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Avani Chhaya Was Bullied In School. Years Later, She's Found Peace With Her Tormentor.

Avani Chhaya was bullied for her Indian heritage when she was in fifth grade. She wrote about it for our Common Ground project.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Avani Chhaya was bullied for her Indian heritage when she was in fifth grade. She wrote about it for our Common Ground project.

Earlier this year, before all of this began, we put out a call for your stories about overcoming differences — true stories about finding common ground.

Working with the Austin Public Library and The Library Foundation, we collected the submissions and helped writers shape their stories into pieces to read for the radio.

Then the pandemic happened — and then the killing of George Floyd, which prompted a massive wave of protest against police violence and institutional racism. Also, a polarizing presidential election.

Amid all that, these stories took on a new meaning. Suddenly, the need for finding common ground felt even stronger.

So this week, we’re going to start hearing the stories written by 16 people in Austin about their experience bridging differences with someone else. We’ll hear one of these stories each week. We begin with Avani Chhaya, who writes about the bullying she faced in grade school — and how she ultimately came to understand her bully.

Read Avani Chhaya's story below:  

We were standing in a triangle configuration in our 5th grade classroom. You were so much taller than all of the other kids in class, towering and leering over the rest of us. You called me a shrimp back then.

You faced my classmate, the only other Indian girl besides me. “What’s that dot on your forehead?” you said, with so much malice seeping into every syllable. 

Tears sprang to her eyes. Her cheeks became flushed. And stuttered responses bounced on the tiled floor. I stayed silent. How could I explain the cultural beauty of the chandlo? How was I supposed to know that chandlos, also called bindis, would become culturally appropriated by Western culture? It feels like an ironic and symbolic moment in my life, between you and I. 

But I stayed silent – out of shame, out of difficulty in advocating for ourselves, out of cowardice that I would become your next target. I will forever regret my silence in that moment. 

This was my first encounter with a racial microaggression before I had the words to even call it that. This was the first microaggression but hardly the last. I’ve been called an inverse coconut, white on the outside and brown on the inside. I’ve been asked, “What are you?" as if I’m anything other than human, other than flesh and blood. I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” promptly followed up by “Where are you really from?” as if my sense of belonging was called into question. How was I to know then that a person of color would always feel like a second-class citizen in her own country? My scars, you would have called them. 

Despite my attempts to become invisible, you nevertheless became my bully. Calling me names around hallways. Circling around me in front of the school doors, just out of the teachers’ eyeline, between you and I.

There were name-calling and taunts. But that microaggression came to define fifth grade for me. Even twenty years later, I can close my eyes and be fully transported to that place of shame and cowardice within that triangle of classmates. I often wondered what caused you to act that way. 

On an ordinary afternoon, later in the school year, we stumbled upon your back door, singing carols in our neighborhood. I tried to shrink behind the other girls. And I remember you standing there, next to your aunt. The overhead light in the living room was on, casting a yellow glow throughout the house. You looked small then. In the dim glimmer of yellow light, you weren’t a towering bully. You were beautifully human. Kindness brought you back. 

We had more in common, you and I. We came from the same neighborhood, from the same brick townhouses. We came from the same socio-economic level. We both identified as people of color. 

Despite our differences – the bully and the victim, the tower and the shrimp – both of us yearned for acceptance and to be unconditionally loved, you and I. 

I came to realize that you picked on others because you were broken too, and you wanted to see scars that matched your own.

I chastise myself for not raising my voice in that moment, for being too afraid. But I’m not afraid anymore. I fill classrooms with my voice these days. Can you believe it? I slash through present-day microaggressions with a ferocity that you could only imagine. You wouldn’t dare call me a shrimp if you saw me now. 

I wonder if we would be friends, if we bumped into each other on the street today, you and I.

I would ask if life has been kind to you and if your scars, like mine, are healing after all. 

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.