Finding Myself on the Map

A lot of people ask me the question, “Where are you from?” I know most people ask because they are curious about my ethnicity, not because they want to know which state of the Union I identify myself with. But I am never really sure, so often ask, “What do you mean?” I will respond without hesitation once they clarify. In some cases, people are actually asking about the state I am from, after they catch the subtlest hint of what remains of my Jersey accent.

When the question is about my ethnicity, the responses I get range in nature from slight head nods to outward enthusiasm to the highly offensive. Here are a few examples:

I love Indian food! I love Indian culture. That’s so cool.” An enthusiastic response.

Wow, you’re pretty for an Indian!” Yeah, that’s a very informed thing to say. No, it’s not.

You don’t look Indian. Are you sure there’s no white mixed in? Somewhere?”

DOT, not feather, right?” Yes, I have seen “Good Will Hunting.” You’re hysterical.

I have a friend who is Indian. Do you know him? His name is Sunny Patel.” Um, no. Oh wait, you’re Italian? Do you know Bob Russo? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Do Indians really eat monkey brains?” Thanks for starting that rumor, Indiana Jones. No, as a matter of fact, a good portion of India is vegetarian.

Oh, you’re name is Kiran (pronounced kee-rin)! Do you mind if I call you Karen instead? Kiran is too complicated.” No. I’d prefer you call me nothing at all.

You just don’t look Indian,” said with a head tilt, skepticism laced in the answer. This obviously from an expert on physical traits of Indian people.

Wow. Your English is really good. I can’t even hear an accent.” The only accent I am guilty of having is the slight Jersey one, courtesy of the state I spent my childhood in.

I don’t get upset any more. In the past, I was a little firecracker about a few of the comments above. I would get angry or defensive and rail at the ignorance of the comments. Sometimes I would express how pissed off I was directly to the person, but oftentimes afterwards, where I would think of all the witty ways I should have replied.

There were times in my life when I wasn’t so comfortable being different from my friends, different enough to be receiving this question. I am sad to admit this to you now, but there were times when I was  actually happy when someone told me that I “don’t look Indian.” It seemed safer to be identified as something else. Something less, I don’t know…

Foreign.

Last weekend, we packed up the kids and drove up from Northern Virginia  to visit family in NJ and NY. Our Au Pair, Heather, came with us. She isn’t very familiar with Indian culture (she’s from Wales) and so I spent a lot of time explaining small things to her along the way to help her navigate a little easier. There was a lot to tell her, but I still don’t think I prepared her nearly enough.

While I am American, I genuinely do consider myself to be blended in my identity – sort of a citizen of both worlds. Walking into my parents home is a reminder of how influenced I am by the culture.

Let me walk you through a normal scene.

Imagine opening the door and immediately being embraced by your parents who have been calling you since you left home to find out where you are in the journey (usual answer “We’re stuck in Delaware”). They mostly do this so they can time when the food should be ready, because they want it to be just perfect when you get there. You can smell the aroma of the chicken curry and the lingering hints of the masala (spices) my mother used (Turmeric? Garam masala?) and immediately head into the kitchen to see what other goodies Ma made. Through the corner of your eye you can see the colorful pictures of the Hindu gods which grace the wall. Some put up thoughtfully, others placed on other walls haphazardly. Your mom asks you to eat some prasad that she brought home from the temple. To eat it is like receiving a blessing from God. You pick an almond out – usually part of the mix. Prasad is considered sacred, so once it has been presented to the Gods and a prayer ceremony (puja) is performed, to decline an offering is frowned upon. Most importantly, none of the prasad can be thrown away or wasted. As you enter the family room, you  can detect the smell of the sandalwood incense my mother had burned earlier.

There are so many other things which assault my senses, bringing me back to the world I was raised in. And it’s comfortable to me. None of it seems foreign because it’s what I know. We usually settle on the couch, ignoring the buzz of the Bollywood videos playing on ZEE-TV (THE Indian channel for most Indian-Americans) which is pretty much on all the time when I go home. My mom asks me if I want her intoxicating chai. I decline and ask for a coffeee instead.

It’s odd straddling two culture like this sometimes. Marrying a non-Indian also accentuates the differences within cultures. However – this is what the immigrant experience entails. Usually the children of the first and second generation will be raised the way I was.

While most people who know me realize I am Indian in ethnicity, I think seeing me in my home surroundings is always a bit of a shock to them. It’s an eye opener, that’s for sure. It’s like I gain some kind of unspoken street cred. New Delhi style.

Here are some pictures of my grandparents, which both hang prominently in my parent’s family room, slightly crooked and much higher than eye level. These are decorating guidelines my parents do not care to know or abide by. I only saw my now deceased grandparents once every few years. They were my largest tie to India, and once they were gone, some part of my connection to India loosened a bit.

My maternal grandparents, Nana and Nani.

 

My paternal grandparents. “Dada” and “Dadi”

I love how my grandfathers look in the “Nehru” jackets, named after the influential politician Jawarharlal Nehru, father of Indira Gandhi. I see a little bit of myself in each of their faces, but I inherited most of my features from my mother’s side.  I look at my Dadi and all I see is my own father’s face. Although, his eyes are definitely my Dada’s. Nobody is smiling, because taking pictures in my family is a big deal, and showing your teeth is considered “unattractive.” Too “proudy” as my mother or aunties might say.

I’m a girl from Jersey who teased my hair in gravity defying hair styles. My hometown is close to Bruce Springsteen’s and Bon Jovi’s. I love pizza and bagels and I miss how in New Jersey, when someone cut you off, you usually got that little hand wave in the rear view mirror. Nobody seems to do that in Virginia.

NJ – that’s part of where I am from.

But do you see those people in the pictures above with their stoic expressions, posing at the  portrait studio? That’s also where I am from. It’s a big part of me that doesn’t go away. It’s not just the music or the food or the nuances of culture that make me hold on to that. It’s memories of climbing guava trees barefoot in the summer as I played hide and seek with my cousins. It’s memories of the smell of the early morning dew when I woke up in my father’s village. It’s holding my Nana’s hand as he took me to the market to buy me some lemonchus (candies) from a vendor in a wooden stall.

It’s so much more than I can say in one post.

I don’t really know yet if I clearly know where I am from. There is a quote from author Hugo Hamilton that hits on some of my feelings on this question.

“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.” (From The Speckled People, A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood)

For me, where I am from is not a place on the map. It’s the collective stories, events and people in my life who have shaped that. It’s a combination of nowhere and everywhere, I like to think.

I think most of us are from there.

Where are you from?

45 Responses to Finding Myself on the Map

  • Marie says:

    Loved this. It made me feel my own background in a richer way, too. (Think the same as you, but Italian.) I could feel all this as you wrote it. Thank you.

    • masalachica says:

      Thanks, Marie. By the way, my husband is half-Italian, so Italian culture is a big part of our lives too. He is also half-Puerto Rican. Suffice to say, when we go back to visit our families, we are well fed :-)

  • Tanya
    Twitter:
    says:

    I so know what you mean and I always feel like “where are you from?” is a confusing question being an Indian-American myself (no trace of an Indian accent here, much more of a slight Southern drawl). I try to guess what the asker is intending but inevitably I answer incorrectly. My standard answer is “i was born in America, but my parents are from India” and then they mean what state I am from. If i answer I am from NC, they mean, no my ethnicity.

    To compound the confusion, when I am with my husband who is Mexican but much lighter skinned than me, people assume I am Hispanic. Which is fine until they start speaking to me in Spanish and which will get them no where. My husband has been mistaken for Chinese and well, my kids?, It depends on the season, in the winter they look more Hispanic and when they are at the pool all summer, they look decidedly Indian.

    I guess you could say we are an international family, which is just fine with me. Maybe our little family helps people understand, you shouldn’t judge by appearances. We are who we are and have quite a story. We are lucky to have a family with a mix of cultures with high values, vibrant celebrations, fantastic food and loving people.

    • masalachica says:

      That’s funny that people make the assumption that you are Hispanic. In my family, though John is half-Italian and half-Puerto Rican, people assume he is Indian. It’s all quite funny. I think the thing that is strange though is that if you “look ethnic” or sport an accent, it is easier for people to ask you about your background. There are people who are in this country who are way more tied to their homelands, but they are white so it’s not something they will get asked until you hear an accent. Another interesting thing is on identity. I have a friend who is half Indian and half Swedish. Because she doesn’t “look Indian” she doesn’t really associate herself that way. So on forms, she checks off “White.” I think the idea of racial identity will become harder and harder to clarify because we are all going to be a mix of a lot of things a few generations down the road.

      • Tanya
        Twitter:
        says:

        Racial identity has been a challenge already, as far as completing forms for our bi-racial kids. On some school forms, they don’t have an option for multi-racial identities so normally I mark them then as Hispanic. On some forms, if they are any part Hispanic, you mark hispanic for race but its “white” for ethnicity.

        When the US Census came to my door, she asked about our races. I diligently disclosed kids’ Asian Indian and Mexican heritages but she said since I am Asian Indian, the US Census considers the kids Asian Indian only. Biologically, hospitals know which baby belongs to the mom but a mom can claim any dad’s name on the birth certificate without any proof. I had to laugh when she told me but I suppose it’s true.

        I found it interesting on one article discussing Asian kids college admissions applications. That many Asian applicants were not indicating as such on their admissions forms because it made it more competitive and when compared to other Asians in the applicant pool. So claiming their identity as “white” would actually give them a better shot at being accepted. I guess I have a few years to figure it out, but for scholarship opportunities, I bet marking my kids as Hispanic will give them a better advantage.

    • Love this. When I was a kid, we moved to TX for a couple of years due to my Dad’s job, and it was the first time I realized that the whole world wasn’t Italian. That not ALL people ate lasagna or manicotti on Christmas. The people in TX all assumed our family was Mexican and often commented on how well we spoke English. Thanks? It’s the only language I speak, actually ;) In college and for a little while afterward, I was kind of self-conscious about being an Italian from NJ. But when on the rare occasion I get to be surrounded by that big, loud, huggy/kissy family of mine, I really love it. I love seeing bits and pieces myself reflected in all the people who share our family history and biology. The connections are uncanny when you haven’t spent time with someone in a long time, and yet you realize you have this common thread. Good stuff.

      • masalachica says:

        John is a quarter Italian. Where I grew up, most of my friends were Italian. I though being Italian was the mark of being cool. I can see why people might ask you that question – you have olive skin and an exotic look. The “how well you spoke English” Part is another story. I love John’s Italian side of the family! They are so warm and loving and so easy to laugh with.

  • The Bride says:

    Since I’ve been having a semi-identity crisis myself of late (dealing with how I feel about moving back to India), that quote in particular was very helpful.

    • masalachica says:

      I know – I thought the quote was beautiful. When are you moving back to India?

      • The Bride says:

        Not for a couple of years at least, but before our kids are five because we have this theory that it will be easier to adjust before they start formal schooling. My husband is pushing for it, I am meh. The thing is I never completely fit in in India either because I had a very Westernised upbringing. In some ways, it’s easier to be a foreigner in a foreign country. But I do feel less foreign in India, so the whole thing is confusing.

        PS: I love your “confirm you are not a spammer” tick box option. I hate those things where you have to fill in a blurry-looking word. I always get the words wrong, and have to redo it a couple of time.

  • Alison
    Twitter:
    says:

    If my children writes a blog in the future, they may very well write this. :)

    One born in Australia, one born in Malaysia – to a Libyan father who’s Australian, and a Malaysian-Chinese mother. Now living in Malaysia, and will probably live in Australia in a few years. Universal children much?

  • steph says:

    Ha. Been stuck in Delaware a few times myself :-)

    I LOVE this. I am a quarter Filipino and three quarters mutt. My dad looks Filipino. I look….Panamanian…Italian…who knows. I am also from Charleston, SC with NO accent of any kind. I get this question A LOT. My son has blue eyes and my half sister (not my father’s biological child) looks more like him than I do. Go figure. People can never figure it out. I’m too dark to be “white” but too light to be “Asian.” Makes for an interesting convo starter, at least.

    • masalachica says:

      Steph – so glad to see you back. You sound like you fit into the highly coveted “exotic” category. You could be a chameleon in a lot of places if you were traveling the world – how cool is that?

      Delaware sucks. (No offense to the people of Delaware. I am sure you are all very nice.)

  • Julia Kovach says:

    I can’t figure out how to “follow” this blog. Help please.

  • cynthia says:

    Kenya. And i can totally relate to the feeling of straddling two countries or cultures as an immigrant. I can also relate to that annoying “where are you from” question.

  • Krystal
    Twitter:
    says:

    I completely get this as I came to Canada when I was 6 years old from Trinidad. I try my best to blend in my culture as much as I can, I will never forget where I came from. In the past individuals have called me “white”; what does that mean. My response, have you seen my skin hello i’m brown. My take on it would be that I incorporate a variety of cultures in my life, I love people and different cultures. I am not defined by where I came from only, I am me.

    Btw, I appreciate your explanation of your culture as there are some similarities in the West Indian cultures as well :) Parsad and Zee tv LOL

    • masalachica says:

      Krystal – what a cool mix of cultures. Yes – we had a lot of friends who were West Indian, and they especially loved being part of the pujas. One of my Dad’s friends was the best tabla (Indian drum) player around.

      Zee TV kills me. It’s so addictive.

  • Adam S says:

    This is just awesome. From the top to the very last sentence. There’s a lot of personality in this, and frankly, I found it pretty enlightening too. It’s funny, the first question that popped in my mind when I saw your picture was “what nationality?” I’m naturally curious about everything though…

    “It’s like I gain some kind of unspoken street cred. New Delhi style.” (still laughing)

    I think the way that you closed this piece out is exactly how I feel. To me, it’s more about the environment that you create for yourself; the place where you feel most “at home”. That includes the people that you surround yourself with.

    I grew up to a father born in Europe, so all of my family on his side is still heavily influenced by the culture. Whenever we all get together for a German-fest, or whatever you wanna call it (we call it a picnic), I feel just as comfortable being immersed in that culture. It’s homey-feeling to me. I enjoy speaking the little bit of German that I can, I grew up on the food, and love beer!

    There are a lot of parallels between your upbringing and mine. Thanks for sharing. Great post!

    • masalachica says:

      Thanks for reading the post so thoughtfully, Adam, and for your input.

      I do think that there are a lot of people who experience what I do – whether we are Indian, German, Italian of Kenyan. I try to write about something that could be universally understood, even if I couch it in my “Indian-ness” sometimes.

      Kiran

  • magiceye says:

    So beautifully narrated. Would have loved to hear your witty replies to those identity questions!

    • masalachica says:

      Thank you magiceye. Are you knew here? So glad to welcome you to Masala Chica. As you get to know me more through my posts you will have a pretty good idea of how I respond to blatant ignorance and prejudice. Calmy of course ;-)

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  • Alma says:

    At 40 years old i get ” wow you don’t have an accent” or ” is Puerto Rico part of the US?”
    Some of the ones you wrote were harsh.
    I can relate. When I was younger I got picked on by the other spanish girls because I was not “spanish” enough. Ugh!
    This was beautifully written Kiran ;)
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  • Monica says:

    Where are you from? Is a question I usually receive because of my accent (both in English and in Spanish). My latin accent is obvious ok. But in Spanish? Latinamericans except Colombians usually say: You talk like colombian but you don’t look like one, are your parents european? No, not even my great great grandparents are foreigners.
    In Colombia: But you speak with a foreign accent and don’t look from here. No idea why. My son is getting the same questions. Are we from a parallel Colombia with an slightly different accent and looks?
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  • Beautiful post! I can relate to your story. I moved from Puerto Rico to the states when I was 9 and have also lived a “double” life intertwining two cultures and values. Most of the time I feel blessed for the experience but there have been times when I’ve felt that I don’t officially belong to either culture. :)
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  • Nelson
    Twitter:
    says:

    Wonderful as always!
    BTW, you should be able to reply properly now. The error was in my autofill on your comments page. The “a” was missing.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Nelson
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  • Angela says:

    Dear Kiran,

    There are so many aspects of your post that I can relate to…the questions, growing up in a predominantly Caucasian area, my sister and I were the only Asians throughout our elementary school days and there was one other Asian family in high school.

    I came to Canada from Korea when I was almost three years old…I still get the “where are you from” question, like you, I used to be defensive and offended, but now am rather bemused and resigned to the fact that some people really don’t get it when it comes to sensitivity or manners. I really like your term “blended in my identity”. Thank you for this post, your writing is sensitive, heartfelt and wonderfully descriptive.

  • Mercy says:

    I get asked where I’m from all the time, being a white person in Tamil Nadu where most people are very dark skinned. I’ve taken to saying I’m from here since I’ve been here so long, especially when I don’t want to delve into the long conversation that would come.
    I’m from a (very white) mixed family – Italian on my dad’s side and French, North American Indian, Irish and Scottish on my mom’s side. Insane.
    My kids are half Indian but since they look so foreign people are always surprised to hear they are Indian, even though they were all born here and have never been anywhere else. And while they look white, when you put their skin next to mine, they have the perfect tan. My girls will never have to worry about tanning when we move to Canada. With a little sun, they get the perfect color that anyone would envy. :) I just burn. Ha.
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  • Christine says:

    I so love this post Kiran. I find myself straddling that line – I’m American but I’m Chinese and often feel like I live in two different worlds. It’s hard and confusing sometimes, made more complicated now with kids and a husband who’s Polish. There are so many layers to navigate. And the question of “where are you from?” I know that people want to know if I’m Chinese, Korean or Japanese but I usually answer that I’m from NYC or born in CT, forcing them to ask the question they really want to ask. Mean, I know but that’s usually the one time that I allow myself to be snarky with strangers :-)
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  • I love this. You have your Nani’s lips. And I get this because people do this to Jewish people, too.
    “You’re Jewish? Your nose isn’t that big.” Um, thanks. Fuck you, too.
    “Do you guys hate all Arabs?” Um, no.
    “Do you love Barbara Streisand?” I admire her as an actor and singer, but I’d rather get down and get funky to something a little more slammin’.
    “Do you speak Hebrew?” I can’t speak Hebrew. I can out of a prayerbook – but that’s like: Blessed art Thou oh Lord Our G-d. I couldn’t get around Israel or anything.
    “Did you hate me because I’m German?” Um, are you a douche-bag like HItler? If so, yes. If not, we’re cool.
    It gets a little exhausting. So I know what you mean.
    I miss you, Kiran. And by that I mean NOT Karen. I just miss you.
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  • ilene
    Twitter:
    says:

    I cant not even begin to tell you how much I am kvelling over this post. Yes, Kvel – that is the part of my that is from the place of being raised Jewsih – but like you, I where I am from is not a place on the map. It’s the collective stories of incidents and relationships and impressions that are now a part of my soul. Oh, how your last sentence gave me chills.
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  • MomWithaDot says:

    With the tiny, yet distinct Dot on my forehead, no one asks me where I am from anymore, nor do Hispanic men grin at me like I’m from among them, but I still DO hear the comment, “Your English is very Good”, with an unsaid ‘how come?’ I used to let them know that the medium of education in India is English. Of course, I never found it flattering and had some cheeky retorts bouncing in my head, but somewhere along I realized that not all Indians speak good English. So their comment wasn’t completely ridiculous. Last night was a refreshing experience when I met this really aged lady, drooping shoulders n all, and she was sooooooo gracious! Not a word about my dot nor my English. Makes it so much more easier to talk about children, how great the party was and so on……
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  • Lady Jennie says:

    My friend Alyssa (also from NY/NJ area) used to run into her bedroom and lock the door, stuffing tee-shirts under the door frame, when her mom started cooking Indian food. She was afraid to smell like onions. It took her awhile to embrace her heritage. I ask completely inappropriate questions (I’m trying to stop) because I just want to soak it all in. There is nothing more beautiful to me than heritage (no matter where) and cultures, and precious relatives who dare to settle far from home.

    I have been blessed to go to India, work for an Indian company, have Indian friends – not to mention have an Indian student live with us for a summer while I was growing up and teach us to make some seriously good stuff.
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  • vanita says:

    ya know i think i’m more indian now, or should i say west indian, due to my husband’s influences. i mean my parents are west indian and hindu too, so you would think i would have the cultural traditions from them, but i don’t. they were parent’s in the 70s, trying to support their family here and their families still in guyana. it was all work and no anything else. but since marrying my husband i have become more involved in culture, traditions, etc. we make prasad every sunday and almost everyday when we’re fasting, which i blame 20 of my pounds on because i end up being the one who has to finish it. i love hearing this story kiran. my girls will be off to college in a couple of years and i hope that i can give them the same feeling of ‘coming home” that you get when you go home.
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  • Jennifer
    Twitter:
    says:

    I love reading your perspective on things like this. I love how you wrote: “where we are from is not a place on a map.” How true!!

    PS. I have a feeling I would love your Ma’s intoxicating chai. xoxo
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  • dixya
    Twitter:
    says:

    your posts are always so genuine and thoughtfully written. I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. Moved to US for college- lived in NY, TX, IL, ID, and now back to TX. Couple years back I used to miss and think KTM is my home – it still is but I am starting to find more homely feeling in Dallas…
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  • Momchalant says:

    Hey, at least people are acknowledging you’re pretty!

    I love the way you write. Your have a way with words. And I did not mean for that to sound as cheesy as it did.
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  • Maureen says:

    I so love this post! And I think you really nailed it at the end “It’s the collective stories, events and people in my life who have shaped that.” That line put a smile on my face.
    When I was still in the US people would guessed that I am from the Philippines. At first I would correct them and said “Indonesian” but most people get confused and had no idea where on earth is that but most will recognize Bali! I ended up saying “From South East Asia” because correcting them takes too long lol.

  • 1stpeaksteve says:

    Good post!

    I think our interconnected world has really opened this for a lot of people. Imagine a time when most people just moved around only between a few states in their perspective countries. Now with the internet and exchange students and travel visas; people are meeting others whom are far out of their normal social circles.

    And those questions you have been asked made me cringe! I am always shocked to hear people whom try to be hospitable only to word their questions in a way that degrades the other person. For example, my co-management type once said to a super nice employee, “Did you come up with that name? It is so beautiful for a black baby!” I could not believe it!

  • I don’t exactly know the roots of my ancestors and where they come from. Guess I have to ask my mom.
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  • Your post is really interesting. Great article !

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MEET KIRAN
I'm Kiran, I'm a dreamer. A writer. A singer. A mother. An ugly crier. An Indian-American. Who loves Gandhi. My stories are full of truth that is sometimes hard for me to say out loud. This blog is where I overcome my fears and live (and love) out loud. Read More....
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