[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."