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…
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.
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?