I grew up in a homogeneous town where I represented one of the few Indian Americans. While I faced very few instances of overt racism, I remained painfully aware of the differences between myself and the majority of my peers.
This situation might have bothered me less had I forged strong links with an Indian community. I found that my purely Anglophone tongue, born and bred Catholic beliefs, and ignominious ignorance about Indian issues beyond Bollywood and food rendered me an object of othering by those who could have resembled me most. A family friend once remarked, “You’re definitely not Indian. You’re just a tan white person.” Yet I knew that no white person would ever accept that.
These conditions, (and my compulsive nature), provided me with a consistent habit of labeling myself. I had to find single words to easily explain who I was. It did not matter if the words blatantly contradicted themselves. It did not even matter that people would probably never discover my use of these qualifiers. I still held an unyielding belief that one could not function in society without knowing herself. To follow that philosophy all the way to its end, I had to appropriately identify my personal, physical, mental, and emotional qualities.
Categorizing myself ethnically seemed to provide the only easy answer when I defined my identity. In my town where over 90% of people were Caucasian, I would immediately say that I was Indian. Why? Almost every student came from the same place. When people asked where I was from, they already assumed that I had local roots.
Identifying as American was redundant, and my Indian heritage truly differentiated me in terms of culture, appearance, and experience. Contrary to what these musings suggest, I did not necessarily see this as a negative point (though I certainly told my parents otherwise.) I simply acknowledged my position as claiming Indian status without really being Indian. In my mind, no Indian would willingly accept someone like me, especially once he/she discovered that my lack of natural ability for Math and Science would forever eliminate “doctor” and “engineer” from my long list of descriptors.
Fast forward a few years.
I went to college at a large public university, relieved that I would graduate debt free. But my greatest source of excitement, that I could hardly contain yet revealed to no one, stemmed from my knowledge that I would finally make demographically diverse friends and pursue grander areas of progress. I made a vehement declaration that I wanted one Indian friend, (but only one!), so I could reap the benefits of bonding with someone of my ethnic label while exposing myself to the people whom I’d never received the privilege of meeting in my hometown. (Ultimately, I made more than one Indian friend and realized that increasing my quota would pose no serious consequences on my well-being.)
Though my proficiency in Hindi extended to a few excessively repeated phrases from Bollywood movies, and my skill in my father’s native language did not exist at all, I became surprisingly serious about studying French. I took courses in Paris one summer. And that’s where I started to question my Indian label.
Unlike grammar school, where a social scene constantly shoves itself in your face, unlike college, where students like myself brim with excitement over whom they may meet, Paris provided me with no anticipation. I had traveled across an ocean to study in an authentically French setting; I could not be bothered with finding friends or making social contact.
Yet people wanted to talk to me, particularly those who shared my skin tone. I could swear that none of my classmates had to answer where they came from as much as I did. Sometimes discussions about my ethnicity presented themselves in pleasant ways. I will always remember, for example, drinking free tea from Middle Eastern restaurant owners who also identified with being colored in a country where that was not exactly the norm. Less positive experiences, however, included the many leering men who asked me where I was from and subsequently mocked me when it became clear that I may look Indian but would certainly bleed red, white, and blue before white, green, and orange.
The turning point came when, after weeks of remaining on guard against anyone who even looked at me, an Indian man sold me fruit and asked if I was Indian. Of course, I said “yes.” His eyes lit up, and he started speaking to me in a language that I did not at all recognize.
“I don’t understand,” I admitted apologetically.
“But you said you’re Indian!”
“I’m Indian, but I was born in America. My parents are from India,” I confessed.
“Oh. You’re American.”
The man smiled at me with pity in his eyes. How could an adult-aged woman not know her own ethnicity? Clearly your place of birth determined where you came from. And I couldn’t argue with such logic.
From that point forward, when confronted with the seemingly innocuous question of where I came from, I mentioned either my home state or town.
College could have been the place where I placated my penchant for labeling myself. However, it exacerbated this habit more than anything. The grander areas of progress I’d searched for finally gave me an opportunity to put myself into more boxes. My ambitious personality wanted me to prove that I could fit into all of them.
Honors Student. Educator. Human rights enthusiast. Christian fellowship member. Singer. Feminist. Gym goer. Peer mentor. Friend. New student recruiter. Employee. Ethnic minority. French major. Dorm member who’s always awake no matter what hour other people come home. Person who gives a little of herself to everything but everything of herself to nothing.
Fate, (and plenty of blind courage), sent me to France after graduation, where I taught English in the French public school system.
And my ethnic identity came into question once more.
At first, I only heard jokes from a teacher who let me stay at her house despite her fears that an American would just mumble indistinguishable English phrases, constantly text on an iPhone, and, worst of all, hate cheese. (For the record, I didn’t have any functional phone, loved the moldiest of cheeses, and articulated well in English and sometimes even French!)
Once I started regularly teaching, however, the inadvertently aggravating question of, “Where are you from?” came in the form of interrogation from youthful students. This time, however, I refused to give them the answer for which they searched.
“No, but, where are you from?”
“I was born in America.”
Only when they asked about my origins did I say, “Well, my parents are from India” and became inexplicably irritated when they made comments such as, “I knew it!” or “That was so obvious.” I acknowledged my feelings but did not hold their comments against them. They had no idea of knowing that their remarks disorganized my carefully constructed categories.
One of my teacher colleagues said that students had difficulty comprehending that Americans could be brown like me. We viewed my presence as a way for them to open their minds, change their conceptions, and reconsider a country whose media they devoured while knowing little to nothing about the nation’s practicalities.
If students represented the only people who contested my claims to being American, I would not have been bothered. Yet I constantly had to answer the question, “Where are you from?” and prepare for a debate with adults, many who had never been to America but still felt as though they had the authority to dictate how I self-identified.
I remember meeting a lady who argued with me, saying, “Excuse me, but Americans are white.”
My mother told me that I was being snobby. “You are Indian. Just say that your parents are from India. That’s what they want to hear,” she said.
I did not refuse to identify as Indian because I believed this race beneath me. Far from it, in fact. Since my meeting with the fruit vendor, I stopped feeling comfortable claiming a culture that I only knew in a limited context. My adulthood in America marked a period of extensive exoticism for many Indian exports, from bindis to Bollywood. I believed that saying I was Indian would let me benefit from the exoticism without truly holding a stake in the culture.
American culture, however, provided me with familiarity and ease. Even better, saying that I was American implied that I had immigrant roots as America prided itself on its melting pot nature. Logistically, admitting Americanhood provided the most accurate answer as well: I had an American passport and had been sent to France as an American ambassador of the English language.
Ultimately, I discovered that my mother had raised a valid point: People already knew what they wanted to hear. But I had spent much of my life crafting intrapersonal knowledge and refused to let it go to waste in the face of other people’s expectations, particularly when they opposed my own convictions.
Though living and working abroad provided me with challenges that I had not foreseen, challenges that made me deconstruct and reconstruct my self-perception time and time again, my experience provided me with a strong takeaway: People enter and leave your life in many different ways. You remain with yourself forever and reign as the master/mistress of your self-expression.
My long history of categorization certainly taught me flexibility between qualities. While today I say that I am American, my next trip to India could change my mind. When other people contest either assertion of my ethnic identity, I will be at peace with the knowledge that the one person whose experience qualifies her to describe this identity has already spoken: me.
-Post submitted by Justine D’Souza