Being Ready to Accept Yourself (and a soft relaunch!) 🕊
Tackling some casual topics today like self-acceptance, existential readiness, and Tamil music. Plus, a few announcements!
Only Child is a free Monday newsletter. I’ve just set up a Patreon (more below), so consider supporting it financially if you love it! I’d like to avoid ads and sponsors, and I encourage people to support creators they like. Thanks y’all! 🤠
We have gone monetaryyyyy! I’ve set up a Patreon for this newsletter! If you feel obliged to donate, you can go ahead and subscribe to the general support tier. I’d greatly appreciate it—no pressure if not!
Advice column! If any questions are swirling around in your head, feel free to share them here. Once I’ve collected a few responses, I’ll submit answers in a special post!
Graphics & Production Value! I’m working with some friends to upgrade some of the ~visuals~ of this newsletter. We’re gonna come up with a banner, an update logo, and perhaps more in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes PEELED.
Next week, I’ll have a collab post with my friend and fellow writer Aparna Sridaran about expectations for friendships in the digital age—something we’ve probably each negotiated with during the pandemic. You don’t wanna misssss ittttt.
Some Thoughts on Readiness
I had a Deep Realization the other day: I’m ready to be myself. I was probably lying in bed or showering or something, thinking of some dangerous fictional scenario and wondering how I’d respond. I concluded that I wouldn’t respond heroically; I’d probably run away or freeze in place or something. I realized that I might not always be a brave person. Following this conclusion came a sense of calm and acceptance that I’m unfamiliar with. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I had a good day. Usually, I’m harsh with myself, judging my behavior (or predictions of it) by needlessly high moral standards (i.e. “you should be brave, goddammit!”). This feeling now, though, of figuring myself out, hypothetically or not, and accepting that with a sense of humor, has flipped a switch in my mind.
Only recently have I felt “ready” for certain milestones: to date again, to publish my writing, to upgrade this newsletter, to be myself around strangers, and to accept who I am, flaws and all. Sometimes, readiness feels like an excuse, a need for circumstances to align perfectly before you take action—“I’m not ready” becomes the motto of the procrastinator. But I think that’s actually another quality entirely, something in the realm of self-doubt and perfectionism. Readiness is more internal. It’s about understanding something without judgment, about accepting a particular truth so you can move forward. I’ve been thinking about readiness as a doorway to your own fate, where certain things will always happen even if we try our hardest to avoid them, to be like other people.
On one of my many high school afternoons spent playing video games, my mom watched me, curious. You’re so good with these buttons, she said. For years, she’d tell me this, especially when I started working in software and helped her troubleshoot her computer problems. You’ve always liked pushing buttons and seeing what happens, she told me. When you were a kid, you used to play with this toy where if you pulled the lever, it’d play a random animal sound. I nod, not because I actually remember, but because it sounds like something I’d do. You’d pull the lever, she said, and then a cow would go “mooooo” and then you’d giggle and pull it again.
Parents know you. Good ones know who you are, what you like, what your values are. Mine aren’t surprised that I do this newsletter. When I was a toddler, they watched me scribble on the Magna-Doodle, a sort of huge Etch-A-Sketch that you can write on with a stylus, every day. If I were to picture my life as a vision quest, my transfixion with this toy would be the seedling for the various writing projects I now pursue.
We almost don’t have a choice in what we do, I think. We don’t get to choose what we do because we don’t get to choose what we want. Choice feels like something we’re owed, but it’s not the case. The truth is, wants emerge on their own like trees in bloom, growing with us unseen, until we’ve plucked all of their fruit. Sometimes, our desires seem like weeds, ugly and invasive, and we try to reject them out of fear or shame or embarrassment, but it takes time to realize that’s just how our gardens are supposed to be, even if no one else’s look the same.
An innocent example of our lack of choice to grease the wheels: musical tastes. I used to be pretentious about music, spitting on songs that didn’t receive critical acclaim. But if I’m honest with myself, I love some trash songs (some of it, at least). And many times, I like generic pop music. I like Ariana Grande. I love Doja Cat. I’ll break it down to Drake. Before, I’d resist. If I heard something I enjoyed but shouldn’t have, I’d come up against an intellectual wall. This song is so repetitive! The lyrics don’t mean anything! Reviewers hate it! My superego goes on a rampage and shuts the rest of me out. It’s a dishonest rejection.
And the inverse is true, too. Have you ever really wanted to like something, but you just don’t? Everyone else loves this artist, this song, this book, this painting, but to you it’s just garbage? But you want to be a part of a group, a collective, so you nod your head along and smile, trying your hardest not to zone out at the concert you’re at? Trying to ignore the soreness of your lower back? Squinting to remember the lyrics to a song you heard once at a party?
In our fortunate, privileged world, our identity largely comes from our tastes. Because our opinions on what we consume dictate the people we spend time with, our tastes define not just what kind of person we are but also what group we fall into. Some lucky folks are born with a big group—huge family, close-knit community, natural charisma—while others have to scramble for them. And so it’s tempting to push away your authentic tastes if you feel like no one else is with you, to force yourself to like what everyone else does.
Here’s another example. I grew up with Tamil music. Listening to it, dancing to it, attempting to sing it. Since I was a toddler, my parents and I played Tamil music video compilations after dinner, first on VHS and then on DVD, and I’d dance with them, my singing and movements both adorably incoherent. We had an organization in my hometown called Tamil Sangam, where a hundred or so Tamil people rented an auditorium and held performances on stage with catering from local Indian restaurants. My dad choreographed a few of these dance performances, pulling moves from music videos that the songs were based on. For many years, my friends and I took the stage, jumped around stylishly for a few minutes, and said thank you to all the uncles and aunties who came by and praised us afterwards.
Some time in middle school, that cursed Benny Lava video blew up on YouTube. You’ve probably seen it. It’s an Indian music video, except the English subtitles are nonsense, lip-read and induced from the Tamil words to create ridiculous, irreverent sentences like, “My loony bun is fine, Benny Lava!” It was both hilarious and disheartening at the same time. The most blasphemous part of it is that the male lead in the music video, Prabhu Deva, is a modern legend in Tamil Nadu. They call him the Michael Jackson of India for his eclectic dance style, stage presence, and showmanship, yet there he was, a global laughingstock, debased by a bored Internet frequenter, made to scream, “You need a bun to bite, Benny Lava!!!” It’s a cold, cold world.
Now I’m not saying this video single-handedly nuked my appreciation for Tamil music. But it certainly didn’t help. See, I grew up before the West appreciated Bollywood, so this YouTube video was one of the few ambassadors for my culture. Before it, nobody at school or elsewhere knew any of the Tamil songs I listened to. My music was something I enjoyed privately at home with my family, never to be shared with the outside world. Once it came out, I felt like the cat was out of the bag. Anything I said about Tamil music would remind people of that Benny Lava video.
The second problem with my culturally specific musical tastes was that I didn’t know pop music for shit. I was out of the loop, and it sucked. When you’re in tenth grade, you want to listen to American music like all the rest. You want to be in the know so you can drop relevant song lyrics in conversations and impress your classmates. That’s when the car radio introduced me to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” after which I’ve never been the same1. My friends soon showed me Lil Wayne, and we spent half the summer before senior year of high school driving around our suburb belting out hits from Tha Carter IV with the convertible top down. My to-and-from-school playlist expanded into a patchwork of pop culture: Wiz Khalifa, Ellie Goulding, some of Fallout Boy’s weird new stuff.
It feels like it all happens at once, the assimilation. You stop watching Tamil music videos with your parents after dinner—it just happens one day, the stopping, and you don’t realize that last night was the last time for it—and you no longer hum along to old Tamil hits you used to love, and you’re older now and too busy with school to do a Tamil Sangam dance again, plus it’s lame to dance in front of a crowd, and it’s lame to be cultural—nobody does that—so you bury that part of your heart to make room for more Katy Perrys and Lil Waynes while the DVD player gathers dust.
When I became a senior in high school, my older friend Ujwal showed me a video of his college dance group, Michigan Manzil, performing at a competition in Chicago. A group of a dozen or more Indian college kids doing a whole dance performance, with lights, production, formations, and attitude. My mind was made up before we hit play—I was going to dance like that when I got to college. Where the desire came from, I had no idea. The old Tamil Sangam stage might’ve been a cloudy memory, but it still pulled my strings.
My parents sometimes insist that we watch VHS cassettes of those Tamil Sangam performances just to relish the memories. They pull out the huge plastic bins shoved in the back of my closet and search for a particular tape from the early 2000s. They pop the cassette into the VHS player while I roll my eyes, pick at my dinner, brace myself for the boredom to come. Why are we watching this? I ask. They just smile and watch. I see no parallel between the tiny child version of myself and the college dancer I’ve become, performing for an audience again, but this time traveling to other colleges, dancing in front of beautiful girls, all of it captured by a professional cameraman. How did I miss the pattern? I was trying so hard to reinvent myself I didn’t realize I was using old parts.
I dance again, I write a newsletter, I push buttons as a software engineer—I’m making the child version of me proud. I’ve integrated many of my long-dormant talents into my day-to-day life. But I think there’s a difference between being yourself and accepting yourself. With the former, you can blindly go about your life, executing your own genetic programming with no real awareness of it, but with the latter, you hit a conscious realization about who you are that you finally feel ready to internalize.
I moved to New York in November of 2020. On one night when my humble quarantine pod hung out watching YouTube videos, I queued up the music video for hit Tamil song “Jumbalakka”2 on our TV, but when it came on, I got nervous. I paused the video and spun a whole backstory, explaining how young I was when I watched the video, how old the video is, the general theme of the movie, how Tamil people behave, some Tamil holidays that illustrate this behavior, and how I rediscovered this video because of pandemic boredom. Hand-wringing excuses to avoid sharing earnestly. They enjoyed the song, but I felt weird about having shared it.
Months later, in August of 2021, as I played board games with friends inside on a hot day, I cued up some Tamil songs for background music, including “Jumbalakka.” They bobbed heads as we played, but I paid little heed. I just played it because I wanted to play it. I didn’t care what the others thought. I’ve been thinking for a while now why I was so much less self-conscious this time around. Maybe it was because I’d just started to feel settled in New York, or because it was a lazy Sunday with no real commitments. Maybe it was the good meal I had for lunch. I don’t know. Circumstances are hard to grasp. I was just ready, I suppose.
And now here’s the cool part. I can tell you exactly why I love this song whereas before, the reasons were murky. I can tell you what’s so beautiful about it. See, Tamil music (and most Indian music in general, honestly) not only sounds beautiful but is presented with so much love and care. The layered instrumentation, the multipart song structure, the crooning vocals, the danceable drum breaks—they’re full of earnest goodwill. But there’s more than that, too. Indian music often exists as part of a movie; it’s rare for someone to release a song on its own. Studio albums aren’t really a thing like they are with Western music. Every song has a music video, most of which are shot in unbelievably beautiful landscapes around the world, like the mountains of Switzerland, the glaciers of Scandinavia, deserts in Australia. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being an Indian actor flown out to several countries in the world just to run around and dance, to illustrate a romantic ideal?
Don’t get me started on the sheer style in these videos. Watch the music video for “Jumbalakka.” Look at their outfits! The beanies, the overalls, the crop tops! In 1990s India! Insane. The camaraderie between the male dancers, the campiness of them chasing after women, dancing on and around cars, in front of a swimming pool, the dramatic, elaborate displays of courtship between the male and female leads, the ridiculously danceable rhythm! All of it! I could gush for hours.
Not only do the landscapes in these music videos evoke grandeur, but there’s also a purity in the fact that so little of a critical culture exists around songs and movies. It hasn’t been common in my experience for people to compare and contrast Tamil songs, singers, dancers, or actors. Part of this, I think, is because there’s a time and place for these songs in the scheme of the film they’re in, so it doesn’t make a ton of sense to criticize a Tamil song without acknowledging the movie it’s in for context. It’s just how most Indian music works: like most flavors of Eastern culture, they all serve a larger storyline, something bigger than just the musicians and dancers and producers that put them together. To me, they always implied the existence of something greater than myself, or some sort of metaphysical plane.
I didn’t realize this until recently, as I began to open myself up to my love for these old songs. It’s hard to put words to something you’re not ready to see.
My parents subscribed to Indian streaming channels in the last few years. When I go home to visit them now, they watch a show called Super Singer most nights. It’s a Tamil singing competition show where kids perform classic hits and judges praise their talents before giving them a score. I pop in every now and then to watch with them, though I usually get bored and turn in early. But they’re committed. They watch every episode together. For them, it’s a lifeline to their old life, I imagine, before they packed up and moved to America. It keeps them updated of their culture.
I wonder what their own journeys have been. I wonder how much they loved Tamil music when they were my age compared to now. My dad’s always been into American classic rock, and my mom used to play religious hymns throughout the house. I wonder whether they went through similar phases, rejecting their foundational Tamil tastes for American music when they moved.
During quarantine, sometimes my dad would pull both cars out of the garage and pull up a video on his laptop called Bombay Jam and do the ensuing Bollywood dance workout. Whatever part of him choreographed our Tamil Sangam dances back in the day is alive and well today. My mom used to be a part of the Theosophical Society in metro-Detroit, where she’d meet various people of faith to discuss religion and philosophy. I remember going to a few of these meetings back when I was a child, where I figure some of that spiritual dialogue rubbed off. Then, she started her own Hindu Sunday school, and, when she moved to California, joined a Vedanta society where she writes its regular newsletter. They’ve nurtured the important parts of themselves well.
I’m endlessly fascinated by what triggers these transitions in other people’s lives because they’re so opaque in my own. I don’t know what made me so ready to accept Tamil music back into my life. I don’t remember what exactly made me want to start this newsletter way back in 2019; it could’ve been the kind encouragements of friends, the isolated condition of living alone for the first time, the restless lucidity that comes from working for a few years at a giant company. Things seem to just happen. Desires arise of their own accord and I must fulfill them dutifully if I want to grow. I suppose that’s what life is—this eternal cycle of observing, accepting, and enacting parts of yourself that come from your own murky depths, where you can only move from one phase to the next when you’re ready, when circumstances align so cosmically that you cannot hope to enumerate them, and the transition feels like something an outside entity is moving you through, like you’re a piece of furniture forever being rearranged, until, usually, you end up in a better place than before. Maybe not one that you expected for yourself, or even chose, but that feels right.
Other Things of Note
I don’t have anything here for this week! And, considering the upcoming changes I’m working into this newsletter, it might be time to temporarily retire this section until I figure out what works. Your feedback would be much appreciated! Here’s a link to the 2-year survey for this newsletter again if you have any thoughts:
Only Child is a bi-weekly newsletter where I find excitement in the mundane. Tell your friends and enemies to subscribe!
—Chuckry Vengadam (@churrthing)
I have always felt like a plastic bag.
Which, according to my parents, isn’t a real Tamil word, but more of an interjection-noise that might indicate commotion?