This is an obvious departure from my normal biology, but it is now, more than ever, important to showcase our diversity and vulnerability through our individual stories. I had been meaning to write a piece about my road to a career in science, so take this as a precursor for a later post.
I went to bed on Tuesday night numb. Pennsylvania and Arizona hadn’t yet been called. There was technically still some hope, but a miraculous turnaround wouldn’t have filled the pit in my stomach. Despite having spent the evening watching the election coverage in a room full of fellow ecologists and of some of my best friends in Indiana, I felt very alone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a competitive person and I hate being on the losing team. But this was different, it was personal. The closeness of the race showed that the country I was born in, that I call home, was attempting to elect a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a climate change denier. As a child of immigrants, as a person of color, as a woman, as a scientist, I felt rejected on the most fundamental level. Whether or not Clinton could win at that point, I was broken.
Like many of my fellow Americans, I slept fitfully that night. Wednesday morning, I saw the BBC and NPR alerts on the lock screen and wept. I was afraid for myself and my family. I could only think about the surge in hate crimes that would accompany this day, and about all the struggles that each of my identities have suffered through to make it in America. I thought about my parents and their journey to Detroit from South India, and wondered if they had any idea the sort of blatant racism they would face there. I thought about my dad at 25. He managed to support both his and my mother’s educations by working as a parking lot monitor, by collecting extra cans to turn in for the recycling money, and by getting a job as a seasonal tax-preparer (and fact-checking Clint Eastwood’s 1988 tax returns!), all while completing a Master’s thesis in artificial intelligence as a mechanical engineer. I thought about my mother’s trials leaving her extensive familial support network in India to become an OB-GYN and family practitioner, as well as the physical tolls that that career path would inflict on her.
Thinking about their struggle to achieve the American Dream makes me cry on a normal day…as does that one episode of Master of None. But it also puts my current Midwest struggles dealing with subtle microaggressions (like my parents in the 80s, I still don’t get served in a timely manner in restaurants) and outright racism (having someone explain why colonialism made Indians so much better than the Chinese) in perspective. Once the initial inspiration fueled tears have passed, I then think about why my parents chose to move to California. My dad was driving my mom to an interview and stopped into Burger King for lunch. The cashier smiled at him while she took his order. That was literally it. My dad decided to raise us in Fairfield, CA, because that was the first place a stranger exhibited a base level of common decency for him as a human being. We would go on to thrive in California, with my mom successfully running a private practice for over 20 years and my dad finally pursuing his lifelong dream – becoming a [walnut] farmer.
Ultimately, they came to the US knowing they would be outsiders and knowing it would be the hardest transition they had ever experienced. They knew that my sister and I would have the greatest opportunity here, that we could do anything. Little did they know that I would be so much like them and how frustrating that would be for them: apparently when you combine my dad’s pragmatism and ambition with my mom’s overwhelming sense of empathy and compassion you get an passionate anthropologically-oriented microbiologist, not a quiet cardiologist.
At this point in my life, at the same age that my parents immigrated to the US, we are very different people. We voted for the same party, but my dad still rolls with the punches much easier. Ever business-minded, he acknowledged the tax breaks as a positive of the new presidency. He understands that things will be bad, but they’ve, honestly, always been pretty bad.
The country was just once again making it clear that it didn’t want us here. The key difference is that I don’t have another country to go back to. I am American, and I’m here to stay, whether it likes it or not. And it’s just a matter of time before we are the collective majority.
Maybe part of him recognizes my anguish and knows it’ll fuel change. I’m going to keep telling myself that, in any case. While the next few days, months, years, will be difficult, I don’t plan on backing down. I won’t hide. I don’t plan on just sitting around and waiting for 2042. I will continue my work on my science, but I will also continue to reach out to anyone and everyone about conservation biology, about climate change, about the inextricable link between social justice and natural resources. I will continue to educate my community at every opportunity.
As I got ready for school, a steady stream of tears would obscure each part of the routine. In an effort to externalize my resolve and passion, I wore my brightest, happiest colored clothing. In a more pragmatic moment, I forewent my normal eye makeup.