Walking down the street, you don’t know whether to say hello or not. You don’t know their name, have never met them, have never even seen their face before. Something in you still tells you to smile. You had a similar childhood. You brought rice cakes to school and have been made fun of for this. You have been asked what you are eating and been treated to pursed lips and furrowed eyebrows. You have been told you smell like curry, you have been told you’re too white, you have been told you’re exotic. You have been asked if you know ___ Patel. You do not. You nearly never do. You smile when you’re by yourself. You don’t when you’re with your white friends.
Meet the Fockers
Meet the Parents
Meet the Robinsons
Meet the Mormons
Meet the Patels?
“I mean, we were together for two years, and it definitely felt like ‘Okay, it’s time to tell Mom and Dad that she exists.” – Ravi Patel
Sitting on the couch in your townhouse, your boyfriend’s head on your lap, you hear the lock click. Fuck, she’s home. Your boyfriend looks at you and runs out the back door, just as the door slams and you hear your mother yell your name. I probably should’ve told her earlier.
Two years before, you were on a cruise with your cousin and his friend. As you and his friend started getting closer, your parents nudged you together. Why wasn’t this the same?
For a year you have been hiding him from your parents. Maybe if his skin was darker you wouldn’t have felt the need to.
“Is there a term for it? The Indian Problem?” – Audrey
The Indian Problem: Growing up Indian. Growing up American. Growing up confused, isolated. Parents wonder how you can keep things from them, like dating a white guy from school for a year without telling them. Parents don’t know that the person that you are outside the house and the person you are at home have split very long ago and are no longer on speaking terms.
|Outside me wears crop tops, curses like a sailor, and makes bawdy jokes.||House me speaks Gujarati, watches Bollywood movies, and has completed 10 years of Bharatanatyam.|
|Outside me flew across the country without telling her parents to meet a white guy her parents had never heard of.||House me is a virgin.|
American me is only just repairing her relationship with Indian me.
There is always this divide. Any second-generation Indian immigrant will tell you that the culture shock and the divide between home and outside is psychologically unsettling. The various levels of Indianism and Americanism that the child chooses to follow as a result of this disparity vary. I speak Gujarati, never listened to American music until eighth grade, dance both bharatanatyam and garba, am well versed in Hindu rites and rituals, and consistently wear my nose stud and long winged eyeliner. Others from my father’s village who came over did not fare the same with their children. They understand Gujarati but cannot speak it, don’t dance, know only few of the rituals, but only have Indian friends. They don’t know Bollywood songs or reference the movies. Then there are the ones who are so steeped in Indian culture that they come here and don’t assimilate at all.
ABCD: American Born Confused Desi
“Why are kids so stressed out by school?” Your dad is in the kitchen, a glass of wine in hand, casually asking you this. You become a deer in headlights. Things start to blur in your brain, things you want him to understand but know he won’t. Asian American children are, across the board, under extreme pressure to perform academically. This pressure comes from cultures that highly value academics over everything else. I’m not sure why it changes so much when the culture comes to America. Maybe you begin to resent when you’re being yelled at for a B+ in a hard class, because you know your friend was rewarded for a C. Maybe when your dad comes home to realize you were on Facebook the night before your Geometry test and screams so loud the neighbors can hear it, you break a little. Each time you add a brick, until your wall is finished. You can still hear his sounds, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Your apathetic shell is complete, your need to succeed is vanquished.
You don’t look at your sister when he asks this. You know she still remembers when she came home with a less than desirable SAT score (her first time taking it, in junior year) and he locked her in the bathroom for four hours. She remembers being kicked out of the house for her grades. She doesn’t look at you either. She silently counts the times she has been made to feel worthless because of her failure to reach the high standards they put out for her.
She rebelled and decided not to finish the pre-med requisite courses. I decided that I could postpone the discussion of not wanting to be a doctor.
“Patel’s too cool and badass to be Indian.” – second generation Indian immigrant
She’s waving her hands as she tells this story in front of your incredulous brown eyes. She’s talking about when she was going through TSA and was randomly selected to be screened. They found explosive residue on the soles of her shoes, and they simply let her go. She has no idea how she got that there, she explains. As her flame red hair dances in the wind, you just hope you’re never in the same situation. You’re not sure it’ll go the same way.
Two months later, you drag your finals-drained ass through the TSA check line to go home on your flight out of college. As you take off your heavy boots and drop them in the tray, you remember the older days when you went through metal detectors with your ancient grandparents, generally repeating this process several times. A nose ring, a bracelet, a necklace, all setting off this one contraption meant to keep people safe. Every time they made them go back through until they were clean.
You don’t wear jewelry in airports anymore. You’re very careful, taking out any liquid over the standards, discarding any useless items, taking only what’s needed so there’s nothing suspicious. “Ma’am, is this your bag?” the officer looks stern and is holding your Swiss Army backpack. As you follow him to the table, you know there’s nothing that could’ve set off alarms. You always check. He scans the bag, then pulls out your Leatherman multitool, engraved with your name and given to you this past Christmas by your sister. Suddenly you’re very warm, and very very sweaty. The Leatherman has opened and punctured you with its knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, pliers, scissors, and file, all in a convenient four inch fold up. Your blood is pooling on the floor for everyone to see, their eyes fixated on your brown skin.
Your mom checks your bag three times before she lets you get on the plane back to college.
In junior year your best friend is sunshine. She radiates warmth and you can’t help but want to spend all your time with her. Her mother (and occasionally her - it hurts you when she’s caught in the middle of nature and nurture) is cloaked in conservative white thinking most of the time. She likes you, or so you think. You spend a lot of time at her house and with her kids so you’d hope so. “My mom called you a terrorist the other day.” You laugh, but something inside you hurts. The terrorist joke never really ends.
Two years later, your best friend is white and middle class, and you love that she asks you about your culture in non-intrusive ways. She asks about your language, how it differs from Hindi, how Hinduism works, what the bindi means. One day she tells you that she used to work in a Dunkin Donuts owned by Patels. She tells you they were the cheapest, that they wouldn’t buy new bags to brew coffee in. Dark roast was simply regular coffee left out for longer. They made her work even as they kept their own daughter home to study. My mom comments, “I’m glad she didn’t extrapolate that to all Patels.” Later, when you tell her you’ll be working at Dunkin this summer, she says you’ll hate it and it’s the worst. You’re not sure if she means working at Dunkin or working for Patels.
“…[you’re] unconditionally part of the biggest family in the world.”
Sitting in a bus station exactly 509 miles away from where my parents think I am, I hear a familiar language. “Tu aaye re, hoo bag ne check in karuchoo.” You stay here, I’ll check in the bag. My head immediately turns, and House Me comes out and begins a conversation without checking with American Me. I talk to the nice Gujarati couple until the bus comes, when it turns out we are on the same bus. After helping to get their various bags on the bus, I sit down next to a stranger. The Indian man comes and says to the stranger, “Could you move so my wife can sit next to my daughter?” Hours later, we’re in Richmond, VA. We are both going to DC next, but I am going past to Pittsburgh. Our bus tickets are different. He asks me to go and change it so we can sit together. I go to the counter, ask for a different bus ticket. He comes up next to me. “Sir, please step back, I’m speaking to her now.” “She’s my daughter.” She looks at me, back at him, the obvious facial differences registering in her eyes. “He’s not my father. We’re from the same place in India. It’s an Indian thing.” She smiles tentatively, says she can’t change the ticket, and hands it back to me. As I walk away, I hear him tell her, “She’s my niece.”
It’s nice, sometimes. Being able to start up a friendship based on the one thing that jumps out at you. Even in biology lab, when your partner is Egyptian, or when your friend is half black, there’s a sense of kinship there. For white people, we are the Other. For us, we are still the Other. We make white people jokes, laugh about how they think onions are spicy. For a moment none of the past matters, and we are kids again.
I want to shake my American friends. I want to scream that I didn’t grow up like you did and I don’t know what you’re referencing.
Facial expressions I see nearly on a daily basis:
- The You-Never-Watched-Spongebob
- The But-The-Matrix-Is-A-Classic
- The Coleslaw-Tastes-So-Good-Though
- The You-Don’t-Know-This-Band
And every time, it is accompanied by a look in their eyes.
Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Forgive me father, for I have sinned.
Seven deadly sins. Seven chakras, seas, steps around the fire. Gloria Anzaldua talks about how white religion seeks to cast pagan feminist deities into the ground. Tries to make it “exotic and mystical.” Tries to make it unbelievable. She mentions Kali, my Kali, the one who destroys evil. She says my Kali has been darkened and disempowered.
“You do hear the negative connotations of Kali, and it’s painful.” – Mom
For anything that happens in the world, you need three things – free thought, free will, and free action. All three are represented by female deities, as “characters” of the Creator, or Brahma. Each male deity has a female consort, and Shiva’s happens to be Shakti, or power. Shakti takes different forms, including Durga and Kali.
“These pseudointellectuals…there was a poster that said ‘Kali was nothing but a whore’ because she seduced Shiva. They don’t understand. They’re empowered by the Christians and people who are just out to get our religion. The liberties that people take – they take our history and mix it with fiction. It offends us, because you mix tradition with fiction and their own opinions. Abrahamic religions are trying to change people’s views on our ancient culture.” We get up in arms about our religion very quickly. Why wouldn’t you, when the only things white people think of when they hear Hinduism is “elephants, Kali, the red forehead dots…and are saris Hindu?”
In third grade, you can’t remember how to draw a swastik. You keep trying over and over on different scraps of paper until someone comes up behind you and loudly asks if you’re drawing the Nazi symbol. You completely forgot that this wasn’t your emblem anymore. You meekly explain to the teacher and students surrounding you that it’s Nazi if it’s slanted. It means power, you say. It means peace. The peace of mind you never got, the piece of your life taking away the pieces of you.
Indians have not been here forever. We have not been enslaved in America. We are the contemporary immigrants, those who came in the 80s and onward. We came when a recession was starting. My parents remember being welcome as foreigners but with different overall experiences.
Dad: “It was difficult for me to know what to eat, because, you know, I had never eaten pizza before. Oh my god, that was heaven for me. We didn’t have much cheese in India, it was for the higher middle class over there.”
“What do you remember about coming here?”
“Something was different, and it kept bugging me, it kept bugging me, and then I realized there was no one walking on the streets.”
Mom: “It just depended on where you were. He [my dad] was in Columbus, and only professionals went there. Perceptions of Indians were better there - you were either an engineer or a doctor, so all Indians were respected. In New Jersey, they’re not professionals. You don’t get respected in New Jersey.
I never felt not welcome. I never felt welcome. You’re always different. Kmart was the worst as an immigrant, as soon as people see [gestures towards face and skin]. We had just walked into a shoe aisle that was already messed up and one of you [kids] picked up a shoe. This lady came and said ‘Oh Jesus,’ implying that we had messed up the entire aisle. I had to explain that it was like that before we got there.
People assume that we return things after wearing it. So you start making sure you put every shoe where it was. You start making sure all the tags are on the clothes you’re returning. You try not to fall into stereotypes, but you fall into a box. The Indian box, the immigrant box.”
The video starts out with things you know: rickshaws driven by men in the standard tan uniform with billowing short sleeves, the crack of a good bowl on a cricket bat, the motorcycle driving in the dusty road, the small dark children with eyes that don’t leave yours.
There’s a weird rumbling in your head when you watch a pale ghost dancing in a stark red sari with her almost translucent abdomen showing and her ghagra far too low on her hips. Light skinned desi girls dance behind her while the video erratically cuts to match the (god awful, in your mind) beat. Her awkward attempts at dancing remind you of how people dance to Cotton Eyed Joe. The overt sexualization and Westernization of a dress that you have seen adorning some of your favourite people in the world hurts. You’ve never been very against cultural appropriation – it doesn’t seem to matter so much. You know Desis that get up in arms about white women wearing a bindi, and it doesn’t hit you until you hear Jaya Bedi’s comments on it.
“What makes the non-South Asian person’s use of the bindi problematic is the fact that a pop star like Selena Gomez wearing one is guaranteed to be better received than I would if I were to step out of the house rocking a dot on my forehead. On her, it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness, another thing that makes me different from other American girls. If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t. They lend the bindi an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it.”6
It doesn’t help that you’ve never liked Iggy Azalea. It doesn’t help that there are ways to celebrate others’ cultures without destroying it. Justin Trudeau managed to celebrate Vaisakhi with Sikhs to show his appreciation of Canadian Sikhs.
“But you know magazines are acting like they’ve just been done for the first time because it’s on a white woman’s head or it’s on a white woman’s body and you have to get used to living in a world that doesn’t even acknowledge that you did certain things.”7 – Onika Tanya Maraj, better known as Nicki Minaj
“The culture is fading. Your kids wont even know Gujarati! Your generation is the last to understand it. How will you keep it alive?”
I don’t know, Mom. I’ll teach them Gujarati, even if they’re half white. I’ll find another Indian association. I’ll take them to India. But deep down I know that while I am giving them their culture and passing on your legacy I am taking something away. I am taking away their opportunity to feel at home in the country you ensured they would be in. I am taking away their peace of mind. I am giving them a future of laddoos and uttapa, dhokla and gulab jamun. I am giving them a tongue that craves spice when it is homesick, eyebrows that need threading every week, hips that know how to move. I am giving them a family that spans the world. I am giving them a deeper sense of self. I am giving them the option of reincarnation, the knowledge that Saraswati and Lakshmi will help them in times of need. I am giving them red saris and gold kurtas, adorned as they have been for thousands of years. Culture. Religion. Perspective. A world-centered view. A way to connect to others, because that simple flicker of recognition in the eyes tells you more than someone on the outside could ever know.
I am ensuring they will always, always ask themselves if they are too Indian or not Indian enough. I am ensuring that they will feel a distance between themselves and their friends.
I don’t know if I want kids. If I do, I know how I will bring them up. I want kids, to instill in someone of the next generation the values and ideas I grew up with, and maybe I can understand a little more of the hardships they are going through. I don’t want kids, because it’s hard enough figuring out who you are without the insurmountable gap of your skin color between you and everyone else. It’s hard being an immigrant. It’s hard being the child of immigrants. Maybe it won’t be so hard for my children.
A lot of people (generally, white) tell you that your experiences aren’t racially based. They tell you that it’s a part of childhood. They tell you that if it wasn’t that it would’ve been something else and that you’re being oversensitive. It wasn’t racist, it was just kids being kids. The part of you that wants to be strong agrees. The part of you that wants to show your parents that you’ve assimilated after they worked so hard to give their children a better life. The other part of you knows that those kids have been taught from birth by the same systemic racism that pushes down others of colour. The same parents that look sideways at your mother when she never volunteers for a class holiday party (because she knows all she can offer is store bought cookies dropped off between grading papers and meeting with students) pull their kids away from you, bit by bit.
At some point, you have to let go of something. You try not responding when your friends call you a terrorist. You don’t tell them when they are culturally insensitive anymore. You don’t argue with them that they are inherently racist, that the things they are saying are not harmless, and can you please stop referring to me as your Indian friend? You let go. And bit by bit the gap between outside you and inside you widens, a yawning chasm with one foot on each side and darkness between.
They always say they’re not racist. They always justify it to you, tell you they’re joking, laugh it off. They always say that after they make terrorist jokes, 7/11 jokes, gas station jokes, motel jokes. They always say that after they say something biting. If you take it personally, scream that you’ve been subjected to this for too long and you are tired of being the Indian friend, you are just so very tired of your beautiful culture being reduced to trashy jokes, they will say you are too sensitive. It was just a joke. Their answers cover up the question, “Are your friends racist?”
You have never, never had a friend who does not make Indian jokes. You never will. They will always assume it is the part of you that matters the most.
You are lying on a bed with a girl (white). You are in fits of laughter, some stupid internet joke, when another friend comes in Facetiming her old friend. “This is my Indian friend,” she says. Shifting the camera to the other girl, she says “this is my friend.”
The other girl does not need a qualifier. The other girl is not a diversity quota. She will not, after hooking up with a white guy, be told that she was a checkmark on his list of races. She will not be called “exotic.” She will not hide the fact that she did Indian classical dance for 10 years, because she is tired of being asked if it is belly dancing, tired of a thousand year old tradition being sexualized. She will never ask herself if she is tired of her culture. She will never ask if she needs friends who do not do that to her. She will never ask herself why she stopped standing up for her culture. The answer is always the same: it was a joke. I’m not racist.
Racists don’t have Indian friends, right?
Bedi, Jaya. “Beyond Bindis: Why Cultural Appropriation Matters”. Decolonizing Yoga. July 12, 2013. http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/beyond-bindis-why-cultural-appropriation....
TIME. “Nicki Minaj On Cultural Appropriation, Becoming A Boss, Being Unapologetic & More | TIME 100 | TIME”. Filmed [May 2017]. YouTube video, 2:41. Posted [May 2017]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olWhr_bstNU.
1 Lead charges against the British several different times.
2 Destroyed four tanks in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War.
3 Specialised counter terrorism commandos of the Mumbai Police.
4 Special Operations infantry platoon.
5 “Pink” gangs, vigilante women fighting against domestic violence and humanitarian issues.
6 Jaya Bedi, “Beyond Bindis: Why Cultural Appropriation Matters”, Decolonizing Yoga, July 12, 2013, http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/beyond-bindis-why-cultural-appropriation....
7 TIME, “Nicki Minaj On Cultural Appropriation, Becoming A Boss, Being Unapologetic & More | TIME 100 | TIME”, Filmed [May 2017], YouTube video, 2:41, Posted [May 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olWhr_bstNU.