by: ashish kapoor
Pittsburgh, PA. 1993. 6th grade. Mr. Baladucci’s Spelling class.
A skinny Indian boy slouches in the back of the class. That’s me. Tongue out, eyebrows furrowed, meticulously erasing the letter “e” in “resteurant.” I was born in Cleveland, but had spent my entire childhood in this town. Aside from the typical travails of being an immigrant family in a mid-western American suburb, my childhood was good.
Everyone passed their tests to the front and Mr. B collected the papers. He began his lesson for the day.
I sauntered to the front of the class and quietly placed my test atop the paper pile.
“Can’t take that, Ashish-O. It’s late.”
“It’s, like, ten seconds late.”
“No can do, buddy.”
Though punkish, I was a good student. Years later I would experience the letters C, D and F, but back then anything lower than an A was unthinkable.
Enraged, I grabbed my test, crumpled it and threw it at Mr. B. The paper bounced off of his middle-aged paunch and fell softly at his feet. His face turned as red as the stripes on the crisp American flag behind him. He pointed angrily at me, and then at the door.
“Out in the hall, Ashish-O! You’re in a heap!” he roared.
I had raised the ire of the angry, Italian spelling teacher. I was scared, but these moments provided tremendous cred in 6th grade. I strutted out into the hallway.
Mr. B stormed out behind me and slammed the classroom door. He grabbed me by the shirt and put his face inches away from mine.
“Is that how you act at home, you little shit?”
Though unexpected, it wasn’t the first time a teacher or principal had threatened me with physical harm. It’s why children are so vulnerable- how can you know when boundaries are being crossed when you don’t know what the boundaries are?
“No,” I whispered and looked away.
He let go of my shirt and stood up straight.
“Well then don’t do it here,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
He gave me the first of the many detentions I would have in my scholastic career. I had earned it.
When I reentered, the class “oooooooohed.”
The pretty girl smiled at me. The cool kid turned around and slapped me five. “Yea, Ashish-O.”
Mr. B was still cooling down. He asked the new girl, Elvera, to read from the next lesson. The easiest way to keep my roll going was to make fun of the immigrant kid.
“Elvera Nupeeza, the skeeza from Romania!” I rapped.
The class laughed. Elvera blinked rapidly and looked down, humiliated.
“You’re pushing it, buddy,” Mr. B seethed. “One more peep, and YOU’RE OUTTA HERE!”
Everyone grew silent. I looked down, glancing at Elvera from the corner of my eye. I wanted her to be in on the joke I just made at her expense. She wasn’t.
Not too long after, my family moved to New Jersey. The move shook me. The neighborhood I grew up in. The friends I knew from the beginning of memory. The old, white woman at the deli who called me “tough cookie” and knitted me a clown. The pothole full of tar that ruined my new sneakers. The small pond I dug into our gravel driveway that would fill with frogs on quiet spring mornings.
Of course there are much worse things that can happen to a child than moving. Starvation. Abuse. Being raised a Cowboys fan. But pain in life, especially in youth, is relative.
Soon after that, my family moved again. This time it was to India.
8th Grade English. 1994. Modern School. Lucknow, India.
The assignment was to memorize the poem “Tiger, Tiger,” by William Blake and recite it in front of the class.
My father taught at a university nearby and every evening we sat down for a nice, quiet family dinner at the campus cafeteria. Afterwards, I shouted, screamed and made meticulous lists of reasons for us to go back to America. India in 1994 was still a legitimate 3rd world country, and back then I was only interested in visiting there every few summers. Though I loved the country, I was always relieved to come back to America: land of carpeting, hot showers and pizza that wasn’t made from ketchup and Cheez-Wiz.
In an attempt to appease my discontent, my parents finally bought me a dog. I’ll never forget the little, white Pomeranian puppy darting around the house that first evening. Chasing tennis balls. Learning how to use the stairs. Peeing on my brother’s lap.
I stood in front of the class in a full uniform. My first day of school, I had worn a risqué Pearl Jam shirt and green jean shorts. By now, though, I had been fully acculturated. My uniform was a crisp, invigorating gray and white. The knot of my clip-on tie dug into my neck and I was still lightheaded from the shoe polish fumes that morning.
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
in the forests of the night,
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
The class laughed.
“Array, boltha kaisa hai! (He talks so oddly)” whispered a girl in pigtails.
“Tie-GER, Tie-GER, BURNing BRIGHT!” said a boy towards the back, speaking in an overly emphatic American accent.
The class laughed again and the teacher shouted for quiet. I was embarrassed. Like any kid, I was self-conscious about certain things. But my manner of speaking English had never been amongst my insecurities.
That evening, I spent hours in front of the mirror practicing an Indian accent and adopting the tonalities of my father. The same accent mocked in 90′s American pop culture. The same accent that turned heads in restaurants. The same accent that would now serve as some armor against my alienation.
But the armor is never enough. My math and science scores weren’t up to par with the rest of the students. Boards would be tough to clear. And I was often sick, crippled with unexplainable stomach pains. The local masseuse/herbal doctor came by to investigate.
“Oski naabi uthargayee (his “nabi” slipped off),” he explained as he forcibly pushed and pulled at my stomach.
“Nabi kya hothee hai? (what’s a “nabi?”)” I later questioned my parents, to no avail.
I assumed it was some type of karmic tunic that had slipped off of my soul.
Then our dear puppy, who had been sick for a few months, passed away. My grandparents and uncle explained that the harsh medicines used to correct his stomach issues proved to be too much for the little guy.
Not too long after, we came back to the United States. A few more moves followed, each with its unique struggles and victories.
But I learned my first lesson in empathy in that hot, humid Indian classroom:
Any one of us can be a stranger.
by: ashish kapoor
On a pleasant, lazy Brooklyn Sunday in late August my wife and I sat on our couch, digesting the delicious french toast she had just made. We had gotten married three months back and had just wrapped up our final wedding related event the weekend before. I took a sip of my coffee and stared into space. After a year of planning, from engagement to reception, we were all done. No more thank you cards, invitations, decorators, stressful phone calls with parents, arguments, nothing. The dog was at my folks’ place and we had the day in front of us. I felt a flash of excitement. Those moments of untethered freedom that seem to happen less frequently as we get older. The moments when you remember childhood. Freshly cut grass. Mothers calling for their children to come home for supper. BMX bikes. A scrape on the knee. The smell of dirt and tar. Firing your Super Soaker 50 at the annoying girl next door. And Contra.
What proper American 1980′s boyhood would be complete without Contra? Maddog and Scorpion try to stop the vile Red Falcon from destroying the universe. Machine guns, jungles, explosions, lasers and a fill-in-the-blanks storyline.
“How about we play some Contra?” I asked her. She had seen it growing up, but her Nintendo gameplay was mostly relegated to Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt. “Yea, sure!” she laughed, thinking I was joking.
That’s all I needed. I had a Nintendo emulator hooked up to my XBox, so I flipped it on, clicked on Contra, chose two players and hit start.
“B jumps and A is to shoot.”
Within about 2 minutes it was Game Over. Which leads to my first of four lessons that I learned about marriage by playing Contra with my wife.
1. Use the Code (COMPROMISE)
“Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, B, A, start.
Just because we use cheats, doesn’t mean we’re not smart.”
- Moldy Peaches “Anyone Else But You”
One of the points of pride of my skinny, bespectacled youth was that I had beat Contra without using “the code” mentioned above. With that code, you got 30 lives instead of 3. And you still get the standard 3 continues, which means you get a total of 90 lives. If you can’t beat Contra with 90 lives, you probably have no friends and no hope in this material world.
I had sworn that I would never use the code. But I was playing Contra with the future mother of my children. Was it more important for me to continue to adhere to some childhood point of pride at the expense of her being able to play? What would it prove, besides making the eight year old version of myself proud? It’s also worth noting that that eight year old was a virgin and had never tasted the malty goodness of a Guinness.
I put in the code, and we were off to Stage 1: Jungle.
2. Don’t Leave Player 2 Behind (PATIENCE)
We shot, flipped, swam and exploded our way to Stage 3: Waterfall. While every level in Contra is horizontal/side scrolling (aside from the pseudo-3D levels Base1 and Base2), Stage 3: Waterfall is the one vertical scrolling level. If one player goes too far ahead, the player being left behind automatically dies. When you see children play Contra, this phenomenon will repeat itself endlessly until the player getting shafted throws his controller or slaps his partner in the mouth. As such, it is the truest test of maturity and patience.
I made the initial mistake of going too fast to kill off impending enemies. My wife’s player died as a result. I got a dirty look, reminding me that it wasn’t 1988 and I wasn’t playing with my younger brother or some shitbag down the street. I re-calibrated my technique, slowly marching up the screen, clearing enemies from her path and at least minimizing the unbelievable number of times her player was getting killed. Slowly but surely, we made our way to the Aliens inspired stage boss and blew his intergalactic head off. His metallic guts exploded and we were, for the moment, victorious.
3. Give Her the Good Weapons (SELFLESSNESS)
A crucial element of Contra is the weapons. These are power-ups you pick up occasionally. Once you die, you lose the weapon. Here is how I would rank them, from worst to best:
1. Regular pellets: These are single buckshots. Though accurate, the bullets travel slowly and are pretty weak. A skilled player could beat the game with it, but that’s like giving a rich dude money. What’s the point?
2. Fire: By far the cheesiest weapon, it loops around in curly-q’s, slowly meandering its way towards the target. It’s called “Fire?” It should be called “Fire’s Hot Friend that He Has NO Chance with. EVER.”
3. Machine Gun: Solid, All-American weapon. Powerful and precise. Makes badass sound.
4. Laser: Technically speaking, this is probably the best weapon. It is extremely powerful, makes a decent enough “Zzzzzzzzzow!” sound and is difficult to get. But my boyhood heart still beats for….
5. Spread: The bullets fan across the screen, making calming “woooosh” sounds as their waves of destruction spray all over the screen like a vengeful porn star. It may not be as strong as Laser, but its range more than makes up for it.
I shot down a Spread power up and moved to claim it. I looked at my wife’s character, fruitlessly firing the Regular, white bullets haphazardly across the screen.
“Babe, you get it. Take the Spread!”
She grabbed the power-up, joyously shooting bright red bullets all over the stage. Seconds later, her player was dead. Another Spread, lost to the annals of history. But it doesn’t matter.
“The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.” – Pierre Coreille, French Poet and Dramatist considered the creator of French classical tragedy, 1606-1684.
Emboldened and validated by a dead Parisian, we continued our pursuit to the final stage.
4. Give Her the Last Shot at the Heart (LOVE)
Sweating and exhausted, we staggered to Stage 8: Alien’s Lair. We battled aliens, scorpions and angry vaginas (see below).
Finally, we arrived at the game’s end boss: a giant beating heart surrounded by little anemones that hurled scorpions at us. I shot out the bottom anemones, cutting the scorpion quotient in half. We then started taking shots at the heart, while I occasionally blasted the predatory arthropods descending from above. The heart became darker and louder. Straining against the barrage of bullets, it beat faster and faster to pump blood into the Mothership.
A few more shots and the heart would explode, the game ending with victorious 8-bit music and a helicopter, with us in it, fleeing the exploding island. I put my controller down.
“You finish it off, babe,” I said, nodding solemnly.
“Why? You kill it.”
“I want you to have this. I want you to feel this.”
She smiled. A couple more mashes of the button and the heart exploded. The celebratory music played. The helicopter took off. The island exploded.
“Congratulations! You’ve destroyed the vile Red Falcon and saved the Universe. Consider yourself a hero!”
Beating a video game never felt so good.
by: ashish kapoor
The tropical morning mist had begun to lift. I stepped through the ornate, bejeweled lobby, spun through the revolving doors and onto the sidewalk. My wife stepped out beside me.
“There’s the bus. Where’s your brother and his wife?”
“The twins aren’t feeling well, so they have to show my parents where the medicine and diapers are stashed.”
We were scheduled to leave at 7:45 this morning from our hotel for an ATV trip. It was something I swore I would never do. They put you in what amounts to a large go-cart with monstrous wheels, pump it full of diesel and you roar through the Dominican countryside like an angry colonialist with irritable bowel syndrome. But, truth be told, shit did seem kind of fun. And why should colonialists be the only ones having a good time?
We showed our receipts to the tour guide and stepped onto the packed bus, taking a seat next to the only other couple of color. A large black man, his Indian wife and their two adorable daughters slid over to make room. We smiled and exchanged hellos.
The tour guide turned to the group.
“We waiting for two more peoples.”
A large group of ten pasty faced Maine tourists looked around incredulously. A young girl, sitting confidently on the insufferable precipice of 16 years of age, scoffed.
“Are you kidding me?” she squealed.
A man in his early 40′s with angry sunglasses and a buzz cut shook his head.
“You said we would be out by 7:30. I want a refund,” he croaked. “And what’s up with the AC?”
“Relax,” said the tour guide. “Here, you on Dominican time. The carts aren’t going nowhere. We enjoy.”
The girl, egged on by a mother who looked like a candidate for Real Housewives of Staten Island, continued her ranting.
“Let’s go. We don’t like them anyways! Let’s go!”
My wife and I looked at one another. I was surprised that no parental figure had told her to “shush.” Aside from getting ripped off by locals, white people enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege when they travel to brown and black countries. This girl was the embodiment of it.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being a young boy, raised in India instead of Pittsburgh. I imagined my accent heavy, my skin darkened by the summer sun, coming to visit America and yelling in front of a crowd of white people, demanding my selfish emotions to be heard and felt. My parents enabling me by laughing. It was unimaginable.
Simmering, I took a deep breath and spoke.
“Hey everyone. Sorry, we’re waiting for my brother-in-law and his wife. Their young twins are really sick so they’re taking care of a couple things and will join us very shortly.”
There were a few “awww’s.” A handsome, smug looking man with Aviators and a George Clooney chin turned around.
“What, they leave em out in the sun too long?”
Some of his group chuckled.
“Yea, because they’re idiots.”
The laughter stopped. The angry crew cut turned to glare at me.
“Easy there, sand nigger. Watch who you’re talking to,” I imagined him saying.
And there was my brother-in-law exiting the lobby. Zipping up a bag, half-jogging. His wife came hustling behind him. One toddler is a job, two is a career.
They jumped up onto the bus. Smug man turned around.
“You leave the kids by themselves?”
My brother-in-law chuckled as we rumbled towards our excursion.
I thought to myself, this is the fiery white privilege that has poked at me my entire life. Each searing ember, a reminder of the taunts of my youth. Jabs about Gandhi, curry smells and Hindoos. Childhood pain and alienation only needs a casual adult encounter to resurface.
Adulthood, however, also gives the benefit of coping mechanisms. As we got to our ATV’s, I shook away the thoughts, got in the driver’s seat, and roared.
The next morning, we awoke at 6:30 AM for my wife’s birthday. I had spent the night alternating between shivering and sweating profusely, with projectiles of varying consistencies ejecting from my orifices. Maybe the six lobster tails I had eaten the night before weren’t such a good idea.
“Get up. It’s not your day, stupid,” I told myself as I flopped out of bed.
We were going on a catamaran ride with my wife’s folks. After meeting them at breakfast for a quick bite, we boarded the tour bus.
My father-in-law, a pediatrician, bemusedly asked, “How are you feeling?”
Having doctors in the family is great for emergencies, but when it comes to the daily stuff, they’ve seen it all, done it all. Your vomit and runs don’t concern them.
“I’m good, Dad. Much better now.”
I sat down and gently vomited into my mouth. Swallowed. Turned to my wife.
“Happy Birthday, babe!”
The bus stopped at a few hotels along the way, picking up more passengers for the boat trip. We stopped after thirty minutes and transferred to a different bus. I saw another Indian family.
I nudged my wife. “Hindus,” I whispered.
Perhaps this is the case with other minorities, but when Indians see other Indians in unexpected places (i.e. the Dominican Republic, a farm, a hockey game) we usually avoid eye contact, then try to sneak a peak when the other isn’t looking. Their presence is a reminder of how impossible it is to be brown and not catch attention in non-brown settings.
Another Indian family emerged from behind the bus. And then another. A maple colored man with a large bushy moustache and a baggy Ferrari shirt cloaking an enormous paunch bellowed in an Indian accent, “23! Group 23!”
I felt like I was supposed to go up and get my dosa.
More Indians emerged from behind the bus in cartoon-like fashion. There were mothers, fathers and nearly a dozen kids in differing stages of gangly pre- and post-pubescence.
One little, two little, twenty-three little (actually kindda big) Indians!
When we finally reached our destination, we all got out, walked through some woods, past groups of peddlers selling cheap cigars, rum and 5 dollar ice cream bars, and emerged onto a beach. The tour guide split us into small groups and took our pictures. As expected, they later tried to sell us these pictures. A trio of kids played drums and danced, while a purple Yankees cap collected American and European currencies.
Finally, after a brief ride on a small boat, we boarded the giant catamaran. I was still queasy and Group 23’s increasing volume wasn’t helping. They had already photo bombed our family picture, and the kids were tickling each other and doing other random bullshit that made a lot of noise. Still, this group was an anomaly here, and they amused me. My wife was not as amused, mostly because they were from the same part of India as her family.
“That’s your people,” I condescended.
We boarded a speedboat that took us to a catamaran- a white, vulgar chunk of maritime furniture. But the water was beautiful. Bright blues and deep emerald hues sloshed against the side of the boat. A crisp, gentle sea breeze whispered across my face. I took a deep breath and exhaled. Finally. We made it. I looked at my wife and smiled.
I turned to see the fellow in the Ferrari shirt yelling to his friend across the large boat. He held up a half glass of rum and gulped it down. Reggaeton music began blaring from the speakers. The captain, a man in his early 30′s with his entire head shaved, save for a thick, inexplicable swath of hair above his neck, nodded his head to the music. He revved the motor, cranked the music and we began our journey to the island.
After a couple of drinks, life started to make sense. “This is what it’s all about,” I said to my wife.
Such is the unifying nature of rum and coke. I have had a tenuous relationship with dark rum since freshman year of college, with many a night ending with my face nuzzled against the comforting embrace of my guardian angel, the porcelain goddess herself.
The captain spoke into the microphone. “OK everrrybody, time you do one shot and REPORT TO THE DANCE FLOOOORR!”
Group 23 screamed and flooded the middle of the boat. Two instructors stepped in front of the group.
They started dancing and everybody followed. The Indian uncles were high-fiving in between large gulps of rum, picking each other up and yelling to everyone and no one in particular. My in-laws were embarrassed and I was less amused than I had been earlier. Still, we joined in on the dancing. Group dances look so corny from the outside, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s a rather jolly time.
People were getting drunker and louder. So when we finally arrived at the island, we quickly ate at the buffet and found an isolated spot to swim and lounge for the next couple of hours. I had almost forgotten about Group 23, until it was time to head back onto the boat.
They had continued drinking, and things had gone from amusing to sad.
As we pulled up into a protected reef to see starfish, one of the drunken men tried to jump off of the boat into the reef below. Luckily, a guide stopped him from hurting himself. Later, this man had another man on his shoulders, splashing around loudly amongst their children as the rest of us looked on. One of the men had a starfish on his head and was walking around with a shit-eating grin and a bottle of rum.
Though there isn’t anything remotely post-racial about America, I suppose we’re slowly moving towards it. It may take another thousand years, it may never happen. But one thing is for sure. With an ever-expanding global economy comes an increased access to wealth and privilege for non-white people. So now do they have a right to act just as douchey and privileged in places that aren’t their home? Of course. Should they? That’s a question that post-racialism will never be able to answer.