Fellow roommate Ama doing Mandavi's hair on her birthday

Fellow roommate Ama doing Mandavi's hair on her birthday

Freshman year was full of new experiences and memorable moments, but I will never forget the fear in the wide brown eyes of my future roommate as she reluctantly reached out a hand—no, a finger, to my friend and former Northwestern linebacker Prince Kwateng. She stood there shrinking in his towering shadow.

Mandavi could not hide the shock she felt upon meeting him. Standing there, barely five feet tall with her tiny palms the size of mandarins it was all she could do to extend a solitary finger to shake Kwateng’s sizeable outstretched hand.

Kwateng is African, and before coming to Northwestern from her home in Dubai, Mandavi had never even met a “black” person, let alone one as large as Kwateng.  Kwateng, like many of my friends, was well aware of the outlandish reputation that preceded Mandavi, and was prepared for the potentially awkward situation. This would not be the first time we would dive headfirst into discussions of race, culture or even appearance during introductions. Still, laughter and insight always followed these situations, even if not right away.

I would learn some of my earliest lessons at Northwestern from Mandavi.  In many ways she would inspire me to dig deeper into the hot topics of race, gender, culture and politics. Mandavi brought her school of thought and I brought mine. Coming from a small northern suburb of Atlanta, I had been taught to see things in terms of black and white. Mandavi was more familiar with lighter shades of brown, indicative of the diversity found in the U.A.E., which boasts large concentrations of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iranian, Filipino, other Arab peoples—only approximately 20% of the U.A.E. residents are citizens.  Given her background, it is safe to assume she never pictured her first apartment would be shared with three African-American girls.  I likewise never could have guessed I’d be sharing an apartment with someone from as far away as Dubai.  Seeing the variance in our perceptions of the world as we lived under the same roof would be startling, but exciting.

Although she may have gotten over her initial fear of black men our freshman year, throughout junior year our apartment became notorious for Mandavi’s unabashed politically incorrect questions, possibly because Mandavi was still learning the nuisances of politically correctness even after three years.  Because she was often unaware of the racially charged undertones, Mandavi commented on everything from our inclination toward bananas to our carpet-like hair. Mandavi never tiptoed around subjects of race, but met them head on. This was a steep departure from my own experience in suburban Marietta where any serious conversations of race culture or even difference were routinely suppressed. Still, my roommate’s direct nature grew on just about everyone she met. The way she was able to approach a topic and ask the hard questions not only ensured she learned something new everyday, but also often provoked people she met to question their own perspectives and ideas. She gave me the courage to re-evaluate some of my own ideas about race and culture.

Our friendship helped inspire the formation of a new student group on campus. She never came to a meeting, before graduating early, but I didn’t hold it against her. The Race Alliance at Northwestern created a platform for people to share and learn new things about the diversity represented on our campus. Mandavi didn’t need a platform. She was the platform.

Our small apartment played host to a fusion of African, Indian and American ideas and constructs. On any given night you could find us dancing together, laughing as Mandavi put her own Bollywood spin on the latest hip-hop single or begrudgingly cleaned off the crust that would collect on our laptop keyboards from a studious Mandavi’s cultural inclination to eat with her hands… while surfing the web.

Despite our differences, we celebrated each other, and enlisted in the trust that prevails in all friendships worldwide. Mandavi was the impetus that allowed me to learn something new about myself. While still holding onto her distinct cultural principles and values, she opened herself up to the possibility of new experiences and new peoples even if only one lone finger at a time.