Fall 2017: “Standing Up for Our Neighbors” High School Winner Adithi Ramakrishnan

Read Adithi's essay, "Escaping the 'Other' Side," about embracing both her Indian and American roots—and how to get beyond unfriendly stares in public.

Adithi Ramakrishnan, a twelfth grade student of Mary Beth Kochman at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “What Japanese Internment Taught Us About Standing Up for Our Neighbors,” by Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz.  

Tracy is part of the Japanese American community on Bainbridge Island, Washington—the first community in the nation to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps during World War II. In this story, she reflects on the meaning of the Japanese saying, nidoto nai yoni: “Let it not happen again,” and wonders what communities might do differently today to protect the civil liberties of our vulnerable neighbors.

Writing Prompt: Think about someone in your school or community who is vulnerable and may need protection or support. This person may be a neighbor or a classmate—it may even be you. Are you willing and brave enough to stand up against injustice? Describe what you would do, and how your actions might make a difference.

Escaping the “Other” Side

On a cold Friday evening, my family stumbled into a local Italian restaurant. Sandwiched between my grandparents, I squeezed their hands tightly as we piled into a narrow booth. Their visit from India was drawing to a close, but I intended to make the most of every last minute. We passed laminated menus to each other and began laughing, talking, and deliberating. I  tugged at the chunni of my grandmother’s traditional Indian salwar kameez and pointed out my personal favorites to her in our native language. Then, something at the table beside us caught my eye. I glanced over.

I quickly turned away. Maybe I’d misunderstood.

Then, I snuck a second, more apprehensive look. My stomach lurched.

An elderly white couple was dining at the table next to ours. The wife’s eyes were fixed on her menu, but her husband’s were fixed on us. His eyebrows curved downwards in a cold, steely glare.  I looked away again, a worm of doubt squirming in my chest. But every time my gaze wandered, it met his icy stare, and my insides turned over.

For the rest of the evening, I switched to English.

That chilly night at Lucia’s, I felt something I’d experienced only in doses before: the feeling of being the other. I don’t fit into an easily categorized box. I’m still trying to navigate the narrow path between Indian and American, and I’m the furthest thing from an old white male. Just because I’m not the model portrait of a 1950s American doesn’t mean I can’t repaint that image in the 21st century.

“Standing up against injustice” is a broad statement, but represents something very specific: inclusion and acceptance. We have to stop sorting people into the “other” category—we not only have to recognize the humanity in each other, but we also have to be willing to fight for it.  It’s a simple change in perspective that can have immediate implications. Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz refers to it in her article, “What Japanese Internment Taught Us About Standing Up for Our Neighbors,” as an appeal to raise our voices in support of those that need it most—not merely to show support, but also to protest unfair treatment.

But what about me? What happens when I’m the target of raised eyebrows and consistent “random” searches at the airport, while white passengers walk by unnoticed?

It has taken me time to define my version of protesting injustice, and I will likely reshape my definition in the future. But For now, dissension means living my culture as boldly and loudly as possible. It means stringing lights through the shrubbery outside our house and lighting sparklers to illuminate our cul-de-sac on Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. It means getting up thirty minutes early to pin my dupatta and come to school in my brightest, most vibrant traditional clothing for International Day. It means making quips to my family in Tamil when we’re in public. To me, standing up for my culture is normalizing diversity while letting my Indian and American roots shine.

Loeffelholz says that “public opinion affects political will, and political will makes a difference.” I wholeheartedly agree. If we as Americans present a united front—one that includes people of all races, genders, and sexualities—labeling each other not as other but as together, it becomes much harder to tear us apart. The next time I catch an unfriendly stare in a public place, I won’t turn away.

I’ll start a conversation—not with “How could you?,” but “How are you?”

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