The first time I built an identity into myself, I was 18. After eight years in my Indian immigrant community, I had moved to Austin for college. I remember Austin as all sky and dust and the smell of beef, a bubble mostly of white people planning kayaking trips. I had arrived a week earlier with new hair, new clothes, and the whole “College Dorm Room Essentials” collection at Target. My white, artsy new roommate and some of her white, artsy high school friends had invited me to dinner, and I was stunned with joy to be included. As we returned to the university, winding through farm roads, I watched the streetlights hover stubborn in the darkness before rushing past my roommate’s fuel-efficient car. I was ecstatic to be a new version of myself and also pining for home, describing a best friend from high school who happened to captain the Bhangra Team.
“The what team?” one of them asked.
“Oh, bhangra! It’s a type of Punjabi folk dance—“
“Of what folk dance?”
I don’t know if my friends were ashamed at their lack of multicultural prowess, but I was at once ashamed at my marginality. That was the first moment in which I realized my world was a tide pool: vibrant, hidden, painfully self- contained. I reeled, aware of a chasm between myself and these new people. I tried to explain for a moment, found no English words. In that moment, the first of many, I tried to explain myself to a white person, and I couldn’t. I was hollow inside.
That first time I learned an identity, discovered piece by piece that I was Indian, South Asian, Punjabi and Rajasthani, Hindu and Jain, a kaleidoscope of countries, histories, regions, languages, and holy books—it took years. I found classes on South Asia in the corners of my curriculums, applied to live in India for a month, and then three. I wrote pages of earnest, if terrible, diaspora poetry, began wearing my mother’s exuberantly gold jewelry as an insistence that it belonged to me as well. I remember, then, how deeply I would feel it when a spate of death in Pakistan or a hate crime against a Sikh man in Central Valley went uncovered in mainstream news. I would retreat to bed for days, simmering in a pain made absurd by others’ continued functioning.
I found a different self slowly, learned to exist as if with many different goggles on at once. Always speaking from my mother’s kitchen in the Silicon Valley and, at the same time, my grandmother’s crowded living room in Punjab. In these years, I would feel the sharpness of many kinds of difference, marginalization. But when I looked down at myself for signs of why I felt so other, all I would find was the color of my hands.
The second time, I was 21, at an activist training camp for South Asian youth called Bay Area Solidarity Summer, stealing a moment away from my new community with a person I had met three days beforehand.I had known the first time I saw them, their peacock-feather hair sparking against their deep brown skin, that they had something new for me. Everything about them was exuberant: a shimmer of blue-purple light untethered by gender. They led me around a corner to a corridor papered with a timeline of Radical South Asian History, and then their face was framed by the stern visages of turbaned revolutionaries, a century’s worth of grotesque political cartoons, and shots of brown bodies marching, animated by rage and hope, holding up fists and rainbow flags. My new and beautiful friend asked to kiss me, and the spark that ran through my body changed me. Took my fingers from me and taught them new ways to want. My body became aware, precise, an instrument suddenly in tune—
That second time was harder. Faster, but knife sharp. I knew that I had lived 21 years jangling with sharp notes, and that I had been made fragile and ashamed by people who loved me. It was too much. I cried every day for a month. I searched my middle school Gchat history for “queer,” and then “bisexual,” and then “gay,” finding some artifacts of myself but mostly just casual homophobia. I read through every article on Autostraddle until one, “To All the Girls I Loved Before I Knew I Could,” jerked tears from me and showed me what I was mourning.
I cut my hair. In the fall, into a bubbling mess of shoulder length curls I later learned was called the Bisexual Bob. In the spring, to a chaotic “short” that sat in a spiraling nest on my forehead. A full year later, I had moved to New York and still found myself staring at my reflection in shop windows, testing how my tongue curled when I said the word “queer.” By then, my hair was shorn down to Tinker Bell bangs that I wore with winged eyeliner and flamboyant Indian earrings. On good days, I felt my skin sparkling with otherworldly energy, and I wondered whether people passing me on the street found me, too, a genderless shimmer of light, a thing of flighty and unspeakable beauty.
The third time was yesterday. In a counseling center in midtown Manhattan, looking into the open face of the only queer South Asian therapist I’d ever heard of, let alone met. She had huge eyes and bangs swept to the side. It was the third, maybe the fourth time I’d left work early, scurried two blocks downtown dodging whistling men and uniformed tour guides, and traveled 10 floors up to a windowless room with two armchairs facing each other from opposite corners.
My therapists eyes were wide with concern and gravity. “From how you describe your depression, it sounds a lot like Bipolar II.”
I began to leak tears and sentiment, thinking out loud through six years of “lows.” Days and weeks that passed by as if a complex play, me acting out my character with dead eyes. Or shifting from miserable to ecstatic to fascinated to bitter in the span of hours. A decades’ collection of comically sad music, a history of uncontrollable rage, and, of course, moments of overwhelming hope and optimism, achievement, nice little cycles of what they call “high functioning.” But threaded through all of it, pulsing like a heartbeat, was the sense that perhaps I did not have to live at all. When a friend cancelled plans, when the train was late, when I got back four good grades and one bad one. “Perhaps I do not have to live at all.” I spent years of my life refusing to believe that I was unwell, singlehandledly battling back a sadness I shouldn’t have borne alone.
I spent my commute to Brooklyn fidgeting and on the verge of tears, Googling bipolar, mania, rapid cycling. I walked home, had three beers, and cried in earnest at all the time and joy I had let drain from me over the years. Salt still dried on my face, I stood very still and considered my body: old cut scars, new stretch marks, muscled from occasional yoga, the tattoo still raised on my shoulder that read, “Loves herself. Regardless” in my own handwriting. I called a friend, family really, who I trusted to confirm my gut level affinity to these words. “Bipolar Depression.”
And then I slept, newly committed to the task of Living With Bipolar. With the feeling, now familiar, that I was about to learn care for a new part of myself.
All this to say. Somewhere along the line, on the rocky and winding path of becoming as a young person consumed by silent violence, I learned that identities are things that are practiced. They are pins you affix to your lapel as a reminder that you are skilled and versatile, that your pain is always becoming power: a reminder that you have remade yourself.
And — life being unpredictable, healing being endless and non-linear — you continue to do so. “Identities” are not passive or static, identities re-align in every place I am in, identities are crucial but insufficient for the enormity of a human self. Living with my identities hovering over me like angels and demons challenges and sharpens me. To wear them loudly is a badge of shared pain, an invitation to commiserate — a reminder that, voluntarily or not, you remake yourself all the time.
I have bad mental health days, bad queer days, and bad brown girl days. I keep track, on and endless loop, of my requirements for queer space and trips to spice stores. I feel myself to be brown, queer, sad, and strange, and a skilled practitioner of each, moving carefully through the world to protect my energy.
And then, on some days, I feel myself to be nothing at all. When I am alone, mostly, maybe sprinkling chili powder into bubbling yellow lentils and watching it thicken on the surface. Painting my wall deep red and watching the thickness of acrylic paint settle, alight, become fire. Or finding just the word to adorn a poem as its title. In a therapists’ office, I might call it hypomania. After an organizing meeting, I might cite Audre Lorde, call it a “Use of the Erotic.” But alone, with no pins on my lapel, the feeling just is. Powerful and immersive. The whistle of morning air and the dimming crackling of fire. Like the granite of a mountain glowing purple in the sunset; untouched snow scattered on its peak.