This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
Sharan Dhaliwal’s newly published memoir “Burning my Roti: Breaking Barriers as a Queer Indian Woman” focuses on the “taboo”: sexuality, cultural identity, body hair, colorism, mental health, and Eurocentric beauty standards, just to name a few. Through vivid storytelling, personal anecdotes, and “big sister” advice, Dhaliwal celebrates her identity as a South Asian woman navigating a mostly white world.
The book is not to be confused with Burnt Roti Mag, UK’s leading South Asian culture magazine — which Dhaliwal also founded — which amplifies the voices of South Asian creatives. In “Burning My Roti,” Dhaliwal gets even more personal and honest, talking about her own experiences with racism, body image disorders, and self-loathing growing up. Filled with personal anecdotes, interviews, and informative essays, “Burning My Roti” touches on many specific aspects of growing up as Asian in a largely white community. While it may not have been necessarily fun or easy to write the book, Dhaliwal shared with Mochi Mag that it was a therapeutic process.
“I started writing during lockdown,” she admits. “It was me sitting on my bed, dealing with depression and insomnia and heartbreak, [and] just writing about my trauma.”
From the very first page, Dhaliwal makes it clear that her book is “not a self-help book.” Her goal is not to leave readers feeling grateful or happy and optimistic. She states, “A book that goes, ‘You should do this and try this and then do that’ is not beneficial. It tends to [only] be beneficial for the people with privilege. So most white cis people have that and it’s for them.”
Instead, Dhaliwal’s goal was to write a book that others could relate to: “I wanted to write something that basically outlined all of the stuff I went through, my thoughts and feelings about everything. And also with interviews with loads of other people too, so they can bring in their experiences as well.”
Personal, raw, and honest, “Burning My Roti” is jam-packed with “uncomfortable” conversations.
“The word uncomfortable has been given so many negative connotations by people,” says Dhaliwal. “And that’s just easy. That’s just an easy path or way of living. And because we are governed in a very white supremacist world, we are still under those pressures as people of color or as queer people, trans people. We are still under that kind of umbrella.”
For marginalized folks, Dhaliwal says, “We are really the only ones that will be facing uncomfortable conversations. And if we don’t do it, then basically what we’re doing is allowing ourselves to be aligned with white supremacy. We’re allowing ourselves to sit in a fake comfort.”
With chapters dedicated to battling dueling identities, struggling with feeling feminine, undergoing cosmetic procedures to alter ethnic features, seeking sexual liberation, and coming out, “Burning My Roti” doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable yet crucial conversations — including around Dhaliwal’s own privilege.
The writer acknowledges the privilege she has due to being closer to whiteness than others. As a conventionally attractive woman with relatively lighter skin, she is aware of the preferential treatment she receives in contrast to other POC who don’t fit the Eurocentric mold as much.
“What level of privilege is guiding this decision, this journey, this choice?” she asks. “Proximity to whiteness allows us to conform. This is a big question that doesn’t get asked enough within Asian communities especially.” Her book is an attempt at “dismantling that journey.”
Another aspect of the book that many Asian women can relate to is the never-ending tug of war between two cultures. Dhaliwal explains, “When people talk about dual identity, they go, ‘British Asian,’ ‘British Indian’ or ‘British something,’ and I’m like, stop putting British first. These conversations and conflicts we have with identity are internalized.”
Dhaliwal also notes that femininity and Eurocentric beauty standards are internalized, and how this can make her feel inadequate due to her race, appearance, and identity.
“As a teen, I was seeing these teen magazines and TV shows, and everywhere these faces were white with blue eyes, blonde hair, and otherwise completely hairless,” Dhaliwal explains. “I was looking at what I was supposed to look like and thinking, ‘I cannot achieve that. I could never come close to achieving that.’ How could you not grow up thinking that you are ugly or you don’t belong in the world of beauty?”
It was these beauty standards that influenced Dhaliwal to make as many changes to herself as possible, including removing facial hair and even getting a nose job to meet an impossible standard. “And in the process I lost my identity. Like I no longer was Sharan. I was another person trying to conform,” she recalls.
Having been through a rocky journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with her queerness, Dhaliwal says that she is still figuring out herself every day: “I used to think that I was experimenting because there was so much internalized hate caused by homophobia and heteronormativity. It was in my twenties when I started messing around with women, and I finally wanted to live authentically.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from “Burning My Roti” for other young, queer, and Asian girls is to be relentless, curious, and, frankly, annoying!
“Don’t stop asking questions,” reminds Dhaliwal. “Don’t be afraid to annoy everyone around you, asking why until an answer makes sense to you. I think that’s what this book was for me. Just me being the annoying kid next to you saying why? Why is it like this? and looking for a reason.”
Last modified: June 6, 2022