This is a guest post by Epi Tales, who writes at a blog of the same name, where this post also appears. She writes of herself, "I can’t stop reading. I hate life unless I'm being propelled through the pages of a book in parallel to my 'real' life. As a kid, I read Harriet the Spy, and I was infatuated with the idea of writing. Constantly. Insatiably."
After all the internet hoopla following Joel Stein's "My Own Private India", I am more confused than ever about the racism I experience. The silver lining is wittiness, specifically Kal Penn's now-famous, incredibly sarcastic retort published on the Huffington Post.
Hold on, I’ve got some nostalgia, bear with me: all these mentions of Edison, NJ engender some serious gastronomical and linguistic longing. Walking into restaurants or sweet shops with my then-fiance, I was never addressed in English, only Hindi. It never felt presumptuous, rather inclusive, with the undertone of “I know you know this” and “we share something, whatever part of India you’re from”. Isn’t there some comfort in that?
Now I’m walking around Seattle, which is white enough to find an Indian interesting, yet cosmopolitan enough not to call me a dothead (I think this term is out of vogue anyway). Instead, I find hilarious, yet racist, moments. Last weekend, my mother and father-in-law were browsing jewelry in a booth at the Freemont fair. A kindly older man looks up and says, “Do you speak Hindi?” to which I answer, “yes”. He tries out a few phrases on us, and his accent is respectable. He tells us about his time in India. I groan inwardly -- why is it that every non-Indian male who starts a conversation with me seems to have an insatiable urge to tell me about that one time they were in India? Or how they know Ravi Shankar? Or how I must eat ‘such spicy food’? Yes, one billion of us possess miraculous abilities to eat food spicier than anything you could comprehend. And we’re uniformly spiritually advanced yogis too. Then they want to go to India. And close the conversation by saying how I’m beautiful because I’m Indian. Oh, and throw in an Aishwarya Rai reference, as well as the one Bollywood flick they’ve ever seen.
I’m still rolling my eyes when we leave the dry shelter of the jewelry booth, pressing forward in the now-familiar Seattle drizzle. A curly brown-haired young hippie-looking guy, holding a guitar, loudly addresses us in Hindi, “NAMASTE! Sabkooh sapna hai” except that we could not understand his Hindi, due to his accent. We turn towards him, confused.
“I think he said, ‘sabkooch samne hai’ [everything is in front of you]”, I ventured, to my MIL.
“Wait, really? Not ‘sabkooch apna hai’ [everything is mine],” she responded. Apparently exhausted with our own conjecture, we turn back to the hippie-looking, guitar-holding guy, and ask, “wait, what did you say?”
“Do you guys speak Hindi?” Whoa. There’s that line again. Is this how Seattle-ites greet strangers?
“Yes, of course. What were you saying?”
“Everything is a dream,” he responded. Oh goodness, I thought to myself, he’s starting to flirt, and I am standing here with my in-laws. Who hits on someone with her parents watching? (And, for the record, I wear a wedding ring on my left hand). Polite banter followed about -- guess what -- Ravi Shankar. Eager to end this rain-soaked insipidity, my MIL and I turn to leave. He then turns conspiratorially to my FIL and comments, “aren’t Indian women beautiful?” Really? This dialog actually took place out of a comic strip?
More comedy: at my office, anytime someone speaking to me refers to a project in India or Indian food, they gesture towards me.
While I’m grateful that these anecdotes are neither traumatic nor hate driven, they constitute racism in that I am viewed first and foremost as my race. Similar to how dripping water can wear away rock, or how well-being erodes when faced with verbal abuse (just ask the French government), these small barbs injure a sense of individuality and belonging over time. Place the idea of complete assimilation in this context, and it quickly becomes obvious that integration cannot happen without an accepting environment.
Looking back at the ill-placed Time piece, I can’t quite get angry at Joel Stein even though his piece does an astoundingly good job at missing the point. He opens with “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.” (italics added) where he explicitly condemns a particular branch of immigrants. He then insults them, saying:
In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.
Then he admits that Indians have helped his precious hometown survive economically.
Stein continues to demonstrate his complete ignorance, blessed as he may be with his titular “own private India”, by saying that one billion Indians are “familiar … [with] instruct[ing] stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.” If you ask the vast majority of Indians about routers, they might stare at you blank-faced. India is not all Bangalore and high-tech. Still though, reading about Stein’s sense of dislocation when his “town is totally unfamiliar to me [him]” draws real sympathy, even from a member of the group he feels so threatened by -- but isn’t this the reason for all the aphorisms about change? And isn’t this perceived threat the most neatly circumscribed definition of xenophobia? And this is precisely why the scars of immigration remain, even two generations later. But this comes full circle: this is also what Stein and these immigrants share, in addition to the more tangible, crowded space of Edison, NJ.
Calling Stein’s perspective or my experiences offensive isn’t the right word -- nothing that’s outlined here is blatantly mean-spirited, just severely misguided. To my boys, the idea that any generalization can be made about Indian women, i.e., half of a billion people, is indescribably ludicrous. And Stein: nice blinders -- are they hip right now? Because so is the other side of the story.