There is a woman holding a cardboard, hand-lettered sign outside of the little artisan produce mart in Glen Park, near the geographic center of San Francisco, where I live. She has it right now, as I type this.
“Please help. Husband deported. I have three kids.”
She—the woman with the sign, has been there for at least a week.
I was in high school during the first Gulf War, in Small town, Michigan. Yellow ribbons went up, “These colors don’t run” T-shirts were donned, American flags were smeared onto every blank windowpane and surface, and some of the more creative ethnic slurs were coined and hurled at the very few of us with dusky skin.
I’m half-Indian, born and raised in the Midwest, someone who could employ one hand to count the number of times I’ve visited the motherland.
Still, as a kid, I was accustomed to representing it. I was one of …well you could count us on one hand at our school. We were few. I dealt with it, got into fights, got into college, and left as soon as I could, imagining that I had left that hell there, where it belonged.
Years later, after the towers came down, I was on my way to my firs
t job, teaching at an all-black inner city school. I stopped at the gas station—it was smeared with American flags.
“Dear God, not this again!” I thought to myself. At first glance, the guy manning the counter looked black. He had dark skin, a doo-rag wrapped around his head, with a baseball cap perched on top in a gangsta lean, a common sight in the predominantly black southside of Chicago. When I got closer, though, I noticed his wispy sideburns—this guy was a Sikh. The elaborate headgear was meant to disguise his turban. He was frightened, and for good reason—the citizenry of Chicago was burning down mosques, mistaking anything dark with Osama bin Ladin’s extremism.
At the school where I taught, a couple of kids took to yelling “ Osama bin laden!” when they saw me before running away, although to be honest, I didn’t feel particularly threatened or offended by it. I think they were just curious and testing the waters, now that there was another minority that, for once—however temporarily—ranked below black people.
I really hate to be here again, as many of us do. I want to bury my head in the sand, but I have a kid. She may be a quarter Indian—and certainly not visibly so, as she has her mom’s chestnut hair and stunning blue-green eyes—but she is quite aware of her heritage, down to the Bengali, although she confuses it sometimes, like when we listen to 92.3, The Bay Area’s Bollywood station, and she asks:
“Bolly? Like Bengali?” So, not exactly the same thing, but close. She’s aware.
And to my point—this is not the same situation, especially in the Indian-American community. Like many others, I entertained fantasies about Canadian citizenship—I certainly helped in a modest way in crashing their immigration website on the night of the election—but things are different. We aren’t the slightly confused, recently off-the-boat crew of almost exclusively third-preference visa’ed doctors and engineers who all claim—lacking proper birth certificates—that their collective birthday is January first, because that makes the paperwork easier.
We have figured out what a lawn is, and how to mow it (make the kids do it) and while hamburgers are technically are a sin for many of us, turkey burgers are actually pretty good. We have mobbed the tech industry, we teach in public schools, we have novelists, comedians and musicians that are uniquely American.
If my daughter is any indication, we might have the first Indian-American pro hula-hooper(she really is that good) even though that’s not a thing—yet. We are raising the first generation of kids who might not speak the mother tongue, because their ABCD parents—yes, our clever Gen X acronym designed to define us as distinct from the adults—has aged into parenthood.
We were born in Michigan, Louisiana, Utah and California. We are here to stay. We have a damn Bollywood radio station, for Krishna’s sake.
Which begs the question—what are we going to do with this hot mess? It’s easy to want to remain uninvolved, to detach to the insular desi-land, to consider this the Americans’ problem, maybe look into our cousin’s offer of a desk job in Hyderabad with a life-style lined with servants. But we don’t have that luxury any more—our kids, and our kids’ kids only know this country; going back is simply not an option for most of us. The fruit from the first orchard has dropped, and the seedlings have rooted into this soil.
So—what do we do? Things are different now. A commercial on our Bollywood station assures me that the South Asian community is the “fastest growing, most affluent demographic in the Bay Area” and while this sounds a touch immodest to my liberal-American-NPR-junkie ears, it is also true. Make no mistake, if you simply extracted every desi from Silicon Valley simultaneously, it would fall apart. California, as a state, is the eighth biggest economy in the world—in tech, media and agriculture, providing one-third of the nation’s produce. Let’s also be quite sure that the Trump administration will make no discernible difference between Mexican, Indian, Arab, Black, Jewish, LBGT, or anything else—it doesn’t see when it looks in the mirror. We are the next to go, whether or not that is uncomfortable to realize.
I can’t afford that, my daughter and wife can’t afford that, our children can’t afford that, and the woman out in front of the fancy produce store can’t afford that. What are we going to do?
I’m not sure myself. If I may tap my very personal cultural hallmarks (Star Wars) I’m going to resist. Get involved with the rebellion. Do what I can. I’m going to stop typing now, head home, make a curried turkey burger for the kid, and later see if anyone agrees with me. But on the way out, I’m gonna hand that woman a few dollars, because I’m lucky, she isn’t, and if I may be Indo-Californian on this one, “Karma’s a b***h!” It’s not much to start with—but it’s a start.
Shumit DasGupta is a science education professional, bicyclist and musician who writes op-ed pieces and children’s books. Some of them make it on radio stations and magazines that you have actually heard of.