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian (MASSA) students.

Working to End Bullying in All Forms

Graphic-Aditi

“Boys will be boys.”

“It happens to everyone.”

“It builds character.”

Unfortunately, these are considered legitimate defenses to bullying in our society. Bullying is pervasive in communities across the country; however, bullying in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities can stem from an entirely different motive. Subtle microaggressions stemming from anti-immigrant sentiments or white privilege can quickly stem into physical, sexual, or emotional bullying. Bullying of children in the AAPI community, no matter the perpetrator, can substantially impact the well-being of children and their views about their place in society and sense of belonging.

I was lucky in my childhood – I wasn’t bullied, but plenty of my peers were. As my generation was becoming known for the use of social media, the internet was becoming the new venue for online harassment, on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Formspring. In Iowa, the development of technology was not reflected in our legal system. If a complaint of cyberbullying was brought to school officials, the administration had no legal jurisdiction to protect the victim or punish the perpetrator, because the bullying occurred online and outside of school property. This created a huge gap in the frequency of bullying and the extent to which school administrators could protect their students’ emotional and educational well-being. Through my involvement in the Iowa Youth Congress, a mock congress of high school students, we proposed a bill in the Iowa State Legislature that would close this gap and protect students from being bullied online.

In the summer of 2015, I was an Advocacy Intern at the Hindu American Foundation. Dr. Murali Balaji, our Director of Education and Curriculum Reform, approached me with a project, analyzing bullying among Hindu students across the nation. While conducting this research, I reflected on my high school work on bullying.  I realized that my experiences helped me empathize and work with other victims of bullying. By talking to friends and victims of bullying across Iowa, I learned that those defenses to bullying, the “boys will be boys”, are a part of a rhetoric that works against our youth and it defends harassment as an inherent part of our society. That facet of our society is incredibly detrimental to our children. Bullying leads to worse performance in school, and has mental and emotional effects that can even lead to self-harm or suicide. Treating bullying as normal perpetuates a system that normalizes harassment. Breaking down this system is integral to boost the well-being of children who are bullied, especially minority and AAPI children. Working for legislation and conducting research and reports on bullying, are all work that contributes to awareness of bullying, and recognizes that it should not be tolerated by our society. Campaigns like Act To Change play an integral role in empowering youth, educators, and lawmakers to treat bullying as a serious problem. That’s why we can no longer sit on the sidelines: we have to Act to Change.

Aditi Dinakar is a rising Junior at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She is studying Marketing and Health Administration and Policy. She hopes to work in government affairs, advocacy, and public policy arena.  Last summer, she was an intern for the Hindu American Foundation, where she worked on the intersection of faith and bullying among Hindus in America. Aditi is passionate about women’s rights, Asian American rights and representation, and new ice cream flavors.

Hindu American students continue to be bullied and feel socially ostracized for their religious beliefs, according to results of Hindu American Foundation’s nationwide survey of middle and high school students.  Download the report here.

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

A Transracial Girl’s Struggle in Finding her Identity between Two Different Cultures

Act To Change Amazin

As a transracial adoptee, I suffered a double layer of bullying because I was Asian, especially as an Asian in an all-white background. I always felt like an outsider living in limbo between my adopted white world and my lack of Asian identity and heritage.

The Asian stereotype of the invisible model minority  never applied to me growing up as I was always seen. I stood out like a sore thumb and that difference made me an easy target for bullies. I’ve been called every Asian slur that you could ever think of and, because of my Vietnamese ethnicity, I’ve been told to row home more times than I can remember.

As a child, I found a sense of solace in sports and started weight-training at six years old with some rusty dumbbells I found around the house. I participated in every sport I could possibly do from tennis to horse-riding. Sports gave me a sense of purpose and self-worth; it gave me a sense of community as I became part an of athletic team. Nowadays most gyms will not allow children without parents. But when I started bodybuilding, chain gyms didn’t exist and anyone of any age could go to the gym as long as you could pay the entrance fee. I thought I would find solace from being bullied when I started going to the gym around the age of 12, but I had no idea that racism would turn into sexist bullying by grown men.

Growing up as the “other”, I thought that to be successful, I needed to fit in by erasing my “Asianness” because that’s what being bullied had always reinforced. Being constantly bullied as a child into young adulthood didn’t give me the confidence to dare to stand out and be different as it stripped away my sense of self. I had no Vietnamese or Asian friends, nor were there any Asian role models in the media. So I didn’t know what it meant to unapologetically stand in my truth and embrace my Asian heritage while also acknowledging my Western identity.

Without a mirror image of myself in the media, I had to create my own narrative as a child. As an adult, this helped me stand in my own truth: to be brave and unapologetically Asian.

The one question we ask ourselves when growing up is “Who am I, who am I to me?” Story sharing is so important to provide us with a mirror image of ourselves and to remind us we’re not alone. This is why Act To Change is such a powerful platform within the Asian American community not just to empower those that are feeling marginalized by being bullied but to remind us all that our story isn’t singular. We are part of a larger community that shares a common bond with similar experiences.

Amazin LeThi is the founder of the Amazin LeThi Foundation, a New York based international organization that inspires Asian youth who identify as LGBTQ and those affected by HIV/AIDS to find their voices through leadership and mentoring, and provides social advocacy for everyone to actively participate in the advancement of equality. She is also an ambassador for Vietnam Relief Services and is the first Asian female Athlete Ally ambassador. On top of all of this, she is also a former competitive natural bodybuilder, qualified fitness trainer, author, and TV / film star.

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

How a Hindu American’s experience being bullied in school still lingers today

Graphic1

Kids. They pick on each other for such ridiculous things. One of my most distinct memories from 5th grade is my classmates snickering about how much I clicked my pen, and commenting about how it made me “gay” (a word en vogue at the time as something bad that none of us really understood). Although it’s almost funny in retrospect, it was quite troubling at the time, and led me to go home in tears. I had to buy a new pen to stop my classmates from teasing me with a slur I didn’t even understand.  While this was a  minor trifle, easily solved, a lot of the other bullying I faced in middle school was more insidious and damaging – not to mention much more difficult to “solve”. I’m a Hindu American, and I grew up in Texas with textbooks that represented my religion in a way that inspired an inaccurate, misogynistic, exclusivist understanding of Hinduism. The kids in class asked what caste I was, why I worshipped cows, and confidently told me that I was going to hell. I could throw away a malfunctioning pen, but the impact that the snickering, insolent questions, and sarcasm from my teachers had on my understanding of who I was and what I believed was something that actually shook my sense of self. That took far more work to repair. I understood my faith to be grounded in pluralism (a step beyond tolerance), and the basis for my moral values (essentially, who I was). To be told that Hinduism was actually the source of discrimination, that it didn’t value me highly as a woman, and that its ancient practices were too weird to accept in our modern American classroom made me feel small and almost deserving of the thinly veiled disdain I received from even my friends. Bullying is a terrible thing in every form, but when attacks come at who a person is… the wounds cut deeply, and infection is a great threat. This experience isn’t mine alone, and not just one faced by Hindus; it’s one that so many Asian Americans face, and why the Act To Change campaign is such an important movement towards empowerment.

As an adult, the only balm I’ve found is in remembering that a textbook, a teacher, or a confused friend can’t define who I am, or what my faith is. I define my narrative. The prouder I am of that, the easier it is for my siblings, for my nephews and nieces, for the kids I’ve mentored, to own who they are as well.

Hindu American students continue to be bullied and feel socially ostracized for their religious beliefs, according to results of Hindu American Foundation’s nationwide survey of middle and high school students.  Download the report here.

unnamed

Kavita Pallod is a graduate of the University of Texas and a current doctoral student pursuing her Psy.D in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University. She is an Executive Council Member of the Hindu American Foundation, a participating member of Act to Change. She hopes to use her  passion for her faith and her former teaching background to create fair, accurate, representative resources on Hinduism for teachers to use in their classrooms. She is also invested in mental health, and bridging the gap between the Hindu American community and mental health resources.  

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

6 Month Anniversary: The #ActToChange Movement Against Bullying

Picture1

YouTube stars AJ Rafael, Timothy DeLaGhetto, and Travis Atreo; rapper MC Jin; The Voice’s Dia Frampton; and American Idol’s Andrew Garcia are among many who have taken the #ActToChange pledge against bullying.

Six months ago today, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in partnership with the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) launched the #ActToChange public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Backed by a diverse coalition of now more than 60 supporters, including media platforms and national organizations, #ActToChange aims to empower AAPI youth, educators, and communities with information and tools to address and prevent bullying. Check out ActToChange.org, which features video and music empowerment playlists, translated resources, an organizing toolkit and more!

Today, join us on #ActToChange’s six-month anniversary:

  1. Take the pledge against bullyingPicture1
  2. And share this special-edition badge on social media using #ActToChange.FinalPublic

One Brown Girl’s Struggle to Keep Her Indian-American Identity

Growing up, I always felt like an outsider, like I wasn’t a real American despite being born and raised here. My black hair, dark skin, thick eyebrows, and twig legs on a short stature—stood out painfully amongst the sea of blonde and brunette white peers. Fob. “Go back to India.” When kids would come over to my house, they would laugh at the “strange” Indian gods and goddesses and tease me for my parents’ accents. I was taught at an early age to hide my culture as best as I could – to renounce my Indian-ness and continuously “defend” my America-ness.  I became ashamed of my heritage.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 9.57.32 AM

By the time I was a teenager, I had become “practically white” to my friends—a label I wore proudly. By being “practically white,” I felt like I made it. I was a real American. I was not an “other.” The “other” Asians only had Asian friends. They only listened to “Asian” music and gossiped “rudely” in their native languages. Those “other” Asians weren’t American enough.

Little did I know that at the University of Virginia, I would join the Indian Student Association and the Asian Student Union and find myself thrown into the largest group of Asians I had ever been exposed to. Turns out I wasn’t as different from my Asian American peers as I thought; I often had more in common with my Asian and South Asian friends than my non-Asian friends, despite being “practically white.” As a teenager, I navigated my world as a hyphenated person: two halves of a single identity that were always separate. Embracing my undesirable racial identity as Asian meant inherently giving up my desirable “Americanness.” I had spent too long defending my Americanness, too long trying to fit in with the white majority, to give it up by embracing my “fobby” Indianness.

Having other Asian friends showed me how my perceptions of race, of what it means to be “American,” were misguided. Our identities do not fit neatly into clearly defined boxes; there are no clean dichotomies where if you are one thing, you cannot possibly be another. The Asian American community introduced me to others that shared my struggle with a hybrid identity. We shared our experiences of having racist taunts hurled for being brown in a post-9/11 world. Of being stereotyped as being “good at math” and made to feel inadequate if we weren’t. We felt the blunt of ostracization for expressing any “un-American” part of our heritage. The stereotypes that led others to call me a fob were the stereotypes I had been reinforcing by refusing to accept the other half of my identity; in my desperation to be accepted, I was widening the very racial gap that hurt me as a child.

Too often, “Americanness” is equated with “whiteness.” Too often our social constructs allow us to be ignorant, to let racial stereotypes and dynamics define our own perceptions of self.  Do not allow yourself to be pigeon-holed by the perceptions of what society thinks being Indian, Asian, or even American, means.

Being a South Asian-American does not fit neatly into any preconceived notions. It is not about choosing between two halves of a hyphenated identity; it is an intersection as nuanced and complex as each of our individual identities. None of us are inferior Americans just because of the color of our skin. Embracing my Indianness does not deny me any part of my Americanness.

Mayura Iyer is a graduate of the University of Virginia and a current Master of Public Policy student. She hopes to use her policy knowledge and love of writing to change the world. She is particularly interested in the dynamics of race in the Asian-American community, domestic violence, mental wellness, and education policy. Her caffeine-fueled pieces have also appeared in Literally, Darling, BlogHer, and Mic.com.

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

(3/8) From Colaba to Carteret: Bullying Rooted in the First-Generation Experience and the Unexpected Redemption that Ensued

Graphic3It 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 targeted aggression or hurtful behavior towards someone that’s aimed at creating a sense of isolation. 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.