So where are you really from?

Back in September, I was at a bar in San Francisco for trivia night. While ordering, a man sitting down at the bar turned to me and said, “You have really big hair” (#curlyhairproblems).  Despite this introduction I continued to make polite small talk with him while I waited for my drinks.

Eventually, predictably, he asked where I was from. Despite being born and raised in this country, this is a common question I’ve come to expect when meeting new people. My answer of being from the Bay Area did not satisfy him and so I finally told him I was born in Ohio. He was in complete disbelief and demanded to know what city. When I told him, he didn’t believe me since he hadn’t heard of the tiny town I was born in. (I wish I was kidding.)

The questions didn’t end there: Where in India were my parents from? Was it Kerala? (I think that was the one state in India he knew.) What language did I speak?

I think he would have been thoroughly confused to find out my siblings and nephew live in India.

Finally I was able to escape to sweet freedom and my friends, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed. Sure, this man may have been well-intentioned in his questions but where’s the limit? Is there one?

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Maybe it’s the fact that I have been dealing with these questions for nearly a decade now. Whether it’s from strange people in bars to my Lyft drivers, it’s exhausting. After a certain point it gets tiresome to share your family’s entire background every time you meet someone new or when you simply want to order some food at a bar.

I know I can dismiss these comments with a joke or remark, but I hesitate doing so because I don’t want to be rude or assume what someone’s intentions are. People are curious by nature but there is a time and place for such questions, I think.

The current political climate in this country might also be causing my heightened reaction to  these questions. Every day I read the news and see something targeting women or people of my skin color that make me question my place in this country.

I’ll never forget November 8th, 2016, or how someone yelled “Go Trump” to my friends at 1 AM in San Francisco, or how I tossed and turned the whole night.

America has always been home because, well, it is literally the only home I’ve ever known. But the days after the election and even now have me wondering: am I an American? How can I be if this country elected a leader who wouldn’t think I am an American if he saw me? To him American just means white.

How can I be an American when my rights as a woman are likely in danger? Or when the rights of people who look like me and families similar to mine are in danger?

Being a child of South Asian immigrants, questioning my identity is not something new to me. But it has always been in terms of my Indian-ness. Am I Indian enough? Am I too Indian? Right when I think I have that part of me figured out I am now questioning my American side, something I have never done before.

It could be because I have solid proof (my passport) confirming me of my American identity. Or plainly because it never felt like anything I had to question. I was born in America; I am an American..it’s as simple as that right? Lately, it doesn’t feel that way.

“Where are you from?” went from being an annoying, slightly intrusive question to an uncomfortable one as I figure out my place in this new America that is unfolding itself right before  our very own eyes.

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I have Indian Friends

As a thirty year old I can finally admit this without feeling embarrassed: I have mostly Indian friends. Phew. That felt good to get off my chest.

So why do I have mainly Indian friends? I grew up in Fremont, California which is not nicknamed Little India for nothing. I had essentially what are “Indian” interests, so I attended Kathak classes and participated in Bollywood dance groups, garba teams, and culture shows in college. I was also pretty seriously part of an Indian community group for the first 20 years of my life. So yeah, a combination of all that and you can see how a majority of my closest friends are Indian like me.

(I feel like I need to add a disclaimer that yes, I do have (token) non-Indian friends!)

When I give a brief synopsis of my upbringing to those that I have just met, I can see them picturing me as “that stereotypical Indian girl”. You know who I mean: the girl who choreographs all the dances for her college’s Indian club, a bit of a drama queen, and very insular/cliquey.

Honestly, I don’t think that was ever me (aside from the loving to choreograph part) and I most certainly don’t think that is me now. I also don’t think I ever knew anyone like that in college either. And if they were dramatic or insular, I don’t think it had to do with their ethnicity or gender. Like, most people of other ethnic groups probably thought the same of their ethnic group.

It is funny: we are 10 years out of college and yet these assumptions are still being made. Many times I can just see it on their faces and a few even vocalize it. A few years ago an Indian guy, after hearing about my upbringing/Indian friend group, asked me if I was “one of those Indian girls”. What does that even mean?  Is this an appropriate time to quote Mindy Kaling and say “there are literally billions of us”? Or does being able to quote The Mindy Project just add to my Indian girl stereotype?

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Identity is such a personal thing and how one relates to their background/ancestry is entirely up to the individual. I do have to wonder why the judgement is okay one way, but not the other.

Most recently someone told me they don’t speak their mother tongue, felt like they were a “bad Indian”, and opened up about their insecurity regarding all of this. I listened and told them that they weren’t a bad Indian because there is no such thing and that there’s no one way to be Indian. A few days later I brought up that I had started a Meetup group based on South Asian literature and the person asked, “Do you mainly hang out with Indian people?”

Oh boy, here we go, I thought.

“Yee-sss?” I replied, unsure about how this conversation was going to go.

“Oh, well, I like to hang out with all different kinds of people,” they said. Well, I thought, that wasn’t the reaction I was hoping for but I guess this is the conversation we are having now. And so with a sigh, I began listing the reasons I shared above.

Later that night, I thought about that judgmental comment. I would never dream of making someone feel like they are a “bad Indian” nor would I make assumptions or call them “white washed”. I would never say “Oh, well, I think it is important to know your mother tongue” or essentially ask them to justify why they have the friends they have.  And yet that person can make assumptions  or comments about me? It’s ironic that someone who is insecure about their own identity felt secure enough to call me out on mine. Who named you the identity police?

Sure I know that statement says a lot about the other person than it does me. I’m no psychologist but they were probably projecting their insecurities onto me. But it still doesn’t make hearing comments like that any easier. It’s frustrating to feel like you’re being pigeon-holed and stereotyped at the age of 30. Haven’t we interacted with enough people at this point to know there is no stereotypical anything? We’re all special snowflakes in our own right.

Yes, my close friends are all Indian but they are also all kind, empathetic, friendly, welcoming, witty, independent, passionate, and extremely giving people. They’ve all done well for themselves in their careers in law, IT, tech, non-profit, and health fields. If someone were to judge me by my friends I would be worried they would assume I am as amazing and accomplished as they all are. They set the bar really high and I can only hope to have half the good qualities they do. This is why I keep them around. They help me learn and grow as a person. This is what good friends do.

In doing this mental check of all my friends, I thought about whether they would call themselves a “good Indian” or not. Actually I just texted a few of them and none said yes outright. Since they are all so brilliant and thoughtful, it led to a few text discussions about what does good mean anyway? Isn’t it all just subjective? Who sets the standard for good or bad? Society? The individual?  I don’t have any answers but it is interesting to think about.

Am I a good Indian? I’d venture to say probably not or that I am decent at best. At this point the most Indian thing about me is my insistence in making sure my one year old nephew can say foi (aka dad’s sister).

All we can do is try to live the life that we want to live. How I identify with my background may be different than how you identify with yours. That is completely okay. Let us put an end to judgments and assumptions of any kind. We’d all be better for it.

Do you feel like you are judged on how you identify with your Indian-ness? How do you react?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mindy Project

I’ve long since been a fan of Mindy Kaling, from her work as Kelly Kapoor on The Office to her recent book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me. But what I’m most excited about is her newest venture, The Mindy Project, where she is the first Indian American to star AND write in her own show. That is a pretty huge deal!

I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in an area that is tolerant, liberal, and open-minded but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get asked some inane questions like “Do you speak Indian?” or my personal favorite “No, but like where are you really from?” after I mention that I was born in the US.

Even though it premiered last night, I caught the pilot online a few weeks ago. I loved it and I found it especially refreshing that it represented Indian Americans exactly as we are: just like everyone else. No we don’t have accents nor do we have arranged marriages.

Did you see the pilot? What did you think? If you haven’t seen it yet or read her book, I highly recommend that you do!

Mindy Kaling has made it in an industry where there are so few minorities and women, which is not an easy feat.

And because this video says it better than I ever could: