India, Multicultural, Personal Essays

Reasons Why I Am An Indian…But Not Really

In Part 1 of 3, I discuss 3 reasons why I may not really be an Indian after all. Sure, my passport is Indian and I feel Indian at times but then what does it really mean to be or feel like an Indian, anyway? My Indianness comes to the fore the strongest when it has to do with trying to shove some of that sensibility into my kids or when someone says something even remotely racist or grossly inaccurate, misinformed, or ignorant about India and I jump to her defense. At other times, it’s quite nondescript if you look past the skin color and such.

Born and raised in India, I moved to the US when I was 20-years-old. Another 3 years and I will have lived here, in the United States, as many years as I have lived in India. Subtract the 1 year I lived in Japan and the US actually comes ahead of how long I have lived in any one country. I spent all my 20s and now 30s here. This is home and yet, India is home too.

With each death in the family, first my beloved grandmothers; especially my Mamama, and then, more recently, my mother, I feel a certain emotional disconnect emerging between what used to be home. Home, an Indian home, for me now is just my father and my sister and her husband who still live there. Yes, there are other people, some relatives I love deeply but the sense of home that I felt when everyone was living and connected simply does not exist anymore.

The above notwithstanding, long before the aforementioned deaths and emotional distancing, I had already started separating from my Indianness, however you choose to define (I’ll attempt to in a different post). So, here’s why even though my passport identifies me as an Indian, I am actually, maybe, not one…then again, since when has a mere official document defined anybody completely, right?

3 Reasons Why I am an Indian…but not really

1. Indians don’t always warm up to me.

This does not always bother me but it does make me wonder why that might be the case. Once in graduate school, an Indian guy in gossiping behind my back had complained to my roommate that I carried too much “head weight”. What in the world is head weight? Ego? Pride? With reference to context, that makes sense. I did carry a chip on my shoulders back then (and in some ways, even now) but not in a way that said I was better than anyone, but one that did say, I am not going to stand for your patriarchal BS. Despite being a relatively affluent or upper-middle-class, very well educated Indian (or not), if you are going to hold on to ridiculous archaic 18th century mindsets about women and how we should behave, then yes, I definitely have head weight and I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to be your friend or hang out with you.

Now, when I wonder about why all the Indians are hanging out without me, I am thinking about the few mothers I see at our local library story times. They all seem to know each other and hang out together talking about all kinds of things none of which I understand because they are almost always talking in Telugu or Tamil. A few chat with each other in Punjabi. I do not speak the former two languages and while I can understand Punjabi a little, I cannot carry a conversation in it.

Maybe I look different, differently brown-skinned, if you will. Maybe I dress differently (see Part II coming up in a few days). Maybe my kids don’t look too Indian (for obvious reasons). Maybe they hear me speak to my kids in English and assume I am some kind of pretentious wannabe. Even when I smile and make small talk, they respond politely and then go back to their chit-chat. Do I care to be their friend? Sometimes.

 

2. Some Indians assume I was born here in the US (OR I have different sensibilities)

Statue of Liberty

Read why I prefer raising my kids in the US instead of in India.

The racism amongst Indians was evident on the day I did my first festival booth for my very small business a few weeks ago. I had partnered on the booth with another woman who was nice and friendly. At one point while I was busy with something else, she was chatting with the lady in the booth next to ours. After I finished what I was doing and joined them, something from their conversation led my booth-partner to say, “I haven’t met a single nice South Indian.” I was aghast! WTH! That is akin to someone standing right next to say a black person and saying, “I haven’t met a single nice black person”. I was outraged.

I called her out on her stereotyping immediately and said, “Why are you saying that? That is so wrong on so many levels. Why are you generalizing? How would you like it if I said – I haven’t met a single nice _____ (person from her part of India).” She realized she had angered me and tried to calm her words but also reiterated that she really hadn’t met one. I turned directly to her and said, “I am a South Indian” (I switch where I need to. I am a North Indian. I am a South Indian. I was married to an East Indian. I grew up as a West Indian. More importantly, I am an Indian, I am human.) and her response was:

“No, I don’t mean you. You were born here so you are different.”  This to me is similar to the entire outrage against immigrants, regardless of legal status, and wanting us all deported. When some of these “well-meaning” people come across say a white immigrant from Canada, as it happened to an acquaintance of mine from grad school, people immediately switch to, “Oh we don’t mean immigrants like you!” – Everybody knows exactly what you mean and what kinds (or colors) of immigrants you have in mind.

“I was not born here. I am 100% Indian, born and raised,” I clarified. She was surprised.

Point is, my sensibilities are a lot different from a lot of other Indians’. Not saying mine are better (although they are, in some cases like the above), just that they are more evolved, better informed, and certainly not prejudiced.

The “I thought you were born here” has happened to me a few times before and I have always reacted with some bewilderment. What did I ever do to give that impression (hints: read below)?

3. I am accent-neutral.

(except when I am angry or stressed out or talking to Indians with whom I am very comfortable)

I am really good at my fake “American” accent. Fake or not, I realized that accents have a lot to do with how you pronounce things. Now what constitutes the “correct” pronunciation may be debatable but if one speaks English and wants to be accent-neutral to whatever extent, one may as well stick to any one of the native English speaking countries’ accents. One may also, of course, choose not to do anything about one’s accent and embrace it.

Given my family’s geographical history, my sisters and I do not have very obvious Indian accents to begin with. Furthermore, our ambiguous last name (to most Indians) does not give away our regional affiliation either. In other words, we have had no strong regional accent to color our English. As a result, while our accents are very much Indian, they do not speak to a certain region of India. You will not be able to identify what part of India we are from listening only to our English. For example, we do not say “Hech” for “Ech” or “H”. We don’t say “Awnyn” for “Anian” or “Onion”.  Having a native English speaker around me (as in, my husband) helps too. For example, my husband taught me to say “Callander” instead of “Co-land-er” for “Colander”, among other words.

The more I live here, the more I hear people speak (17 years, 2 advanced degrees, 1000s of students, etc.), the more television shows and movies I watch, and really the more I interact with native speakers in general, my English is gaining an organically-converted Americanized-Indian hybrid accent for good. I prefer it that way.

My original accent only comes out when I am stressed out and get overwhelmed by accent-fatigue and really don’t care to focus on it. When this happens, and when I am angry, I automatically slip into my natural accent. I also tend to speak my natural Indian accent when I speak to Indians with whom I am close. There is a certain comfort and familiarity with sprinkling regional flavors (e.g., “aga” or “ho na” or “masta” in Marathi or “arrey”, “yaar”, or “kuch bhi” in Hindi) in English thereby making English, Hinglish (Hindi-English) or Marlish (Marathi-English) or HinMarLish. Of course, this only works when the other person also speaks and knows the languages I know.

Again, the point is, in 100% of my communication with non-Indians and Indians or South Asians born in the US, I use my organically gained American-Indian hybrid accent which is very close to a regular American/Canadian accent (I feel). In fact, at our wedding reception in Canada, a lot of my husband’s friends couldn’t believe I was an Indian from India (as in, not born in the US/Canada) because of my apparently non-(Indian)accented English.

Stay tuned for Part II where I discuss 3 more reasons I am a Part-Time Indian.

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