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Racial Awareness at CHS

Ishan Sharma

Caroline Gee

Ishan Sharma Senior - Served on ASB for four years; Participated in varsity soccer and varsity football

Ishan Sharma

Senior - Served on ASB for four years; Participated in varsity soccer and varsity football

Q: What ethnicity are you?

A: I am Indian. My mom is from this bustling city called Goribor that’s in North India, and my dad is from a very poor village in India. It’s a bit below the poverty line; they live in mud huts. It’s called Kolhukhor.

Q: Did you notice racial issues as a child?

A: Yes, definitely. I actually had a very big identity crisis when I was growing up. I went to De Vargas, and then I went to Portal for a bit where there were a lot more Indians and Asians, while at De Vargas there were not as many. Then I went to Hyde Middle School and it wasn’t just Indians and Asian, but a huge mix of races. I did not want to befriend a lot of Indian friends when I went into middle school because it was my perception when I was growing up that, “Indians smell like curry and they are really nerdy and immature.” That’s the perception I was drowned out with when I was going into middle school, and so I really didn’t have a lot of Indian friends in middle school. I did a lot of non-Indian things, and I didn’t even follow my culture line. I didn’t like Bollywood movies that much, and I ate beef even though my parents didn't want me to. I wanted to be “white” and “american.” So that was middle school, and I think one of the moments that a lot of asian kids have is a “lunchbox” moment.  Like in elementary school, you bring whatever ethnic food you have, like curry for example. I remembered one of the first times I brought it to school - I would open it and then some people would say, “Ew, what is that, why is it so stinky, it smells so bad.” There’s nothing like “Hey, don’t bring your own ethnic food to school because it’s looked down upon. It’s not within the lines of the norm.” So I had a lot of those “lunchbox” moments, not just for lunch but for other things growing up in elementary and middle school.

Q: Is this why you tried to stray away from Indian stereotypes?

A: Exactly, yeah. I was trying to escape those Indian stereotypes.

Q: Has this still happened in high school?

A: Yeah, I think high school is where the tide turned and I started looking at my identity.  There was the cultural-kind of race that I was trying to avoid in middle school and elementary school, but when I came to high school, especially a high school like Cupertino High School where there’s a lot of Indians and Asians, the culture I was trying to avoid crashed on me like a tidal wave. You have people where going to Desi clubs (Indian dance clubs) or the Bollywood festival that’s a regular way to hang out. It was a really sudden shift in track with all these Lawson people and in my freshman and sophomore year, that’s when I thought, “Oh crud, is it cool to be Indian or is it cool to not be Indian? Should I be proud?” I didn’t know what to do. I think what really helped me see that my Indian race is something to be proud of is that I joined a Civic Engagement Group in my freshman year, and then I started learning more about Civics and the impact Asian-Americans have had in the American landscape and how there are a lot of Asian elected officials in the local area helping out a lot of people. Then I started finding out that being an Indian or an Asian-American is something that you should really be proud of.

For example, my junior year, I started interning for the congressman, Mike Honda. He has a very inspiring story - he grew up in a Japanese internment camp and he was a schoolteacher, and that’s why he wanted to go back to public service to make sure that stuff like that doesn’t happen again. In Congressman Honda’s office, I would help constituents in case work. It’s basically people, like my dad or mom forty years ago, trying to come to the US and having to go through these federal organizations like the National Visa service to get their green cards to come over. I would help immigrants and guide them through these federal bureaucracies. It was inspiring to see how a lot of them were coming over for education or tech, and how I was making a small difference in their journey. That was a really cool thing to see from a firsthand perspective. There’s a lot of Asian-Americans, and they’re coming here and they’re trying to help our community.

Q: So this opened up your mind to accepting that it is okay to be different?

A: Exactly. Now going into senior year, I can’t reverse whatever I had going on in elementary or middle school. I would say that people now think that I’m pretty white-washed, but I am trying to go back and touch back with my roots. I’ve started asking my parents more important questions, such as, “Hey, Mom and Dad, how did you get over here to America?” My dad grew up in poverty, so he would tell me how he only had electricity a few hours a day, and he didn’t really get shoes until high school, but he would walk to school and walk back. He came to America on an education scholarship or an education visa. That’s how they came to America, by climbing that ladder.

Q: Do you think that other students at this school are ashamed of their race?

A: I would say there are instances like those lunchbox moments, where my Indian friends or Asian friends, not necessarily Indian although I see it more with my Indian friends, where they don’t want to be classified as an Indian guy in a social setting where there are a lot of white people, or they are trying to fit in. So I think that yes, there are definitely small instances of people being ashamed of their race going on right now. But I think that it definitely has become better in the past few years. And the Bay Area is very diverse, so I think it’s less of a problem over here and in this school. But it has definitely gotten better from my time when I was growing up in elementary and middle school. 

Q: Has anyone ever come up to you and said something racially offensive?

A: Yeah, I mean I take everything that people say with a grain of salt, like if they ever say, “Hey, you smell like curry.” So yes, there are a lot of instances where people have come up to me and said something racially offensive, but I do not take much offense to it because most of my friends don’t say it with harm. But I think that some people may argue that it’s not good to say this racial stuff even as a joke because it helps to perpetuate stereotypes. For me personally, I don’t take it that hard.

Q: Do you think that this is not a big issue at our school then?

A: Well I don’t think that it’s not an issue, I definitely think that it’s something we have to work on. But I think that it is less of an extreme issue at this school. I think it’s more of less harmful stereotypes, like small jokes going around, but I haven’t seen anyone in my experience getting bullied just for being Indian at Cupertino High School.

Q: How do you think that we can get past these “less-harmful” stereotypes?

A: I think that a lot of the student activities we are doing right now are putting our school in the right direction. For example, we have Multicultural Week, and basically, it’s a week where we all celebrate diversity. You see these Indian clubs performing dances and we’re seeing Filipino students doing a stick dance where they clap sticks together and jump, and that stuff is really cool. I think that showing more of why we are prideful to be the certain ethnicity we are - instead of like in my middle school and elementary school where I shied away from it - and expose it more, I think that it will help a lot in combating these stereotypes. But I think that the students are going in the right direction and the teachers are helping them go in the right direction.

Q: Do you think that parents play a big role in it as well?

A: Yeah, I do think that parents are valuable in the sense that they can help educate their children and they can be pillars of where they came from. My parents are first generation immigrants, so they’re directly connected to India because they were born and grew up there. I think that parents can help a lot in saying, “Hey, this is where we grew up from and it’s important to recognize your roots in your ethnic country so that you can sprout up in America.”