Arbol Colgando, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

Arbol Colgando, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

We continue our series on the 2017 Gold Medal Portfolio recipients with a writer and an artist who explore their heritage in their works: Zara Batalvi and Rachel Campos. Zara’s poetry and essays discuss how she navigates the world as a Pakistani American while Rachel draws on the Spanish language when creating her ceramic pieces.

Zara Batalvi

Excerpt from “abcd: american-born confused desi”

Personal Essay & Memoir, Grade 12, Age 16, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, VA

In Pakistan, there is a phrase for people like me: ABCD. An American-Born Confused Desi. Usually a slur, the label refers to the children of South-Asian immigrants who have been ethnically ‘confused’ by their clashing Western and Desi upbringing. They speak Urdu, but they pronounce the words wrong. They know the lyrics to every Bollywood song, but they’ve never lived through monsoon season. In my case, however, I’ve come to embrace the idea because, on a raw, primeval level, I am so confused. In a society obsessed with the concrete–identity and definition–I cannot even begin to uncover my roots.

i.

My first experience with that culture clash came in my elementary school years. In the early months of second grade, my father visits my class to give a presentation on Pakistan. The room brims with hushed excitement and antsy seven-year-olds, anxious to be entertained. Among the fidgeting fingers and tapping pencils, though, nobody’s eagerness matches mine. Watching him walk into the classroom, I feel my chest rise into my head, like a buoy bobbing in the waves. I’m surprised my heartbeat doesn’t drift right out of my ears and fill the air.

As he unwraps each foreign object, a roar of chatter erupts through the crowd. Girls giggle as he hangs my shalwar kameez up for all to see–sequins glimmering, reflecting across the windows and whiteboards. He plays music, shows dancing–the room overflows with thrill.

That sounds Egyptian!
Those colors are so pretty!
That’s such a funny outfit!

Finally, he flips his PowerPoint to a slide of a map. With a red laser-pointer, he outlines the borders of Pakistan, playing connect-the dots with the topography that makes our country.

When I was a young boy, he says, we used to joke that on a map, Pakistan looks like a sitting dog.

And suddenly, sonorous laughter.

A dog?!
That’s so silly!
I think it looks more like an old lady!
I see it!
I don’t…wait now I do!

To this day, I am ashamed to admit, but in the midst of all that joy, I felt worthy. Respected. In the eyes of my peers, my culture finally meant something. Even in my own mind, I believed I understood my roots–as if the calls of my ancestors could be found in shimmering satin or Bollywood film.

But after that presentation, Pakistan was just a quaint fairytale to my classmates–like a strange trip down the rabbit-hole or Neverland. The way they gawked and gasped is no different than when men catcall me on the street, call me “exotic,” ask me where I’m from.

No, but where are you actually from?
That sounds Egyptian!
I have such a thing for foreign girls…
That’s such a funny outfit!
You’re so hot for a brown girl.
A dog?! That’s so silly!

My heritage is a commodity, a disposable good.

When those children trace the outline of Pakistan on an atlas, they don’t see a nation. They don’t see a civilization–a community of people.

They see a red laser-pointer outlining an obedient dachshund, kneeling at the feet of its owner. They imagine sequins, Egyptian music–bright colors contrasting against white-walled classrooms.

The worst part is that so did I.

Rachel Campos

Baratijas, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

Baratijas, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

“I started naming my pieces in Spanish because I want my pieces to reflect as much of me in them as possible and most thing just sound better in Spanish,” Rachel writes in her Artist Statement. “When people observe my work I want them to think about my creativity and how everything was put together. I want them to think about the unique qualities that I incorporate with my art work.”

Enmarcado, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

Enmarcado, Ceramics & Glass by Rachel Campos, Grade 12, Age 18, Peru High School, Peru, IN

To see more Gold Medal Portfolio recipients, past and present, visit our Eyes on the Prize series.

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