Episode 44: Visiting with Uma Kailasam and her story “Icebreaker”
ANNOUNCER: Raising women’s voices. One story at a time. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
[music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme]
JENETTE JURCZYK [00:28]: Thank you everyone for joining us. You are listening to another episode of The She Said Project Podcast, where we connect with women who have appeared live on stage in That’s What She Said shows sharing personal stories. And now we want to learn more about the story behind the story. I’m Jenette Jurczyk, your host, National Director of The She Said Project. And here with me…
KERRY ROSSOW [00:52]: Kerry Rossow co-founder and Jenette Jurczyk groupie.
JENETTE [00:56]: Aww, that’s so sweet. Kerry, we’ve been through a lot together in these years, the evolution, if you will, of That’s What She Said you started as a one-night thing. It was just some friends hanging out, telling stories. And now, we’re not just in Champaign, Illinois anymore. That’s where it all began. But a couple years ago pre-pandemic, we expanded into Bloomington, Illinois, which is just a hop skip and a jump down the road. Phenomenal community. Amazing women. And today on today’s episode we have one of those women from Bloomington-Normal with us on the line. She appeared in That’s What She Said, 2021 which was a unique show which we’ll talk about in a second, but I want to bring her on the line. Let’s welcome our guest, Uma Kailasam. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
UMA KAILASAM [1:46]: Thank you Jenette. Thank you, Kerry. It is such an awesome opportunity to be on this podcast with you now.
JENETTE [1:52]: Uma, you are such a dynamic person. A dynamic woman. A dynamic storyteller - and you just shined on stage in the That’s What She Said show. It’s an honor to bring you back so even more women out there can get to know you and hear about you and your family in your story. Your story started a long time ago in India. You grew up in India. Yes?
UMA [2:17]: That is correct. Yes.
JENETTE [2:18]: And now you live in the beautiful community of Bloomington, Illinois.
KERRY [2:23]: How did you get roped into this, Uma?
UMA [2:25]: So Kerry, I was contacted by the United Way team saying, hey, there’s an opportunity like this. Would you like to be a part of the team? And then I was quite curious because I did not attend the previous show that was held here before COVID in Bloomington-Normal. So I went online and I found the videos of the shows, the cast members, their different experiences and I was completely blown away. So, I want to say it has been one of the best memorable experiences in my life, being part of, That’s What She Said, because it’s a unique opportunity for women like me to come up on stage and share personal story about ourselves, right? So with Jenette, it was a blast getting to know her and, you know, she’s an amazing director and we learned a lot through the three months. But again, I also got to meet seven other phenomenal women whose stories that I got to experience, not only just hear but again, I got to know them more and pull from different backgrounds. Their journey, and now we are all besties, and we all hang out. You know, when we get a chance. So that’s how I got the opportunity and I think it has made quite a difference in my life on this past year, I should say.
JENETTE [3:46]: I love that you brought that up. The camaraderie that your cast created, because that is such a huge component of the That’s What She Said experience and we weren’t sure if it was going to translate into other markets. We had experienced that here in Champaign because of the way the show is designed that we bring together women from the community, but we took a chance by taking it to Bloomington. And you absolutely said exactly what I feel. We found this unique amazing fascinating group of women who not only shared stories on stage, but became fast friends, and have really built a sisterhood of support and love. Your show is unique, and I just want to share with our listeners because we decided to go live on stage in the fall of 2021, when we were still, you know, in the thick of a pandemic situation. And we made an interesting decision to produce That’s What She Said on stage at an outdoor amphitheater for COVID safety. We did an outdoor performance at this beautiful Ewing Manor in Bloomington, and it was so unique for us. It was different than anything we had done before, but it was so beautiful. It came together just as beautifully and that to me Kerry says that that the mission holds, you know. That the core values of That’s What She Said can translate to different communities and different crazy times and different theaters, different venues in different groups of people and that is a triumph.
KERRY [5:21]: I think throughout history, women found comfort in solidarity by telling stories through things. And I think the pandemic isn’t any different. You know, we all still had so much we were going through. Sitting in the Bloomington theater really was touching to me, one, because it did translate and there was, there was our baby and it was in a new city and seeing when you were on the stage, telling your story, seeing all of the women not just on stage with you nodding along and like, I hear you and I see you and I feel that. The women in the audience were doing the same thing and it was just really touching to see it in a whole new city, but the same. Different but the same.
UMA [5:59]: Yes, and I would like to add that it was a packed show. It was sold out, which even I was quite surprised right after COVID with all the uncertainties. That was amazing.
KERRY [6:11]: People were ready. We all missed each other. We missed we missed being together and talking and laughing and yucking it up. And it was there was so much solidarity that night. I remember walking down this long, beautiful pathway to the theater and people just, we were all just hungry for togetherness and fellowship and… You know, I think the laughs came easily because we were all just like, oh, for the love of chocolate, we need to laugh about something. [laughter]
JENETTE [6:37]: That was definitely the theme and the energy of the night. So let’s go ahead and share with our listeners, your performance, Uma. Your story from that show. And then I want to hear from you, your feedback on what life is like now that you shared that in a public setting. So, friends, please enjoy this incredibly told story by Uma Kailasam, speaker of That’s What She Said, Bloomington, Illinois 2021 with her story, “Icebreaker.”
UMA [7:11]: Imagine walking into a room full of people who you have never met before. Everyone’s talking to everyone, and they see you walk in. Nobody says a hello or even smiles at you. Some of them even glance at you and turn back to their conversation. And then you’re wondering. Oh, is it my outfit? Maybe my makeup. Or I’m too over-dressed. But then out of the blue, you notice, you’re the only Indian-American in the room and that - that’s when it hits you. Why nobody is making an effort to talk to you. So now you have to make the first conversation to make them feel comfortable with you. Welcome to my life as an icebreaker in America, the land of dreams and opportunities. [applause]
[8:08] So let me guess your first thought when you see me for the first time. Oh, she must be from a very conservative Indian family. She probably does not even speak good English. She won’t drink because it’s against her religion and I’m sure she’s a vegetarian. [laughter] And I bet $100 her marriage was arranged by her parents. [laughter] Can you believe some countries still do that?
So, let me set the record straight up front for you, my friends. I’m as American as anyone in this room today. [applause]
[8:53] I came to this country 20 years back from a very progressive Indian family who raised their daughters as sons and told us to be independent. English is my first language, and I grew up watching shows like the Knight Rider and the Full House. [laughter] And of course, a lot of Bollywood movies. I love my steak medium well with a nice glass of Cabernet. [laughter] Thank you very much. [laughter] And I have answered so many questions about my marriage because I definitely got myself into a “love marriage,” as we say in India.
[9:38] I was born and raised in Kuwait, one of the richest countries in the Middle East. My parents were immigrants, but we lived among a huge Indian population. So, life was quite normal being part of the community. And I went to an Indian School where I perfectly fit in. So, during the Iraq Kuwait War, we had to move back to India. And I continued my high school and undergrad in India. Life was great, being part of a big, Indian family. All the amazing food, love and pampering, and, of course, enjoying all the festivities.
[10:14] As I grew up, I noticed my skin color was very dark, just like my dad. My mom, my sister, and my cousin’s, they’re all fair-skinned as per the Indian standards. I was the dark horse in the family, literally. My dear Dad was very proud that I looked like him. Yet it didn’t matter. I used to cry to my mom that she used white soap for my sister and black soap for me, and that’s why I turned out this way. [laughter]
[10:50] But my poor mother, she always used to feel very sad when I said this and always assured me, that she felt the same about both of us. But you know, when you look different, there’s a small insecurity about yourself. My immediate family and my parents and my sister, they have remained the most positive aspect and support in my life. They always made me feel like a superstar at home. My sister would, in fact, pick a fight with anyone who commented on my skin color. Very protective of me. They focus on my talents, my achievements and gave me all the attention to make me feel on top of the world. And I think that is one of the main reasons that I did not spiral downhill with this insecurity and turned out into a confident woman. [laughter][applause]
[11:42] My complexion and my skin color, it became a non-issue after a point in my life. So, after I finished my undergrad I got an opportunity to do a Master’s Program in the United States. It was such an exciting opportunity for me because I got to break the conservative barrier that girls could travel to countries like the United States only after they have been married. America is the land of opportunities and a country built by immigrants from all over the world. How exciting and fascinating? So, in my mind, I should perfectly fit in there comfortably.
[12:22] So, I landed in Tampa, Florida to pursue my Master’s in computer engineering. I should say it’s one of the greatest experiences of my life because I got to learn a new culture and find the best of the both worlds that I came from.
[12:39] I have lived in Bloomington, Normal Community for over 13 years. I love to be part of the community that I live in. We were part of a big Indian Community, very actively involved. My husband and I, we own a few businesses here in town. And we also run a nonprofit language school for Indian kids. We’re very active in the community by being on the board of nonprofits supporting various causes. We’re very social. We love to make new friends and attend a lot of events.
As I attend a lot of these non-Indian meetings and events. However, I started noticing that when I go to a new place, not many people take an effort to come talk to me or say hello. [silence] Many times I’ve come home telling my husband I don’t even know why I’m going to these events and meetings because at the end of it, I don’t make any new friends. Nobody calls me for the service projects that they do or events that they are hosting. It’s like I’m always invisible until I make an effort to reach out to everyone.
[13:48] It used to be very frustrating, and I can understand why many ethnic communities choose to stay within themselves because if you are not a white American, you don’t have a warm welcome in a lot of places. [silence] So that’s when a very sweet dear friend of mine who is not an Indian invited me to lunch and said Uma, you’re so smart and social and you come from a beautiful Indian culture. Why are you not flaunting it? I was like, what? Wait a minute. This is very surprising for me to hear because all these years I have been trying to assimilate into my new American culture and trying to figure out how to make my Indian culture not an issue. And I told my friend, see when I came to the United States, i thought people would see me for who I was rather than how I look and where I came from. But here, I get judged all the time because I’m not white. I’m not black. I am brown.
[14:55] See, I’m a person who takes constructive criticism, changes myself for the positive. So my logical brain is thinking - Okay, if people around me are judging me for the way I look, let’s try changing it. But my dear friends, the reality is nobody can change the way they look or their skin color, but unless you feel Michael Jackson. [laughter] I can change my attitude, my communication skills, my confidence, my physiques, physique, and so many other things, but just not the way I look. This is how I’m created, and I have absolutely no control. And if anyone had control, wouldn’t we all choose a skin color that’s more acceptable? [silence] And most importantly, who set the standard that only a certain skin color is what is needed to feel superior or beautiful anyways? Are you guys with me on this? [loud applause] [cheers]
[16:01] So, I told my friend, it’s very surprising to me that educated people in top professions wanna make me feel different that I don’t fit in. But see, I come from India, a country rich in culture, education, and hospitality. We treat everyone like our own family and the Indians coming to the United States are highly educated and in top professions. Yet, it’s very shocking on how much emphasis is placed on something that’s given to you at birth and that cannot be changed. [silence]
[16:36] So that’s when my sweet, sweet friend told me. Okay, Uma, why don’t you be the first person to break the ice and start the conversation in such situations so people will get to know you and they love your personality. And I’m like okay, so this icebreaker strategy sounds nice. [silence] So the term ice breaker, sounds very cool. Very chill, right? But it’s one of the toughest things to do. You need to have confidence and courage to walk into a room full of people. Go talk to a stranger, to make them feel comfortable with you and to accept you for who you are. See those who know me, know I’m not shy to talk or approach anyone. I can confidently go introduce myself today to Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk and talk about their amazing space journey.
[17:26] So, one good thing that came about being an ice breaker is I became fearless of being judged. I became very comfortable wearing my Indian outfit to any event that I wanted to. [applause]
[17:45] And if someone wants to judge me for the way I look or where I came from, I pity them. Is this the worldly view and knowledge that you have in the current world? So, I come into America from different countries. I have to face these challenges and I’m able to accept them. But my children, who are born and raised here, well into the American way of life are facing these challenges every day. And that’s what breaks my heart.
[18:16] So let me share a recent incident with you. My daughter’s heart is heading to a sports activity, and she joined a new center. She’s the only Indian kid in the center. She’s so passionate about this sport that as parents we want to encourage her. The center conducted a social for kids and families to get to know each other. My daughter was super thrilled because she had only been there a couple of weeks and she was so excited to make new friends and she said, Mommy, do you want to go with me? I was like, of course. So, we both were walking into the event, very excited and we went into the area where the kids and families were. Almost everyone turned to look at us but at the same speed immediately turned back. Not even a smile or a hello. There were moms at some of the tables. Nobody said hello or offered me a spot at the table. And I was like, all this doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m here for my daughter. So, my daughter saw a few friends that she trained with and said, Mommy, I’m just going to go sit by them. [silence]
[19:17] She went over and the girls blankly told her to her face. Sorry, you cannot hang out with us. There is no space for you next to us.
[19:28] I was just watching in horror and my heart sank because there were so many empty seats next to them. And I told my daughter, “if you want we can leave this place. I don’t want you being around such rude girls and their parents who do not even acknowledge our presence here.” But my sweet, sweet daughter said, Mommy, it’s okay. I don’t think they meant what they said. I’ll just go sit by them. All through lunch, none of them, even turned towards her or said a word to her. She tried to play games that they were conducted. Participate in the activities, meet with new people. But at the end of the two hours, she did not make any friends. And it’s not because my daughter is not social or friendly. It’s because she was the only kid that looked different that day and nobody wanted to take her in their crew. [silence]
[20:22] I admire the strength and courage that this child had and the fact that she accepted that this is how she’s going to get treated at such a young age. I came home and I cried to my husband. I said as a mother I just could not take this. Who gives them the the authority to treat others this way? And in what way is my daughter less? She is an American. Born and raised here. She speaks English as a first language andour mother tongue as her second language. She loves High School Musical. [laughter] She got selected as a performer in Shrek musical for her beautiful voice. She loves her cheeseburger and fries. We celebrate Christmas. We celebrate all the occasions here. We do all the activities like any other American family. She respects others feelings so much that she swallows her own feelings to fit in. [silence] What more is needed for her to be treated as an equal? I just don’t have the answers.
[21:27] The only solution that I have is to teach my kids to be an ice breaker into their American way of life. Isn’t that very sad? It’s very tiring and exhausting. So, the next time you see someone that does not look like you walk in, just give them a smile and welcome them to sit with you. It means a lot. [applause]
[22:10] Kids are a reflection of how parents behave. So, let’s teach our children, the future generation, to see people for what they are on the inside and not what shade they are on the outside.
Thank you. [loud applause]
JENETTE [22:58]: So, the goal of The She Said Project Podcast is that women everywhere, not just in the cities where the show’s happen, can experience these stories and have those me to moments, have those that true connection to another woman, even if they’ve never met them before. And Uma, your story does exactly that. It sets the stage for all women, any women who’ve ever moved to a new community and didn’t feel like they belonged right away and face challenges in joining a new culture. What was it like for you to stand up there, loud and proud, and share your heart?
UMA [23:36]: Tell it, to be honest, I was quite nervous. Not for presenting the speech because thanks to Jenette I had enough practice for that but… My nervousness was basically because I had my friends, my family, people I love, everyone there, all cheering me. But again was a tough topic and I really wanted to talk about it because that was something honestly, something I wanted to get off my chest but also at the same time I felt, it was more like education so that people know how it feels to be in my shoes. Right? And also, with my daughter and my kids I wanted to kind of set this up in a way that it does affect everyone. So I was a little bit nervous more for how would this story be received or will people be sad or will I be offending anyone? But again, it all turned out great.
JENETTE [24:35]: We did agree to push the envelope just a little bit to make sure that people heard your point of view, and that people could maybe take a moment to reflect on if they’ve ever been in those shoes, where they were maybe not the most welcoming to someone in their community. So you’re right. We definitely set ourselves up with the challenge of whether or not people would be offended listening to it. But I think we you, you did it in such a classy way that provoked reflection and conversation. Not confrontation. How has the community responded to you sharing your story like that?
UMA [25:19]: The response was overwhelming. I should say it, because even though the same night after the show, I had so many new people come up, talk to me. A couple of fans actually apologized to me that, you know, somehow the behavior in the community made me feel in such a way. Uh, and then they said this has been a great, um, experience for them to understand that what it feels like to be me. Right? Or people like myself, right? Because I was more bringing out a topic of uh you know being a brown person here in this country. So a couple of them apologized and said you know I made more new friends that evening. And, um, later on I had more people reaching out to me through Facebook and I would like to point out a couple incidents following the event was… I had a person who attended the event come up and tell me that she shared the story with her daughter and her daughter she went to school, and she knew an Indian kid in class who always feels a little bit alone for ,and just doesn’t talk too much. But her daughter, she made an effort to go talk to her and somehow make her feel more comfortable maybe thinking if this is the same way she feels too. That was one and another one was I had another friend come up and tell me that she always sees a lot of Indians, you know, when you’re walking outside in the evening around the neighborhood. But somehow, you know, both parties never said hello or exchanged hellos. They just see each other and keep walking. But then after attending the event she made sure she’s going on the same time as the other group came. She went, introduced herself and now they’re all best friends walking together in the community going on walks.
JENETTE [27:26]: Kerry, can you pass me those tissues over there? I got something in my eye over here.
KERRY [27:31]: Uma, you’re killing us.
JENETTE [27:33]: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.
UMA [27:36]: So I was literally in tears that day when I heard this. And I was so thankful they reached out to even let me know because um, you know honestly, I felt if I left the world that day at least there’s a small difference that I may have made. [laughter]
KERRY [27:53]: Wow, the power of one and the power of your words, Uma. [silence]
UMA [27:58]: Thank you. Thank you, Kerry. And also, another thing I would like to mention is… You know, here in Bloomington every event that I’m going to for this past year. There’s at least a couple people who’ll recognize me from the show. So I want to say, you know, kudos to both of you for, you know, putting on a very successful show. But they recognize me. They come up, they talk to me, and they introduce themselves. And then you know, I have gotten so many new invitations to different events. And I was at a birthday party the other day, my son’s friend’s party, and I had this woman come up from Africa. She said that she had attended the event and she’s related every word of mine with her life, and she was literally crying throughout the speech.
KERRY [28:52]: Wow.
UMA [28:53]: So, you know, that actually…that day made me very emotional because I felt so glad that, you know, like you said earlier, you know in the crowd there are women nodding their heads because every, all of us go through different experiences and when someone talks, you’re able to relate to it. Right? And then now I have invited her to events because she said she doesn’t have any friends here. There’s not a big African community here but I said, come on. We are all friends together. So, I have invited her to a couple events. So I, I was, I was really I want to say a big thank you to both of you for creating this platform uh, for women to right because I remember asking Jenette what should I talk about and she said I can just talk about anything I wanted. [laughter] This platform is very powerful for women because we all relate to each other issues.
JENETTE [30:02]: Yes, and it is about you. It is about the woman who standing on that stage sharing that story. It’s very personal intimate platform. So, thank you for recognizing that. And I love love, love that story of your new friend from Africa who had her “me too” moment because she could relate to your experience, even though she’s from a completely different place. But we’ve all walked into a room. Every one of us and have wondered if, you know, if we belong or wondered what the the eyes across the room, you know? Men are they judging me and and how to break the ice to make new friends and Uma, you are such an example of breaking that ice and, and being that, that friendly person who’s going to start the conversation, but… That comes very naturally to you but you were passing this down to your daughter and to the next generation of the, your friends children. You’re inspiring people to be kinder and to be more inclusive and to, to be there for each other. That’s such a huge takeaway.
UMA [31:12]: Yes. Thank you, Jenette. It has definitely been a wonderful experience. And again, I feel this is continuing in my life. So, when I talk about 2021, I tell everyone hey, the best part of 2021 is I got to be on the cast and share my story at That’s What She Said.
KERRY [31:31]: Aww, that’s so great. Well, that was, that was definitely a highlight of the year for us too. Thank you so much for saying yes. And for joining The Sisterhood.
JENETTE [31:40]: Yes and thank you for coming back to visit with us today. So we could check in with you and and hear more about your story and share your story with more women out there who can also go, Oh my gosh. I’m not alone. Uma told me that it’s going to be alright, and that the world is a beautiful place and now I believe it. So, you’re amazing. We appreciate you so much. We’re looking forward to- to more stories. More connecting with more women in Bloomington, Illinois and beyond. And thank you so much to our friends and fans for joining us today, here on The She Said Project Podcast.
KERRY Over and out.
[music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme outro]
ANNOUNCER [31:45] Thank you for listening to the She Said Project Podcast in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows, go to shesaidproject.com. This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health
Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management, empowering women to live their best
[music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme playout]
Uma Kailasam shared her story "Icebreaker" onstage in Bloomington, IL, where she lives every day with the awareness that her skin color makes it more challenging for her and her family to fit it.
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.