Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

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I am from someplace!

As a non-white resident of the United States, there was a time when I was asked this question with some regularity. This was mostly before the year 2000 when the number of Indians in the US was relatively low and I was often the first person of indefinite provenance that many Americans were encountering. I looked and sounded different. I suppose from their point of view I could be from India (or the subcontinent) or from a country in the Middle East or even from one of the South American countries.

The question did not then and does not now bother me. For one thing, I am indeed from someplace else. Also, if my interlocutor thought of me as “a person from someplace else,” it is better that the person feels free to ask the question without worrying that I will be offended. 

Choop!

On a trip to the shoe store, the elderly slightly stooped white-haired salesman asked me this same question. After I told him that I am from India, he immediately said “choop!” Not sure what he was trying to convey, I looked at him in puzzlement. “Isn’t it an Indian word?” he asked. 

“Doesn’t it mean…” 

“Yes, it means ‘be quiet’” I completed his question. 

“Right! I have many Indian friends, and I have learned some Indian words from them. I know many bad words too, but I won’t say those,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. We had a good laugh as he proceeded to fit me for sneakers.

Bread to Ducks

Come to think of it, I have been asked “where are you from?” with a somewhat greater frequency by non-white Americans. On one occasion, when I was tossing bread to the ducks at my town’s duck pond, I ran into a woman and her three children who were also engaged in the same activity. From her head-scarf and her accent I could tell that she was from a middle-eastern country. In response to her question, I told her that I am from India. She told me that she had guessed that I was from either India or Pakistan. 

Since she had asked the question, I figured that she would not mind being asked, and might actually want to be asked. As it turned out, she was from Syria. With our elementary co-ordinates now defined, we proceeded to chat for a few minutes about the weather, the children’s schools, and the duck pond that we both loved to visit.

Native Born or Not

I am aware that those who were born and raised here in the States have quite a different reaction when asked this question. I can understand why that is—after all, they are not from someplace else, and they do think and sound like any other native-born American. But, I think their irritation reveals their impatience or worry that the person asking the question is being deliberately insensitive. I think the best answer in these situations is to say, “I was born and grew up in New Jersey, but my family is from India.” 

On the flip side, I worry about the times when I am not asked the question because I cannot know the assumptions that people make about me if they are uncertain. When they don’t ask and an opening is not created, I don’t get a chance to fully represent who I am. 

Representing Myself

For instance, having spent decades in the United States and having raised two children here, I am far from new, temporary, or an outsider. I have opinions about and a stake in the current affairs of this country. Will the person not asking me the question recognize and acknowledge that?

I am not religious or traditional, and I am certainly not exotic. If people don’t ask me where I am from, how will I get a chance to represent myself as the complex multi-layered, still-evolving person that I am? How will I be able to show them that we are more alike than we are different?

An Identity that Flattens

Recently a new acquaintance learned that I moved to the Bay Area a little over two years ago. Having assumed, correctly, that I am from India, she asked, “Did you just move from India at the time?” 

“No, no, far from it… I have lived in the US for over four decades,” I answered with a smile. “I am from the East Coast and consider myself a New Englander.”

I have no doubt that my friend was trying to be welcoming. However, her question made me feel flattened into a purely Indian identity. Her no-holds-barred welcome was both incurious and lacking in awareness. She seemed incapable of fathoming the vast difference in culture and the struggle that an immigrant must undergo as she makes a place for herself in a society that, at least initially, seems very alien. 

My friend’s question is indicative of her well-meaning naiveté. Maybe I should send her links to some of my writing so that she gets an idea of my commingled Indian-ness and American-ness.

Image by RachH from Pixabay

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Nandini Patwardhan

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....