Often when people ask me, where I am from, I am unsure what to answer. But it’s almost like they know the answer, for whenever I reply with- “I am originally from India, but living in Minnesota”, I get nods as if they were expecting the India part from me. As if, I wear my nationality on my face. If it is really my skin color that is the clue for people to discern where I am from, India is not the most obvious choice. You see, based on how I look, I can easily be from at least eight different countries in the world. Yet, most of the time, people call me an Indian and they are right.
I remember once, in graduate school we were talking about identities. I sat there looking at my fellow classmates and almost like an epiphany, it came to me – how much of who I am is apparent from my name and my face. Anyone with a basic understanding of the etymology of Indian names can easily guess my religion, my father’s name and even which part of the country I am from. But more so here in this country, where skin color means more than just how much melanin I have, it becomes obvious how much is said even when I silently walk into a room. Sometimes my presence is unique and adds some depth. Sometimes my background isn’t unique enough to be considered exotic. I am commonplace, yet I don’t blend. How do I feel about wearing my identity on my sleeve? Do people assume things about me before they even hear me talk? Do I do the same to others?
I remember when I got my first job here, I was ushered to my cube. I was fascinated by the big space and wanted to make sure I can create a good work atmosphere for myself. So I promptly got a little lamp, a few plants, family pictures, and books. I even kept comfy house slippers and my mother’s pashmina, and made sure I was amply stalked with tea leaves and coffee beans. A friend’s card on the wall, an inspirational quote, a postcard from home. I love maps and I love the Indian map even more, so I thought of putting an Indian map or a flag on the wall. But it’s been a year and a half, and the map never made it to my wall.
I have cringed a lot of times when stereotypes have been thrown at me. I have a long list too- I have some tea for you (when everyone else is offered coffee), does your husband treat you equally, how many spices do you have at home, you must be loving it hot, how is your English so good, are you in IT, and the best of all – Indian women make good wives. I often try to take this with a pinch of salt. Don’t I have stereotypes too? I try to blame it on naivetés than an intent to offend. Some of these things are quite true too – I do live for a cup of tea, my spices and herbs are my lifeline and I love it hot. But is that all? I hope and pray, with each of these interactions, that they realize I am not just that.
During my first few months here, I remember smiling at every familiar brown face. Everywhere I met them, I nodded in familiarity. I would break into a smile at grocery store, bus stops, movie theaters, corridors and malls. Not every interaction was happy. Sometimes I ran into the atypical-very-eager-to- talk Indians who turned out to be Amway entrepreneurs. Some didn’t want to acknowledge, some gave back an equally warm smile and some broke into respectable, well-intention-ed yet banal small talk. I loved when I could exchange a genuine smile with them. I wanted to talk to them – where are you from? Which part of south Asia? What language do you speak? What brought you here? Why are we here? What is going to happen to us?
In public spaces, I heard many languages. A hint of Punjabi accent, a Marathi conversation, a Hindi nok-jhok, everything registered. At Indian restaurants, I found myself looking about, trying to see what their story was. I classified my fellow nationals in storyboards of my own making, almost like molds for freezing ice cream. The older ones who appeared a little timid were visiting their America settled son or daughter and grandsons. The really young brazen ones were either working or students. Then there were the second generation Indians who didn’t really blend but belonged. For each of these groups, I had questions- Did they feel they belong here? Would they return? How would they mix their two worlds? How long before they could never be home at home?
I have always been a proud Indian, so I often smiled when I saw a universal appreciation of Indian-ness. So the mushrooming Yoga studios, the changing India friendly products in mainstream grocery stores, the chai tea and naan bread (weird nomenclature), the Punjabi Bhangra in Zumba, the weekly Bollywood class at the local gym, and Jai Ho!, everything remotely Indian stood out to me.
So what does it mean to be an Indian abroad?
To be an Indian abroad, I have realized, is to be one every day and every moment, but calmly, so that your identity doesn’t overpower, doesn’t speak too much. It’s like being a hint of cinnamon in your regular chai tea latte. It is to blend in, when you would rather stand out, it is to remember when you want to forget, and to forget when you want to really remember.
It is to be reminded of where you come from, and yet not be acknowledged of where you are.
It is to be free, on cue.