Traveling the World with Sandhya Ramaswamy

Updated: Sep 22, 2020


Happy sobs, laughter, a hug that could have lasted a lifetime, in the arms of one of my best friends in the world. Sandhya scoops up my backpack, as we goofily scream “we’re on vacation!”. We walk through the Bethnal Green Station to her flat as rain drizzles from the sky, but we continue, arm-in-arm, immediately planning every detail of our first trip together as adult women. GAHANNA, OHIO, 2005

I was looking down at my humungous uniform khaki shorts and dirty bucks that my mom forced me to wear— unfortunate hand-me-downs from my older brother— so I could pretend to not see Sandhya. I sat with my best (and only) friend Caroline, while we swayed in unison on a tire swing, objectively being assholes.  Braces and two braids in her hair, Sandhya was adorable and smart, and new to school. I guess a strange combination of all of these things was what kept my head down. I was scared of what befriending a new kid would say about me. I never deserved her friendship. And if I’d stayed in my close-minded, jerk, middle-school thought process, I would have made a huge mistake. Sandhya’s resilience to sit on that tire swing with us eventually worked, and the three of us were fast friends. It was like Sandhya could see into the future to that rainy London day, the nights we’d do our makeup together for dances, or the moments in the coming years we’d lean on each other. She just knew somehow. She slid onto the tire swing and said, there’s room for me here. 

Over the course of our education, Sandhya and I both struggled with frustrating issues like wanting to be liked, popularity, boys, and academic stress. As in any trope-y Highschool movie, it felt necessary to define ourselves— to give whatever character you played a title: Art Nerd. Field Hockey Captain. Stoner. Jazz Band Kid. A closeted performer for years, I never played the sweet, ingenue female lead, so I figured that meant I could never be an actress. That was for the leads. Instead, I walked around cracking jokes and poking fun at myself. I had somehow morphed into a class clown, despite also being a good athlete, artist, Camerata soprano, and editor of the Yearbook. Sandhya has always been funny and self-deprecating. She was an athlete, a member of Latin club, an actress, an A-student, and a competitive dancer. She was a star. But sometimes it felt like all anyone saw were her good grades. HACKNEY, LONDON, 2019

And as we walk down a Hackney street, full of local shops, diversity, we encounter a gorgeous, hipster coffee shop called Hackney Coffee Company. It’s one of Sandhya’s favorites. It's amazing. Gorgeous stone walls give it a gothic feel, but as you continue through, there’s a bright, gorgeous atrium with an intricate artistic creations made of feathers and plants, hanging from the wall. The coffee is delicious and over-priced. Sandhya smiles as we snack on fresh croissants. “It’s tough to like this place... you know, because gentrification. It’s a complicated issue,” she retorts, and it spurns a discussion about IDENTITY.

The history of East London is one stricken with poverty and strife. Whitechapel in the late 1800s was so dangerous, police left it alone. Bethnal Green, Stratford, and Leytonstone were ignored. Immigrants and people of color, cast out by society, often settled in these neighborhoods and were given almost no social support. Now, many of these areas are thriving, and still diverse, and Sandhya explains“this place feels browner than India.” The streets are dotted with markets, shopping, delicious restaurants, coffee shops, and the University where Sandhya is studying.  After a day of touring, we finally get into the coveted Dishoom in Covent Garden, an amazing Indian restaurant. Starving, we melt, as hot cheese naan is placed in front of us. We dig in. “This isn’t like traditional Indian, for the record,” Sandhya explains with mischievous eyes. “It’s more of a fusion place... but it’s delicious.” I appreciate her desire to explain this and define what authenticity means to her. She grew up in a house that consistently smelled of her mother’s traditional South Indian cooking. But like Hackney Coffee Company, there is room in Sandhya's busy London life for a little fusion.  A few days later, we are running to the bus with our carry-ons, en route to Barcelona. Days of exploring, dancing the night away in El Born, reveling at the astounding views overlooking the water, lying on the beach on a chilly day, and getting lost on winding streets...we officially fell in love with Barca, but again, were confronted with the idea of IDENTITY.  If you speak Spanish instead of Catalan to most waiters, shopkeepers, or locals, you will be met with a frustrated reaction. I finally asked a very generous barista for her perspective. She said that there is a deep unrest between the Catalan people, who don’t identify as Spanish. Catalonia was colonized by the Spanish in 1652 and though the Catalan culture is still prevalent in Barcelona, the desire for more of an expression of that culture can be felt by even the most ignorant tourist.

Doors of El Born, Barcelona

Shockingly enough, the very day after we left, the Catalan people marched into the streets and called for their Independence. Baffled and safely back in the States, I was both moved by the steps Barcelona took to establish and protect their own identity. I’m lucky to live in Los Angeles where independence and redefining oneself feel intrinsic to the zeitgeist. I had to work hard to allow myself to embrace all of the layers of my identity. I’ve come a long way since middle school. However, school presents a particular issue regarding identity that I never had to deal with. Sandhya is South Indian and we went to a white-washed school in the middle of Ohio. There were only a few other Asian students, and there was certainly an assumption made, that those kids all got good grades. We recounted those years over a bottle of wine, one rainy night in Whitechapel.  “I’m not going to play myself a tiny violin here,” she retorted sipping on a glass of Merlot. "I’m aware that being ‘good at math’ and having ‘parents who just want me to be a doctor’ is not, by a far cry, the worst racial stereotype one can face. And as a South Asian, I did and still do possess racial privilege that more systematically marginalized racial communities lack.” I was impressed by her ability to see all sides and to make this clarification. It was a distinction I hadn’t thought out fully. “That being said, the perpetuation of such stereotypes is still harmful, both to the communities they’re boxing into this theoretical identity, and to other minority groups which they box out. And for me, personally, being viewed in this one-dimensional fashion, rather than the multifaceted, complex person I saw myself as, took its toll.”  Walking through Whitechapel arm-in-arm that night, the conversation continued and suddenly the memories flooded back. “Hearing the (unrequested, mind you) statement that ‘I’m just not attracted to Indian girls,’ was a tough and confusing pill to swallow. I began to deeply doubt my abilities and my beauty, and this lasted throughout my high school experience. I only felt truly known by a few people there.”  Sandhya has been accepted to a Manhattan firm, where she will work after graduation. She attended Wash U, then UT and assimilated to both cities, despite their differences. She remains strong and supportive to her parents, even through the toughest of times. She is devoted to being creative. She is a loving person with healthy relationships. She’d never let anyone make her feel less than. She’s social, hilarious, and cares deeply about the world. She has faced overt racism. She has fought against limited thinking and developed herself despite those limited views. 

Sandhya's parents emigrated from South India

She has established her IDENTITY and shown the world that she’s more than good grades. Just like on that tire swing that day in middle school, Sandhya will fight to be seen in exactly the way she wants. After my trip, I started thinking a lot about what I can learn from my friend, and what I should have been learning from her all along. I am personally plagued by the madonna/whore complex. I have difficulty explaining my job to the average person because society has specific parameters with which we describe success. Social media and magazines have me convinced to change my hair color just about every day.  But maybe the beauty is that we can control our identity, despite the limits of our surroundings. And deciding who we are in this world, what kind of coffee we’re going to brew, what language we’re going to speak, or whom in life we call friends, is our gift to the world. Maybe despite the fact that terrible people will try and rob us of our identities throughout life, it’s our job to look them back in the eye and simply say, there’s room for me here.

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