Lunchtime at the intersection of Third and Geary in downtown San Francisco is a concerto of movement. Cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, bags, carts, pets perform a score as they make their way through narrow passageways that open and snap to shapes and bodies. Generally, all things great and small keep to the rhythm of the red, green and yellow lights.
We broke that rhythm one day.
It was 1993. I had been living in America since 1988 and the newness of my American skin had just about begun to recede. I no longer looked around curiously. I no longer answered hesitantly. The country I grew up in, India, was no longer dominantly inhabiting my thoughts. I was now a citizen of the world. What I saw others seeing in me was a person from another land, different in many ways, and alike in many too. What I saw in others were people like me who’d grown up unlike me.
So, it didn’t register that people were looking at me curiously, hesitantly.
My husband and I were meeting friends for lunch, and my husband was driving. It might have been Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar who was crooning over the car speakers as we both hummed along. The light turned yellow and he distractedly kept the forward momentum going. And then the light turned red. We were caught with the nose of our car a foot or so into the pedestrian walkway.
Trapped, we looked out as folks converged on us from both sides of the walkway. One or two people glared at us as they made their way across. Most ignored us. But as we watched, a man on roller blades stopped directly in front of us. He pressed his hands down on the hood of the car and banged once, twice, three times, hard and then harder with his fist, shaking the car, and then, looking directly at us, he yelled, “Go back to your country.” He paused, waiting for it to register before he turned and continued on.
Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar continued singing, but we had stopped humming. The lights changed and we drove on.
1993 was the first time I was told to “go back to my country.” Since then I’ve received the words in a Target Health and Beauty aisle; while leisurely walking into Le Boulanger cafe with my nine year-old twin daughters chattering away beside me; and on several occasions in response to articles I’ve written. It was only the time with my twins that it scored painfully, for the deliverer of the message could hear my children babbling in their American accents, wearing their American clothes, and carrying their American books.
Those words should not really hurt, though. The strangers who uttered the words were angry, yes, but it was a careless, vaguely defined anger at their loss of momentum. They didn’t know enough about me, what I stood for, how long I’d been sharing their country, or for that matter, which country I came from for their anger to have much depth.
Their anger was not directed at me, but the idea of me—a non-white, non-native, un-American looking person competing for scant resources. For them, the words “going back …” were neither compensable nor redemptive. It merely seized the inconvenience of the moment and illuminated a shallow-seated aggravation, rooted in history and circumstance.
The notion of going back, it seems to me, demands a commitment to turn back time and space, both emotional and geographical; to return what is gained and to prevent further acquisition. It doesn’t matter that what I have gained has not come from someone else’s immediate loss.
Being told to go back gave me pause, each time, then and now. The words reflect how people place a value on me, my body, and my ideas. This value is inherently transient, for all three can be devalued instantly if I, my body or my ideas are not congruent with them, their bodies or their ideas.
My children and I never talked about the incident that occurred eleven years ago at Le Boulanger. At the time, it could be that they brushed it away as a rant, or they buried it because they could see that it disturbed me, or that they couldn’t understand what was said for they had never known any country other than the one they lived in.
I didn’t address the subject even in the years since because I wanted my children to process the words “going back to your country” without my own aspirational interpretations. Their belief in their belonging to America is something that they own. This ownership shouldn’t need affirmation or confirmation. They were born into this relationship between personhood and citizenship.
Yet I believe that they must prepare for the questions and comments. And if they lose some of their agency because of these questions or comments, it is only because they doubt who they are and where they’ve lived. Yes, we do own our spaces, though often we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot control what others say, how they say it, or where they say it, so we must learn to regulate how much we allow it to affect us.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.