Girl Seeks Sense Of Self Of Indian And Malaysian Descent, She Copes With Her New Life In America
Trying to appear collected, Sheeva, 15, anxiously waits in the gym of Douglas Freeman High School, where she is surrounded by a dozen mostly long-limbed girls also trying out for the junior varsity basketball team.
It's a sport Sheeva has loved since long before she arrived in America. She played often in physical education classes during her boarding school years in Panchghani, India. It's a game she always associated with America. Being part of the team in her new homeland would help her feel like she belongs.
But already Sheeva feels out of place. She forgot her shorts during the first day of tryouts and had to wear her green and yellow gym suit. Today, she had trouble dribbling. While passing, she felt confused.
The next day, her coach pulled her aside, told her she had skills but little experience and that she had failed to make the team. Devastation swallowed her lithe frame. She wept at home for more than an hour.
"Once again, I didn't feel like I fit in," recalled the 15-year-old who moved to Virginia two years ago after her mother remarried. "I feel like that practically all the time," Sheeva said softly on a blustery afternoon last month.
Finding one's sense of self as a teen-ager usually is a challenge. Add to that being a young woman of Indian and Malaysian descent while living in a nontraditional family in a new country, and the teen-age angst soars.
Nargis Harris, Sheeva's mother, is Indian. Her father, Jim Harris, who adopted Sheeva last month, is white. And so is his 11-year-old daughter, Rayna, by a previous marriage.
Not that race matters to Sheeva, a studious girl with a shy smile.
She has been influenced by family and religious beliefs that embrace people and their differences. But the world repeatedly hasn't been.
For Sheeva, wanting to belong and doing what it takes are divergent roads she chooses not to travel.
As a person with a foot in many worlds, but no anchor in one, Sheeva empathizes with the alienated.
FIRST AMERICAN SCHOOL PREDOMINANTLY BLACK
Sheeva's first American school was Richmond's Albert Hill Middle School, which is predominantly black.
"They didn't hate me because I was dark. But there were five or six white girls . . . who were ignored," she recalled.
Still, she felt racial pressure.
"I didn't want to join the black kids. Then I'd have to hate the white people, and I can't do that because my sister and dad are white, and I really love them. I couldn't join the whites because I'm dark and my mom is dark."
Sheeva enjoys her western Henrico County high school's diversity, where students from 14 countries are enrolled. But she finds it hard to fit in with one circle of students over the other, who are divided by prejudices based on money, popularity, race or looks.
"If I don't have a particular group, no one talks about me and I don't have to talk about anyone. I don't have to follow specific rules. I don't have to go to specific parties. I won't be marked as `This is who Sheeva is.' I can just be me. I have the freedom to do what I want to do."
So she smiles and says hello as she makes her way to her college preparatory classes, rarely interacting on a deep level with her peers.
"I'm not the geek or the homecoming queen. I'm a mysterious person," Sheeva said. "They don't know what to think of me. In a way, I like that. But in a way it's scary.
"I don't have a particular group, and no one can judge me on that. They don't know which category to put me in; so they put me in the quiet group, and they don't know what to do with me."
Not feeling connected sometimes robs the bounce from Sheeva's step and the glimmer from her chocolate eyes.
"There's no warm and cozy friendship feeling when I go to school," she said. "No matter how much people say, `Hi,' I'm not special. Sometimes I'm like thin air in school."
FEELS DAY IS WASTED IF SHE HASN'T STUDIED
On Friday nights when most teen-agers hang out with friends at each other's homes or at parties or the movies, Sheeva likely will be studying passages in thick textbooks to help turn her few B's into A's. She feels a day is wasted if she hasn't studied for hours. Even on weekends and during the summer.
Part of Sheeva's academic drive stems from her mother, a no-nonsense woman who doesn't want Sheeva to copy her mistake of marrying young.
Sheeva would like to become a medicine specialist so she can find the cures for diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes. She studies hard with the hope of getting accepted by a prestigious university.
Her mother believes that dating and boyfriends are nothing but distractions. Her father is a bit more flexible.
Sheeva thinks about going to the movies and other places with a male friend, but she "doesn't want to give my mother a heartache."
Teen-age dating is a staple of American culture. Not so in India.
The only parties she attends are held by Indians, usually in their homes.
She tries to focus on the positives of not having an active social life. Her classmates aren't mean to her. They don't poke into her business.
And the sting of rejection is kept at bay.
"Since I'm not Ms. Popularity . . . I don't have to hear, `You can't come with us,' or `You're not cool,' or worry about them coming to my house and saying, `You're poor.' It would be harder for me, since I didn't grow up in this country."
Sheeva has several good friends, including another teen-ager who, like her, left India to make a new life in America.
Sushmita Sharma, 17, says the two "consistently help each other if we have problems." They often discuss the tugs they feel between American and Indian cultures.
The two relax by watching Indian movies in Sheeva's tidy ranch home, listening to instrumental music from around the world while eating Indian snacks of somosas, fried pastries stuffed with potatoes and spices, and bhelpuri, spicy potato chips topped with chutney.
An avid and talented dancer, Sheeva performs traditional or folk Indian dancing with other Indian girls around the Richmond area. But even within this community of Indians, she feels out of place.
"I'm the only one who doesn't have a strong Indian accent when I speak English. And I don't speak Hindi. So no matter how hard I try, I don't fit in there, either." Her native language is Bengali.
Her parents' interracial marriage also is rare among the area's Indian community. So is the family's Bahai faith, as most Indians in the area are Hindu.
Her Bahai faith honors all religions, calls for the elimination of prejudices and emphasizes the unity of man. The Bahai faith has about 5 million adherents worldwide and an estimated 2,200 in Virginia.
Sheeva attended a private, Bahai boarding school in India where she had a diverse group of like-minded friends. At Freeman, curious classmates inquire about her faith.
"I tell them we believe in the oneness of God, the oneness of religion. "But when blank stares meet her eyes, "My voice starts trailing off.
"They don't really get it. Whenever I try to explain it, I see this confused look on their faces. Once I get into it, they walk away."
Two years ago, Sheeva's life was unfamiliar. She was a teen-ager in a new land with a new dad, new home and new school.
Today, she's struggling to create her own identity while laying a path to a future she hopes is a better one for mankind.
Sheeva's dream of unity in diversity is increasingly shared by her peers around the globe.
She is optimistic that her generation will usher in a day when people, regardless of their roots, will be able to flourish.
It is in this world, with both feet planted, that Sheeva will feel at home at last.
©Copyright 2001, Richmond Times-Dispatch