Application Essay: I Am an American
Ri's college essay grabbed my attention right from the first sentence. Does it have the same effect on you?
I am an American. I eat apple pie, watch baseball, and participate in every American holiday from Thanksgiving to the 4th of July. Every morning, I stand tall, place my hand over my heart, and pledge my allegiance to the country in which I was born and raised. Yet, for a long time, many of my peers did not regard me as an American. It was my fault that in 3rd grade, Ciera’s oldest brother died when the World Trade Center collapsed. She stopped playing with me during recess, and when I confronted her about it, she said that she wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because her mommy said I was a terrorist. This struck me as odd because I am Indian. This was only the beginning of ignorant harassment that would torment me throughout my childhood. This treatment frustrated me so drastically that I began to ameliorate the situation by denying my own heritage to be more accepted by my peers. I would fight with my parents when they would try to make me go to a temple with them, I told people to refer to me as Ri, a more racially ambiguous name, I started eating meat, I chopped off my long hair, I refused to speak Telugu, my first language, and I tried to live and breathe in the American culture in hope that the label of ‘terrorist’ would no longer be thrust upon me.
Regardless of all the hard work on my part, I still couldn’t rid myself that label, the same way my family was never able to completely power-wash the graffiti of “Go home, Terrorists” off of our garage door. Even though I had shifted from learning Bharathnatyam and listening to Bollywood music to learning ballet and listening to the Beatles, that wasn’t enough to turn myself into who I perceived to be an American.
Then, two years ago, my mother forced me to go to India with her and attend my cousin’s wedding. I refused to participate in any of the pre-wedding ceremonies, such as decorating my arms with henna, sewing my cousin’s crimson wedding sari, and preparing food for the guests (rich curries that I loved, but was too proud to eat). Instead, I sat in another room, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and reading Lolita, hoping that all of this would end soon and I could go back to my comfort zone. Then, on the day of my cousin’s wedding, as I watched her wear the sari I had refused to sew, the bright henna on her hands changing between shades of red as the light of the wedding fire flickered on them, the beauty of the ceremony finally made me realize: I am a privileged member of a magnificent, lively culture. I am American, and I am Indian- I don’t have to pick between them. I began to notice that people cared less about my race and more about my personality. I was no longer angry at my peers for their ignorance; Instead, I tried to sympathize with their fear. I felt sad that they didn’t know the difference between Hindus and Muslims, but I felt even worse that they couldn’t comprehend that not all Muslims are extremists.
I used to regret mentioning my race or religion. I had forgotten, because of the ignorance around me, that I had a heritage rich with beautiful traditions and values. I forgot that all religions and ethnicities have stereotypes, but because I am a racial minority within the United States, and especially my own community, the stereotypes seemed to have a particularly strong effect on me. I forgot that I used to love my heritage with its rich traditions and its meaningful stories, that being Indian used to be one of the things made me happy because of how vibrant and alive my culture is. I tried so hard to decimate my ties to my ethnicity, that by the time I realized what I had done, a part of my human identity was gone. Since the moment that I made the realization that my ethnicity and race were a part of me that I could never rid myself of fully, I’ve tried to reattach the portion I tore off. I try to actively participate in traditional activities, such as dancing at Garba during Navaratri, and telling stories about Rama and Krishna to the children who attend the poojas that I had once loathed.When I tried to strip myself of my ethnicity, I lost the bit of my soul that made me an individual. My culture had such a huge impact on my youth before 9/11, that when I tried to get rid of it, I ripped out the part of myself that influenced my thoughts, dogma, and aspirations. I felt like the bridge I had spent the first eight years of my life building had just been hit by an earthquake that collapsed the bridge’s support system, but I realized- that’s okay. I just have to rebuild from the bottom up, incorporating both the Indian and the American aspects of my life to build a sturdier bridge. It will take time, but hopefully by the time my bridge is rebuilt, it won’t be just orange, white, and green, or red, white, and blue, but a beautiful blend of both that will stand stately and majestically for the rest of my life.
Powerful work, Ri! A few specific comments:
- Your first sentence is admirably powerful and simple. Sparklers, emulate it.
- For the most part, you do a good job of keeping your language plain. Watch out, though, for sentences like, "This treatment frustrated me so drastically that I began to ameliorate the situation by denying my own heritage to be more accepted by my peers." There's nothing grammatically wrong here, but you have style problems. What you're saying is so dramatic and interesting—you tried to hide your ethnicity!—but you're undermining the drama with stiff construction, many modifying clauses, and a clanging thesaurus word ("ameliorate"). Revise along these lines: "This treatment frustrated me such much that I started pretending I wasn't Indian. I hoped that if I turned my back on my heritage, my peers would stop teasing me." Simple language is always more striking—and enjoyable to read.
- I admire the way you avoid self-pity. It's really hard to write about a difficult experience without sounding melodramatic or whining—I certainly can't do it!—but you manage to be truthful about how hideous your classmates were while still sounding mature, forgiving, and thoughtful.
- The details you choose are outstanding. Lolita, the wedding fire, the playground confrontation, the graffiti on your garage door—you bring your story to life with impeccably-chosen tactile descriptions.
- The last paragraph needs to be rethought. It's very long and very abstract, in contrast to the rest of your essay. Your reader will see it as an invitation to skim. Compress the abstraction into a sentence or two, and give us more of the sort of details you provide in the rest of the essay. Show us how you rediscovered your culture. (And lose the bridge metaphor. It feels tacked on, just like this parenthetical.)
What do you say, Sparklers? Share your advice in the comments.