“...anyways, I won’t be back on campus for a while because of it.”
The tiny face on the screen nods her head. “Ohh, gotcha.”
I’m glad my camera is off, if only so no one sees my furrowed eyebrows and curled lip. Man, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that. Don’t people know how to say anything else?
“Hey, um, by the way, why are you on mute? Why aren’t you talking?”
I briefly unmute myself to tell her that it’s 6 in the morning where I am. She bursts out laughing, yelling, “That’s so valid! Valid, valid, valid.”
She speaks with such casualness, such arrogance, not bothering to understand the circumstances of those around her. It makes me want to reach through my computer and punch her in the mouth. I wonder if it ever occurred to her how painful it is, doing class all night, doing everything at night. But no. All my pain, all my labor, all my anguish, distilled down to just a single phrase.
My sense of time, gone. My sleep schedule, in disarray. Been keeping in good health? I certainly haven’t.
But that’s all “valid,” so whatever, I guess. As long as they “got me,” I guess all my problems are solved. As long as they meaninglessly say whatever they’ve heard people say a million times before, no one has to face any consequences. As long as you just robotically acknowledge the words coming out of my mouth, you don’t have to really listen.
Sure, it was nice at first. Yeah, my concerns are valid. My questions are valid. My struggles are valid. They say that in therapy, I get it. Good for you. I don't wanna discredit you. It’s nice to tell people that and make them feel ok. But there’s a difference between therapy and real life, a difference between interacting with a professional and having a regular conversation, and there are only so many times you can tell me that before I start to wonder, “What’s up?”
Do you actually care?
You tell me that you “got me.” How many times a day do you say the exact same thing, in the exact same tone? How is it that back home, every single person and voice is big, bright, bold, beautiful, with their own personalities and their own style, but here, every voice melds into one?
You tell me that you “got me,” and in my head, I implore you to say something, anything else. It would mean so much more if you did. It would mean that my stories weren’t going in one ear and out the other. It would mean that you listened. But you won’t.
That’s the safe way, after all. The peaceful way. It saves you the trouble of having to think of an actual, meaningful response. Even if it means you become just like everyone else.
Just do what everyone else does and talk how everyone else talks. Say what’s safe and what people expect, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t step out of your comfort zone and don’t do anything more than the bare minimum. That’s the way to go.
You don’t know what people will think, after all.
Is that why people don’t talk to me? Because I’m not from here and I don’t say that I “got you” and that your problems are “valid”? Is “valid” the buzz word, the correct answer, the lottery winner, the word that’ll make everyone happy so you don’t have to exercise your brain and think about the truth of the matter?
Maybe it’s easier that way. Maybe people just don’t like to talk anymore. If our attention span is so little that videos longer than one minute on Instagram become boring, who’s to say that real life hasn’t become the same? Maybe I’m in the wrong. Maybe I just need to adapt and I haven’t yet.
Is that why I’m so lonely?
The professor asks everyone to introduce themselves, starting with one person who then passes it onto the next. Predictably, I go last, with the person struggling to say my name—exactly the reason why no one wants to pass the ball to me in the first place. It hurts. A lot. My name is beautiful and it should be treated with the respect it deserves, and yet it has been butchered countless times despite my attempts to correct people. Worse, some don’t even try to say it right. The “American” way is the right way for everything. Why don’t I just mispronounce your name then? See how it feels.
Actually, that’s not right. What’s worse is the people who act like I don’t have a name and avoid saying it at all costs. That’s what’s worse.
My name is Nandika. Another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune. A benevolent name that I feel blessed to have. A powerful name that my parents gave to me after so many trials and tribulations. It flows in the river and lives in the breeze and lights the fire in my eyes.
Am I supposed to reclaim that? Like everyone here seems to want to do? I’ve never had to.
The next question arises. Where are you from? Everyone gladly says their state, even their city, and I somehow know exactly where they’re all talking about, despite not being from the US. When it gets to me, I merely say I’m from India. I don’t dare say anything more, because I already know no one will have any idea what or where I’m talking about, and who will that backfire on but me? I know every single state and city you all have said, but I don’t expect you to know mine.
I am from Bangalore. The loud, crowded, noisy, electronic, alive city of Bangalore. Where stray dogs walk free and traffic is a nightmare. Where fireworks go off every other night and silence is rare and unbearable. Where the weather is warm and the people are warmer. I miss it so much, the movie theater nachos and the cricket pitches and running across roads. I miss it so much and it’s halfway across the world.
The cultural differences get to me. The casual indifference of people. Everyone’s good, everyone’s chill. It feels so cold. I want to fit in so badly. I want to make friends. I want to have the college life everyone speaks so highly of. Yet in the three months since I’ve been here, all I’ve managed are two parties, endless jealousy, and tickets to a concert in April with a person to whom I’ve not spoken since they were booked.
I want to meet people. People who are not like me. People who are not from where I’m from. I’m so interested to learn more about them, about this place I’m in, to expand my tiny world. I’m in the US, for God’s sake. The place that everyone speaks so highly about. There are so many different languages and cultures and identities. So many different people. Didn’t we come to live the western dream?
I’m so proud to have made it to this college, to meet these people who I see in the movies and in the books and in the media. I want to share my culture, and I want to learn about them. Yet they don’t seem to feel the same.
I want to make friends. They all say, “It’s nice to meet you!”, “We should meet up!”, “I’ll text you!”, but it’s all a lie. They never text. They never reach out. I wanted to. But I guess that want ended with me.
“Give it time,” my family says. “It’ll happen.”
I describe my struggles, in great detail, to people who want to hear them, and by accident, to people who don’t. It’s always the same response. All my troubles, fears and worries boiled down into a single, nonchalant, mindless response.