Sunday, August 5, 2007

"Excuse me, are you Indian?

[warning: touchy feely post ahead]

I was walking out of Penn Station in Newark when a woman and her obscenely tall son stopped me and asked "Excuse me, are you Indian?" Over the years that question has really struck me in a couple of weird ways over the years.

Growing up it sorta was the opening shot in somebody making fun of me, my heritage, or something peculiar about me when asked by non-Indian. As I grew older it would morph into people feeling the need to tell me "oh I have an Indian buddy from college" or "I have a good Persian friend so that's sorta like Indian right?" or the even more remote attempt to establish another link in the Universal Brotherhood of Man "I love Indian food!" Answering "Yes" usually led to an innane conversation about how somehow it was so cool that I was Indian and then I was given a chance to share my opinions on this pressing matter. Answering "Yes" was something which prevented you from being like everyone else and blending in.

When asked by Indians/people of the South-Asian diaspora, the question is a bit more annoying. Cab drivers asking it can cut both ways. It usually is a starting point on how they're really from Bangladesh or Pakistan and that all brown people are the same....or they'll talk about how bad Indians are. Either way I find myself a little bit over self-conscious...rarely do I made phone calls during such cab rides because I don't want them to be making secret mental notes about me.

If it's Indians at airports or just in public the question "Are you Indian?" hits at some personal insecurities. Usually people ask that, and upon me saying "Yes" they'll burst into Hindi. At which point I'll say "You know, I actually can understand it a little, but can't speak so well, I'm sorry." There response is usually a disgusted look as if to say "What kinda 10 paise Indian are you?" There is nothing as enjoyable as sharing your deepest insecurities with others in a public setting.

It is for these reason that I often stall answering by making a geographic distinction versus an ethic one, but I usually stumble into giving my life story: "Yes I'm Indian...well, I was born here and grew up here...but my parents are from India...I'm Maharashtran...but yeah, I'm Indian." It's come to the point that I almost look disgusted for hearing the question.

My all-time low point as a human being came when I was at the airport waiting for a flight to Richmond when an elderly Indian woman who seemed visibly confused came up to me and asked "Are you Indian" and I just ignored her. Life wasn't going so well, work was stressing me out, and the last thing I needed was to feel any more pressure about who i was inside. Furthermore I had this horrible fear of everyone else in the terminal looking at me and having this woman's safe journey be my responsibilities since I was the nearest Indian. The woman kept asking me over and over and I just sat there with my headphone on, and my iPod turned off.

So here I was, walking out of the station when the South Indians stopped me. After saying "Um, yes I'm Indian" ...the woman asked me in perfectly crisp, non-accented English how to get to the airport. Clearly some relative dropped them off at Newark thinking the airport was right there but were mistaken by a few miles. So after telling them that their quickest and cheapest bet was a cab versus making a one-train stop, the woman thanked me and followed me out to the cab ride.

And while I opened the door for her and the gargantuan (but seemingly mute) son, it struck me that she was only asking if I was Indian because for her that's how she would make her decision on whether I was someone to be trusted versus the myriad of strangers in the station, and that my friends isn't a bad reason to answer "Yes I'm Indian."


Anonymous said...

and that is the same reason why the old lady at the airport asked you if you were indian.

Shakes said...

...yes. thank you for that. in other news i have a wound. perhaps we can find some salt to put into it. that would be lovely.

Anonymous said...

I am very careful never to ask that kind of question.

What I would be concerned about is whether you were an American for too many ethnic groups today feel more connected to the country of their roots than the country of their citizenship.

And this could cause problems when voting because only people who are and feel American should vote in US elections.

Shakes said..., ok. i feel like your three paragraphs were written by three different people...

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Oh man... how everyone is always ready to judge us! Feel your plight --- maybe the next time someone does that you should burst into some Sanskrit chant! :D

Anonymous said...

sorry. didn't mean to.

Shakes said...

ahh, sorry i didn't mean to sound like a jerk, but i thought it was pretty self evident already that my reaction wasn't very cool...

Anonymous said...

I thought your reaction was totally understandable, and I understood you weren't necessarily saying your reaction wasn't cool.

I find the best way to handle this situation when you are asked by a White is to say "I am an American what are you". That embarrasses them.

As for when asked by a Indians/people of the South-Asian diaspora just say you grew up in America and don't speak Hindi well.

Anonymous said...

I meant to type that you weren't saying that your reaction was cool.

But again it was understandable.

When people Indians/people of the South-Asian diaspora asks this question I guess they must be new or visiting America and feel intimidated by strangers. When they see someone who might be Indian they see "one of them" who could be able to help.

I guess that is probably the reaction of most people when feeling alone in a foreign land. I have never been somewhere strange to me where I am "the other" so I don't know. But I guess I would try to latch onto other Americans if I could find them.

Sunshine said...

I still dont understand why you would get irritated by such a question? I think it is a pretty straightforward question and people who get irritated by this should.....just give a starightforward answer and move on!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you have never been in a situation where you were being made to feel like "the other" when you really just wanted to be yourself.

Shakes is as American as any other American but since his skin is dark people think he is a foreigner.

illusionaire said...

Dear Shakes,

I really envy you. You're settling outside India and yet people are still asking you if you are an Indian. And on top of that you can even afford to be irritated by such a question.

I've been living in my country India all my life, but NOBODY recognizes me as an Indian. People always come up to me and ask if I am a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Bhutanese etc etc. If you had experienced what I am experiencing every day of my life here, then trust me, you would have realized the pleasure and glory of being asked if you are an Indian.

Warm regards,


Suja, said...

Great entry... makes one reflect!

Anonymous said...


I just don't get what there is to be offended about when someone asks you whether you're Indian.

I just reply, with a smile, 'yes, I am'. I am assured of who I am. No big deal.

When Indians ask that question, I say 'Yes', and the conversation usually turns to something about back home - which is a conversation I like btw. So no big deal there. When others the question, I think 'he/she probably knew an Indian from college, or went to India on a trip' and I don't mind sharing some bonhomie over that.

I guess to each his own deal. I'm a proud Bengali/ Indian - a first generation immigrant - and I'm proud to say I'm Indian.


Shakes said...

Oh boy. I totally respect where you're coming from and I couldn't be more prouder to be an Indian. All I'm saying is that there are times when I don't like going through who I am and my origins 2 or 3 times a day. I think also the message that I was trying to get across was that I'm also self-conscious of not speaking Hindi so well or knowing everything about the culture so well, so I get a little defensive when I'm in these convos at times...and when it happens a few times a day/week then it becomes a bit trying at times.

And besides the whole writing was just to let out that I do realize that my behavior isn't always rational, but i'm congnizant of it...