“Where are you from?” she asked me. She owned the Prenzlauer Berg shop that I was wandering through. I opened my mouth to reply but she cut in, lowering her voice and stooping her head even though we were the only people in the shop: “Have you come from Syria?” During my semester in Berlin, I noticed that people stared at me. I realized that it wasn’t my good looks. I perplexed them.
I could pass for Middle Eastern, but I was much darker than all the Turkish folks. The Turkish people who lived all around me could guess that I was of Indian ancestry, I discovered. However, the types of clothes I wore threw them off.
The morning after the attacks in Paris, I boarded a bus populated largely by white Germans. I toted a violin case and an unintentionally bushy beard, the latter due to, well, not having my life together. I wore muted colors, as per Berlin street couture, including a black beanie. As I walked through the bus to sit down, I knew that everyone on the bus was eyeing me. I imagined them praying that I wouldn’t make a sudden movement and whip a firearm out of the case.
There was another unsettling incident I experienced in Berlin. My first landlord all but booted me out the door. She became increasingly overbearing with each successive day that I stayed in her room until finally, as if she had been waiting for the moment, she told me that her white Austrian boyfriend had originally forbidden her from renting the room to me because he thought Indians weren’t trustworthy and that, only after she insisted I was from America, did he grudgingly allow it. I told her he was racist and that I’d find lodging somewhere else. During that fall, my particular body aside, issues of race and nationality were on headlines and minds in Berlin and all over Europe.
I left Berlin for two weeks during a break in the middle of October. In Barcelona, Sagrada Família loomed over me. I ambled down alleyways in the Barri Gòtic and trekked up to Turo de la Rovira where the entire city stretched across my field of vision. A week later, I was wandering the floors of books at Waterstones in Picadilly Circus. I watched the ducks in St. James Park. I partied in Shoreditch.
While in London, my friend Sammy and I booked an Airbnb in Bethnal Green based on its proximity to the neighborhood where our British friend lived. Bethnal Green was like those surreal worlds we traverse in our dreams, reminiscent of places we’ve been, yet unmistakably warped. There, I saw hip young white folks and South Asian working class folks in equal numbers. “Curry houses” lined the streets. I knew that people of South Asian descent comprised an even bigger percentage of London than of the San Francisco Bay Area—approximately 6.6% and 3.5% respectively—but a Cupertino Indian strip mall was nothing compared to this ethnic enclave. It was as if I had entered a South Asian version of San Francisco’s Mission District with gentrification rewound by a few decades.
To the tastebuds on my Indian-American tongue, the Channa Masala dish didn’t taste like the thousands that I had eaten before. A “Halal” sign hung on the window of the place. Taqiyahs sat atop the heads of passers-by. Seeing “Bangla fluency required” emblazoned on multiple shop windows solved the mystery. I discovered, later, that British-Bangladeshis made up 40% of Bethnal Green’s population and that they had the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in the UK, quite unlike the Bay Area’s South Asian population, which was largely Indian and affluent.
I stopped by the Sainsbury’s, down the street from our lodging, to pick up a box of Frosties, Europe’s Frosted Flakes. I got to the front of the checkout line. My eyes met the cashier’s. We exchanged the look. Every member of a minority group or identifiable subculture knows the look (and probably dishes it out, unless they’ve ascended to nonduality).
The look conveys the following:
i. Acknowledgement of you as also being a member of some particular group and interest in you based on that common ground
ii. Appraisal of how you stack up compared to them (in that competition that virtually everyone participates in but no one openly acknowledges) based on your appearance
iii. Feeling of one of the following
c. Some complicated combination of the two
d. You go on to deem each other either friend or foe, updating that assignment based on further interaction.
The cashier and I proceeded to make small talk. We were brown men of a similar age but different in our garb and features.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Like any person of color in a diaspora, I knew that this question was two-fold: “But, like, where are you from from?” So I preempted the follow-up.
“I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area but my parents emigrated there from South India.”
I learned that he was a Bangladeshi who had moved to Britain as a child. Our conversation was genial—our kindred brownness added noticeable comfort to our interaction. The exchange left me with, in addition to the Frosties, a pleasant afterglow. I should try to move out here after college, I instinctively thought to myself.
I stepped out of the double doors of the supermarket. Brown working class folks and privileged white hipsters both streamed down the sidewalks. Suddenly, I began to feel like I was Jason Bourne. Aftermath replaced afterglow. If I moved here, which of them would I be?
That night I found myself amidst the latter crowd. Liv, our British friend, had brought us to a house party. I got on well with this humanities major crowd. We sighed over how dense Kant was. We exalted over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The 400 Blows. And though we were each distinct in our sense of humor and our particular sensibilities, we were united in our love of intoxication. Sure, I was the only person there who knew that Four Tet is half Indian (“I had no idea, mate!”) but we had plenty in common, from our class privilege all the way down to the pinrolled cuffs of our jeans.
At the close of ten days, I emerged from the London Underground into the Berlin U-Bahn and I found myself back in my studio in the Schöneberg locality. Yes, I was back where I had begun, in physical terms. Mentally, however, the ground had shifted.
Visions of my younger self in California bombarded me. I remembered being made fun of in the middle school locker room for the thread that crossed my torso (a thread that I would only later realize was a signifier of quite a bit of privilege). I weighed the involuntary hesitation with which I used to respond, “The South Asian one,” when non-Indian Berkeley students asked me “Wait, which A Cappella group were you in?” I recalled the exhortations to shave my beard before flying so that I wouldn’t get “randomly” chosen for a search. It was perhaps decent advice given that airport security took me to a separate room to swab my crotch for bombs when I flew out of Berlin. All this affectation stemmed from wanting, or needing, to appear “American.” But what did appearing “American” even entail? It occurred to me that this identity crisis presents itself in any country with many immigrants—like the UK or Germany.
The massive influx of refugees frightened many white Germans. It was partly about infrastructure, about resources.
But it was also about much more, much of which remains unsaid. Once enough immigrants had moved in, what would it even mean to be German? And if they were to outnumber the white Europeans? What of the nation-state? Of the very notion of tribalism? But maybe this was all moot in the face of their previous colonial exploits.
In just two weeks of travel, I had vacillated between comfort and discomfort. For me, identity was always something that could only be conceptualized relative to other entities. My encounters with different people and places had upended my own. I realized, more viscerally than I ever had before, that this mental displacement I had experienced was one important reason to venture outside of our own communities.
Parthiv Mohan recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major in Computer Science and Cognitive Science and a minor in Creative Writing. He is interested in researching the ethical implications of technology’s increasingly wide-ranging role in society. He wrote arts criticism for Cal’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian.