Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

12 Mar 2010, 8:05 a.m.

Cautiously Opening That Door

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A few weeks ago, another Indian-American and I were talking and agreed on one benefit of that particular childhood: if your parents are well-off enough to drag you to India & back a few times, you get used to long flights such that they're not much of a bother later in life.

This got me thinking about other advantages I got by dint of being born in the US to South Asian immigrants (educated middle-class ones, to be sure). That is, where did I get a leg up on children born to US-born white parents?

A few thoughts:

I had a hard-to-ignore set of lessons on intersectionality and multifaceted diversity. My parents aren't just Indian, they're Karnatakan Kannada-speaking Hindus from the Brahmin caste, and they didn't come from ease or wealth. And I'm leaving out some markers here: aesthetics, politics, culinary tastes, the places they've lived, the jobs they've had, their ages, what other languages they speak... I never could have believed that The Rest Of The World was a homogenous, forgettable mass.

From the start, I've had a taste of what it's like to be Other, or at least an edge case. My name didn't fit on forms. A classmate pointed to Indiana on a map and said, "That's where you're from!" A logic tutee, astonished at my US accent, said, "But you're Indian! ... Didn't you ever think that accents were innate?" Back when I was writing my newspaper column, after I wrote a piece about Indian-American TV shows, someone wrote in and complained that all I wrote about was "not being white." My parents looked hard and fast for US flags to put on their car and house after 9/11. And before that was the jerk in the car repair waiting room who called my mom a Satan worshipper, harassed her because of her kumkum (red dot on the forehead), and made her cry. Being brown in this majority-white country has given me a zillion anecdotes amusing and bemusing, from little irritations to strange, nebulous frustrations to disheartening dismay. So, the seeds of my reflexive sympathy for the underdog and pain-in-the-butt edge-case pedantry, check.

My parents spoke English and an indigenous Indian language (Kannada) at home. My parents could easily talk with my teachers and friends, but I also got sensitized from birth to the possibility of other tongues, other orthographies, and other ways of thinking. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and take my parents' Kannada lessons more seriously, but I couldn't see the point in it. Silly me. I do have ready access to study materials and practice partners should I wish to get fluent.

Growing up Indian-American tends to correlate with learning to handle spicy food. I in particular also grew up vegetarian. I never quite understood how omnivores could stare at vegetarians and ask, "but what do you eat?!" until I understood that, in the standard late-twentieth-century US meal, there is one high-profile meat chunk surrounded by bits of starch and vegetable for flavor and texture. If you think "vegetarian = removing meat chunk" then of course the plate seems empty. I grew up with a cuisine that gives beans, nuts, grains, leafy greens and other veggies first-class status.

Timezones. I was used to hearing people talk on the phone late at night, and got used to looking at the clock and quickly calculating the time n hours away. That's come in handy since.

Those are all effects I can at least take a stab at articulating. But I can only begin to think about the giant assumptions I take for granted, like "of course we've travelled abroad" and "this is a country of immigrants, Exhibit A, us" and the positive (and negative) effects of the Model Minority, doctor-or-engineer expectation. And I'm trying to limit this list to stuff common to middle-class US kids of professional-career South Asian parents (Canada seems rather different). I'm working towards some reminiscences specific to my dad and mom, but that's divergent.

Other children of South Asian immigrants, tell me what I forgot.


12 Mar 2010, 12:02 p.m.

I'm always amazed by the challenges I face being an immigrant (expat is just a middle class word for immigrant) in a country that shares so much culturally and linguistically with the US. There must be so many more if that's not the case, but I suspect the challenges are directly proportinate to the rewards. I would love to have grown up speaking another language and I envy the ability to cope with long flights. I seem to get worse at that the older I get.

Sumana Harihareswara
12 Mar 2010, 13:44 p.m.

I'm lucky -- I got a lot of rewards, and I'm sure people in other situations get so many challenges that the rewards are smaller and less apparent.

I dunno about expat = immigrant. When I hear "expat" I don't assume the same sense of permanence.

13 Mar 2010, 12:11 p.m.

Kevin, thanks for your condolences.

I agree with John -- John, sorry I didn't immediately reply to Kevin's comment and point out the same problems. In my own words:

A) I'm sure there are Hindus, in the US and elsewhere, who don't much care for the US government, civil liberties, the rule of law, etc., etc., although I'm not going to go into the history. Let's not reflexively give Hindus a free pass, except to the extent that everyone gets a species of free pass.

B) Come on, "only in America"? There are uninformed bigots everywhere. And honestly, I really don't know what the best bigotry metrics are, so even the urban-vs-rural and coastal-vs-inland conventional wisdom is something I'm leery of.

C) I believe the "Satan worshipper" slur incident was pre-9/11, so I think it was less about "enemies of the US" and more about "enemies of Christ/Christianity."

John, I offer my condolences that you got called a devil worshipper at all, much less frequently! And yeah, there are many countries whose cultures (and laws!) are SO MUCH LESS tolerant of religious and ethnic diversity than the US's! President Obama said, perhaps with some hyperbole, "For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." I'd reduce that to "very few other countries."

And John, I am happy to reassure you with regard to airport navigation and India as a whole! Perhaps on the phone sometime soon.

13 Mar 2010, 12:26 p.m.

Thanks Sumana! I would also like to point out that I wore my religion on my sleeve in Hong Kong (or more accurately, on a black name tag on my left breast accompanied by a white shirt and tie). So some of what I experienced was to be expected I suppose.

Had I been there on business or pleasure, I would assume the name calling would have been less frequent, possibly even non-existent.

I loved my experiences abroad so much I don't hold any animosity to the name calling. I am very much looking forward to this next jaunt. But first I must survive tax season.

13 Mar 2010, 17:48 p.m.

I have my own strange experience with being an immigrant, because I am a white Anglophone European immigrant who crossed the water early enough to mostly lose the accent. "Passing" is the default for me, regardless of whether I would like it to be or not. I will always be immediately assumed to be an American unless I specifically out myself. Really, what it means is an extra layer of privilege with very few repercussions. Stephen Fry talks about what it was like growing up in Britain with a Jewish identity (by way of his mother) but an Anglo surname (by way of his father). All the benefits of being able to claim either identity, without the problems of wearing both on your sleeve.

I have gotten teased for being English, and it has on occasion gone beyond my comfort zone - but honestly I'd probably have gotten just as much grief in England if I'd grown up there. In America, they see me only as "English"; in England they'd've seen me as a Catholic-born Cockney of Welsh and Irish descent, with all the baggage that all entails. That's one thing about being an immigrant, your identity gets flattened. Suddenly you get the same label as people you'd have no labels in common with in your home country.

It has led to some strange identity issues, no question. My father tends to think of me as American, which bothers me. But he's not entirely wrong. I cloak myself in whichever mantle makes me happiest. In the War of 1812, for example, it was My People - the British - who showed those Yanks a thing or two by burning down the White House, but it was also My People - the Baltimoreans - who showed those Redcoats a thing or two by holding Fort McHenry. And at the same time I identify with Wales and Ireland, both nations with their own complicated relationship (understatement!) with England. It makes watching the Six Nations a little bit complicated, though I can usually compromise by just rooting for whatever team is most likely to beat the French.

Anyway, obviously a very different experience.

16 Mar 2010, 7:32 a.m.

hee hee. I like Martin's comment. I think having the French as a common enemy is a unifier in lots of scenarios (I just wrote a short section about it in my thesis. I also agree that it "flattens" your identity. You get lumped together with stereotypes whether they apply to you or not. For example on Saturday, waiting for the night bus, some Brits suggested to me and my friend (who lives in Brighton) that Americans should travel more and explore beyond their own country. O RLY?

Re the expat/ immigrant distinction... I suppose it depends on the context and there is no clear distinction in any case (I don't think), but I tend to think of expats and more cultural immigrants and "immigrants" as more economic immigrants.