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Prove Yourself Energy
On the imprints of a childhood in the “third world” between empire and enslavement
Jet lagged, I had been up since 4 am, soaking in all the newness around me.
The feeling of my soft and springy bed, so different from my own hard coir and foam mattress. The sight of wooden walls, nothing like the brick and mortar house I called home.
I watched my window light up from my warm and cozy bed, as dawn broke after a night of snowfall. The immaculate road and sidewalks seemed outlined in white. Nothing like anything I’d seen in my own home town, where the roads were potholed, seldom had sidewalks, and never got to be adorned at the edges by parallel lines of scintillating snow.
This was the first day of my exchange program in a North American school. My first time in the “west.”
In this mystical land of wonder, apparently the student-housing beds were like plush hotel beds, the homes were wooden and warm even in the winter, and the snow lined itself up neatly between the roads, sidewalks and homes.
I had just emerged from a childhood on a diet of Famous Fives and Nancy Drews, Full House and Gilmore Girls, Princess Diaries and Mean Girls, Harry Potter and P G Wodehouse, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. My parents hadn’t heard of these words till I turned up in their life but it didn’t matter because they wanted only the best for me.
The cool kids in my big-city private school threw birthday parties at Pizza Hut and KFC and wore Nike and learned French. The rest of us had home parties, if ever, and wore Indian clothes and studied Indian languages.
My small-town cousins were forced to “improve” their English by only speaking English at home with us. My big-city cousins had all taken their English and emigrated to the “west”. Speaking in English was so well-regarded that it almost seemed shameful to revert to a local tongue in conversation.
“Western” media, “western” consumerism, “western” cool.
So complete was the domination of this brand of western cool that all I saw was that I wasn’t it.
Most western media was all-white peppered only by a brown stereotype (hello Parvati and Padma Patil). Most western food was questionable (the McAloo Tikki slathered in oily-mayo is nobody’s idea of a delicacy). Most of the shoes and clothes were a lot more ugly even if a tad more comfortable (I would never voluntarily wear floaters again in my life). And none of it made sense for my tropical life and aesthetics (hello seasonal foods, locally sourced spices and produce, and extraordinary fabrics and fits).
Still, all I wanted was to be “western” cool.
I wasn’t alone in wanting to be chosen for the “western” world.
The best-off in my high-school class were training for the SATs; they already had their Linkin Park posters and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air references ready. The rest of us were taking extra classes to make it into the most elite tech and management schools in India; we were all hoping to be the next Sundar Pichai or Indra Nooyi.
When I qualified to participate as one of a handful of Indians to international competitions and later, a foreign internship, there was an aura of celebration at home.
Everyone’s dreams had been met.
The kid was on her way to leapfrogging into a better life in the glorious and developed “west.” A better passport, social security and a superior standard of living.
Coming of age with this hankering birthed a life-long frenemy: my Prove Yourself Energy.
This frantic energy to be chosen by the better, more competent, more developed “west” took me to another university degree, a prospective job, and a few work opportunities in Western Europe and North America. With moderate success at being seen in the “west” for being moderately successful in my career, I leaned more into my persona at work to find my worth.
This approach had many benefits - I was aware of the global standards for things, and I was resourceful about hacking my way to meeting them.But its downside was cutting.
Viscerally, my instinct with foreigners was to assume I was unequal to them, until cerebrally, I told myself that I was now making it in my career which meant I could be an equal.
As I got older, I saw more of the “west”, and understood the complex conditions of enslavement and empire that contributed to the third-world privileged-classes’ aspiration for emigration. I’d found Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yaa Gyasi, and the courage to go against the tide of “western” cool to find my own sense of self-worth. I’d found the world of wonders beyond the west, and the worlds in the west that were not wonderful.
The chokehold of the faceless “west” on the neck of my dreams loosened. Yet, my bodymind never fully caught up with these evolved understandings.
I am struck by the ways in which the Prove Yourself Energy resurfaces occasionally, almost as if it were coursing in my veins.
Some days ago, in a conversation with an American friend about connection and the ways we seek validation, I realized that I still hold back in spaces that seem “western” to me.
Conferences abroad for which the visa entails divulging the minutiae of my private life, from bank statements and tax returns to my motivations to return to my home country.
Alumni network emails that keep inviting me to “give back” to my North-American school without awareness of the rupee’s purchasing power, and the dire need for me to be giving back to those in more dire straits closer home.
Online events that are only hosted at times convenient for North America or Europe.
To be clear, none of these are big or unsurmountable hurdles. I’m bold enough to ask for alternatives that work for my context, and privileged enough to brush them off as minor inconveniences rather than major humiliations.
Yet, some unconscious part of me still feels like I am unequal. And it appears that it’s in a tussle with the conscious parts of me that desire and know self-worth as an equal.
In this contorted tangle of emotions and thoughts, I feel like I am less, but I don’t try to be more. I yearn to be chosen, but without trying hard enough to be seen. I long for friendship, but do not invest deeply enough to invite connection. A recipe from hell to be isolating and isolated.
Everyone aspires to grow, be seen, and validated. In some ways, needing to prove our worth is fundamental to the fulfillment and interdependence of human beings. But Prove Yourself Energy is the destructive and debilitative version of that desire.
My way out of this (and other self-worth) hole(s) has been to find honest self-expression through creating.
These essays for instance are authentic and represent my full self — it fills me with satisfaction to be able to say these things out loud. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if essay-writing and global friend-making is just another way to satisfy the yearnings of an omnipresent and omnipotent Prove Yourself Energy from a childhood that was primed for emigration.
Do you relate? Have you experienced Prove Yourself Energy? Do you have other reflections on the life-long mission to build unshakeable self-worth? Or maybe you just want to say hello from wherever you’re reading, because the internet makes that possible today. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank youfor the conversation that inspired this essay,, , and for your feedback with previous drafts, and your love and support always.
This was backwards thinking. I didn’t see others as worthy only if they had the borrowed credibility of their accomplishments, yet it was a worldview I specially reserved only for my self-image.