“Now fill out Box 7: Ethnicity. Please bubble in one answer choice,” the proctor drones, trying to maintain some semblance of borrowed authority. I squirm in my chair as my meticulous peers finish perfecting their circles. Eeni-meeni-mineey-mo. No, no. Which one did I pick last time? Which one sounds better? Should I be a minority today or tomorrow? “Come on, we don’t have all day, people,” the proctor says. It must be the thousandth time she is reading the same question in the same monotone, but every test, every year, I don’t have an answer for her.
My mother wore a green sari to her wedding instead of the traditional Indian red one, and my father came in a gold silk jacket—the artistic form of the regular Israeli black one. After all, they were exchanging flower garlands under a chuppah with the remnants of a smashed glass—for good luck—at their feet, so tradition had already been trampled underfoot. And what of the vows, you ask? What does one say other than “I do”? They chose an excerpt from the German poet Rilke: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” The distance is still there, and I just float in the middle, as off-color as green saris and gold suits.
Not long after I turned six, I came home from school and instead of giving my parents the usual “school was good” spiel, I plopped down on a chair, stared silently at the wall for a few minutes, and then said, in my still gratingly squeaky voice, “Abba, am I brown or white?” He grinned and said, “You’re a mix.” I nodded my head knowingly. “Oh, okay. So I’m beige.” As he laughed loudly, stroking my head, I wondered why he found it so funny, but I curled up in his lap and did not bother to further question the incomprehensible adult mind.
Every other summer, we take a sixteen-hour flight to Mumbai, over oceans and continents and through endless white clouds, lost between day and night until the thud of wheels hitting tarmac jolts us awake. We grab our thankfully-not-lost luggage from the crowded conveyor belt and emerge—cramped muscles, popped ears, and all—into the humid night air. My skin feels as if I have put too much lotion on, my vision is obscured as my glasses fog up, and I have to stop for a moment before lugging my half-broken suitcase to the parking lot. We hurry along as touts crowd around us. “Taxi, berry good taxi.” “I give you good price.” “Please, miss, come this way. I take you berry fast.” The black and yellow cabs with their big, round headlights are leftover from the 70s, but in a country of over one billion people, there’s enough cheap labor to keep them repaired for the next many years to come. We evade the throngs of people and scan the crowds, waiting, until finally, her arms outstretched so she can enfold us, is my beaming grandmother, my Nani. My father never understands why Indians bother to drive the forty-five minutes—past the mid-road salesmen with copies of chart-topping books, through the never-ending cacophony of taxi horns, by the emaciated beggars carrying rented babies—to the airport just to greet their visitors, but my mother would make a face at anyone who dared do otherwise. I chide my grandmother for having come just to see us, but I can’t help running into her arms when we exit the airport.
On alternate summers, as we drive out of the Tel Aviv airport in our rented car, the radio announcers discourse about the settlements in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, the latest soldier captured by enemy combatants, and the most recent civilian bombings. My dad tries to translate the familiar—yet still incomprehensible—rough-sounding Hebrew words as I stare out the window at the baby-faced people in military attire who are going home for their weekend visit, their guns slung casually over their shoulders. We pass long stretches of parched dirt punctuated by cacti and scraggly olive groves. They say the dove that came to Noah’s ark brought an olive branch to show that land was nearby, but what a land it is. We pull up to my grandmother’s dilapidated house and I run inside, my mouth sticky with saliva, anxious for some relief. I open the tap in Safta’s kitchen and lean down to take a drink, but I cringe as the water, bitter with the taste of minerals, of life buried between the rocks, trickles down my throat.
When I was little, one summer we traveled to the salt-filled Dead Sea, and the next we ventured through the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains. We saw the magnificent holy sites of Jerusalem that are printed on every other postcard, and wandered through Indian mud-hut villages to find half-forgotten stone temples obscured from view by overgrown grass. On the way, we occasionally dropped in on our far-flung family members, and long-lost friends. “Beti, you have the same face as your father,” cooed Indian women bulging through the folds of their elaborately draped saris, as they tried to hand me third and fourth servings of samosa, naan, chicken, yogurt, broccoli, okra, rice, lentils, and myriad unidentifiable yellow and orange sauces. The Israelis told me I was the spitting image of my mother. “Almost can’t tell the difference,” they said, as they wiped the remnants of falafel and hummus from their lips. I smiled absentmindedly and dug my feet further into the sand as the sun disappeared behind the Mediterranean waves.
My mother always says she doesn’t cook Indian food because my father and I have such sensitive tongues. “You guys eat such BOR-ing food,” she exclaims, as she puts red pepper paste on top of her morning eggs. Some evenings it was, “Oof, Maya, what’s wrong with your taste buds?” Other times it was, “Come on, just a little salt and pepper.” I wanted her to know I am Indian. Really. Truly. I once got so frustrated because my tastebuds hadn’t yet had their spice-loving epiphany that I grabbed the peppershaker from our dining table, opened the cap, and poured a good amount of the contents onto my tongue. I think I started to cry, possibly because my tongue was on fire, but probably because my mother thought I was absolutely ridiculous.
In the Jewish tradition, you get your religion from your mother, but Hindu-Sikh-agnostic mix is harder to adopt than Judaism, especially with a name like Averbuch. So every year, even though my dad has gone to more Christian Midnight Masses—just for the music and the ambiance—than Jewish temple prayer sessions, we’ve found someone’s house to go to for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. It’s always the same crowd, the same unintelligible Hebrew mutterings, but I munch on my food happily as I hum along to all the familiar songs someone is strumming on a guitar. I’ve lit the menorah on occasion, I’ve searched for the hidden matzah, and I’ve eaten so much challah bread that someone might actually mistake me for a real Jew someday. But there are cracks in that portrait. My father once got so frustrated when, before our twelfth Rosh Hashanah dinner, I asked what we were celebrating, that he exploded: “Maya, what’s WRONG with you, dammit? You spend hours and hours diligently writing the answers to all those NONSENSE homework questions your teachers tell you to do, but you can’t remember the most BASIC things I say!” He demanded that I stop my work, go look up Jewish holidays on Wikipedia, and write a two-page paper on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I glared at him, appalled, and opened my mouth in protest, but his look silenced the words in my throat. I hunched my shoulders, crossed my arms, and made my way to the computer, muttering maledictions under my breath. In retrospect, that angrily written paper is what made me remember what we celebrate on those two holidays. I still sometimes forget. It’s not really my religion anyways, just one of those traditions. But I have the essay saved on my computer and buried in the stack of papers on my desk. Just in case, you know?
There’s always that immense distance, that Arabian Sea, between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, but there are rare occasions when my parents agree. After all, a Queens accent is awful coming from any child, and many Americans are unintelligent Republicans who can’t figure out the difference between a president and a fool, and free time is important for a growing child, and I should get nine and a half hours of sleep a night. But most of the time it’s not like that. Most of the time they can’t seem to decide whether family is the most important thing or whether you’ve got to put yourself first, whether nursing homes are world’s worst prisons or simply necessities, whether my Indian grandmother’s nightly double shot of whisky should be considered alcoholism, whether a nuclear family is better than an extended family, whether it’s alright if people drop by unannounced, whether someone’s math capability is a perfect marker of intelligence, whether arriving lackadaisically late is acceptable, and whether you should relinquish your dependence on family or whether it is always alright to come running back home to your mother. Our four-foot long, multi-colored parrot, sitting on his perch with his head cocked sideways, has gotten so used to the rise and fall of their voices that he has started to imitate them: “VAvaYYvahhhHHHvava. BavahAHvabBGhva. HaHABAava. HAHAHAHAH!” He jokes, but it’s not so funny if you’re watching silently.
I can sometimes eat Chicken Tikka Masala now, provided that I have a bowl of yogurt, a glass of water, and a bunch of bread nearby to alleviate the pain felt by my suffering taste buds. I can tell you about how the Jews crossed over from Egypt, though I might need to fact check beforehand. Two wholes before an immense sky, he said. And look at what I’ve found in between: a patch of American soil that has sprouted an anomalous, crooked olive tree whose branches are decorated with marigolds, the Indian flower of weddings and funerals. It’s sometimes dry, sometimes humid, and, though my glasses fog up at times, there’s an immense sky before us, and the same wispy clouds drift by overhead. I think I can see both shores from up here.
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School