Shame is a common feeling that a South Asian woman like me experiences over and over throughout our lifetime. Since my birth, this emotion has held on to me like a light scar that never fades. I’ve shaken it off a few times like a wet dog, but somehow it creeps back into my life. I’ve dealt with a fair share of shame in my 31 years and those memories still haunt how I behave today. For me, the first experiences of shame that I remember started when I moved to America at the age of 7.
I never noticed a difference in livelihoods in Nepal amongst my family. To be fair, I was very young then and that time most of the family members I knew lived in intergenerational households. It was very common to have different family members in one household and it’s still common today. I remember we lived in my dad’s aunt and uncle’s house on the first floor. We had one room, a kitchen, and a shared bathroom. The rest of the family lived upstairs. The Gaushala neighborhood of Kathmandu housed many of my relatives, all of us living side by side.
My dad moved to America when I was around 5 years old to get a Master Degree, my mother, brother, and I joined him a few years later. Luckily, she had relatives around her to help raise us. When my dad was abroad, we were building a house only a few doors down from where we were living. However, we moved before we ever had the chance to make that house a home.
From 2nd grade to 9th grade, I lived in various rentals around Iowa. We moved from one apartment to another, some section 8, some not. During 5th grade, or was it 6th grade, one of our class projects was to draw a picture of where we lived. If I recall correctly, it was to draw the door to our home. This brought a lot of shame for me because I was one of the few kids in my class who lived in an apartment building. At this time, we lived in university housing and only had 2 bedrooms. We didn’t have our own backyard. Almost all of my friends lived in houses that their parents owned. Their homes were big, had basements for sleepovers, backyards for trampolines, and bedrooms for everyone in their family. As a pre-teen, I was sharing a room with my brother and that did not feel good. I really hesitated with that assignment because only a few of my friends knew where I lived, I didn’t want the whole class to know too. I was already embarrassed and I rarely had my friends over to my place, I celebrated just one birthday there with a group. Even before hitting my teens I was very self-conscious of how others perceived me. The clothes we wore were not from the brands my friends wore. We mostly did our shopping at Wal-Mart. My Nepali parents never bought used clothing because that’s a cultural taboo but the clothes I wore weren’t stylish or cool. We had to beg them to get us brand name shoes, not just shoes from Payless. I really noticed what I lacked and it made me feel insufficient. One time a good friend told me that she liked everything about me but the clothes I wore.
We moved to a 3 bedroom apartment in junior high, it was section 8 housing. Sure, there were other kids that lived there that were my age but secretly I didn’t want to be associated with them because we were all immigrants, we were all people of color, none of our parents had professional jobs, all our parents had different cultures, and our foods had pungent smells. Our apartment was fine, it was big, it was spacious. I finally had my own room again but I still didn’t willingly tell people where I lived. High school started and unfortunately, this apartment complex happened to be right next to it. It took 5 minutes to walk to there. I would try to find different routes to get home so no one would know where I lived. It’s hard to keep something like that a secret because one could always look you up in the yellow pages. I didn’t want to look poor amongst my peers. I stopped eating school lunch in junior high because we were eligible for free lunch. While it was not obvious who paid full price for lunch and who didn’t, I always thought that someone would find out that my family was on the free lunch program.
The summer after 9th grade, my parents bought our home. It was still being built when they bought it and it was nice. It was a 4 bedroom, 3 bath home with a backyard and 2 patios and a basement. Our driveway housed 2 cars. I was still ashamed because it was not a single standing building. My family had moved up and bought a home and yet I still felt that it was not enough because it was a duplex. One time a friend who dropped me off said that my house was really nice, must be expensive. That made me feel good because he suggested that my family was doing well. But what he didn’t know was that it took many years for my family to acquire that piece of property and be comfortable. The thing is, my parents never made me feel poor. We had delicious home cooked meals almost every night, they took us on trips by driving to various states, we even went on international family trips every few years. I never noticed any shame on their faces for financial circumstances in our early years because they just thought it part of the process of being established, to make it in America.
Years later in college, I ran into someone I knew when I first moved to Iowa, now a grown white man who knew I had lived in a low-income housing complex. During my first 3 years here, we lived in a small town of 9,000 and my family definitely stood out. My brother and I were one of the few children of color, one of the few who was immigrants and had to take ESL classes. A few kids made fun of my skin color. One of the first questions he asked me after not seeing me for more than a decade as if my parents bought a home or were my family still living in apartment buildings. This question kind of took me by surprise because it was a very awkward conversation starter. Not the kind of questions most college students begins a conversation with. Why did he need to ask this question, did he still think that we were poor? Secretly, did he still want me to be poor? He followed up with more questions about my housing and I was really embarrassed. All that shame I had about my apartment living childhood came back to me. I felt a rush of warmth surface on my face. He made me feel really small that night.
Shame isn’t a frequent emotion that I experience these days and it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. I am an educated woman living and working in one of the most expensive cities in America. My hard work paid off and I am able to not worry about money, even though I do it all the time. My mantra is to be as frugal as possible. My money anxiety comes from that time in my life where I was ashamed of where I lived, ashamed that my parents didn’t have professional jobs even though they had college degrees. To this day, my goal is to own my own home. If I weren’t living in the Bay Area, I would have enough savings to buy a small house elsewhere. My husband who grew up upper middle class and always lived in beautiful large homes isn’t in a rush to own a house. He doesn’t necessarily see why we have to have our own something. Sometimes this issue creates tension between us; sometimes I feel like he doesn’t understand why I want to have my own home so badly. Truthfully, I just don’t my future children to grow up feeling inadequate like I did.