My first overt racial encounter occurred at Macy’s in Lakeline mall, Austin. I was in line. A man picked up an argument with me and asked me to go back to my country. I went into an existential angst.
I thought, perhaps, he hadn’t read American history. I suggested that he address this desire to leave the land to his ancestors. Far too many Indians were doing it both sides of the Atlantic. He mimicked my accent. Others in the line were silent. I became silent too, watching my breath go in and out, not wanting any more karmic collisions with the man in future births.
I also felt compassion welling up within. Had he just lost his IT job to an Asian? Aren’t we everywhere?
More important, he was substantially taller. I didn’t think I could win a fist fight.
It’s true. Our seniors are walking neighborhoods in groups with great gusto. We are minding motels, ticketing in Macys, teaching in classrooms, dominating software, choking the corridors of hospitals, staffing eyebrow-threading carts, waltzing on Wall Street, drinking in bars, sailing in Silicon Valley, greeting customers in gas stations, cheering PTA and even warbling on American Idol. We organize impressive fundraisers for non-profits. We take over entire streets at times: Hillcroft in Houston, Edison in New Jersey and Devon in Chicago. There, you will smell chicken tikka masala, lamb kababs and sight 22 karat gold, paan stains and neon embroidered salwar kameezes. Right here in the Christian belt, temples are mushrooming. On Gandhi’s birthday, a couple years back, a massive crowd danced on the steps of the state capitol to A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho.” Some of us are becoming governors and senators. We’re inching toward the White house. Beware!
This morning I looked at the American flag by my mailbox, which hailed us as American citizens, while a terracotta Ganesha looked on impassively from our front porch. I noticed there were a good many white stars on the flag asking us to reach for the sky, and broad warning red bands saying “Stop!” instead.
For Indians, it is destiny that brings us here and we reach for those stars—a university education, first job, first car, first two-car garage house, kids to Ivy League, wedding with American style reception, grandkids and lots of photos, now digital. That’s the big print.
The small print: zillions of cereals with raisins or granola, junk mail, Taco Bell, Macys, fries, milk shakes, malls and malts, beer, tacos, mortgages, loans, Halloween, Hallmark, Father’s day, Mother’s day, Valentine’s day, diet coke, cherry coke, and diet sprite, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, substituting quinoa for rice, organic produce, farm fresh produce and rice or almond milk. We learn to say gas instead of petrol; shower instead of bath. We stop believing we’ve won a cruise to Alaska and find the courage to hang up on a marketing caller up. We praise with “Great!” and negotiate with “Ok” and “Sure!” We obey traffic rules pausing with civility at a red light. We acknowledge personal space, become alert to body odor, while thinking this nation is a pampered brat.
Our kids graduate many times, starting in Kindergarten. We whisper to each other how academics have no value in this country; while watching toddlers trip on capacious gowns, their tiny heads adrift under graduation hats. In India, we say with pride, “You earned your education!”
When the Chinese kid outwits the Indian kid, the Indian parent adds on Kumon classes. We pack off the kids to weekly classes: classical dance, classical music, Tamil class, Telugu class, Hindi class, Bal Vihar, Chinmaya. Short of wearing dhotis and nine-yard saris we vow to save India’s 10,000 year old culture here in America. Meanwhile, our counterparts in India, with signature ability to absorb the foreign element are wearing spaghetti straps, mini outfits and sporting Prada and Gucci.
The accents? We slaughter the Queen’s and the President’s English with many victorious stabs. Indian characters in American sitcoms, Hari or Harry grill the consonants like steak. We wince at clichéd portrayals. Revenge is sweet via Bollywood waging its own gleeful takeover across the globe.
On weekends we volunteer at religious institutions: temples, gurudwaras and mosques.
Circumambulating, genuflecting, cooking, kneeling, seva-ing, word-fully or word-lessly.
Hindu altars resound with Sanskrit mantras, sparkling with garlanded idols while fragrant incense envelops the house. We sink into the smoky ambience, reassured that we have not lost our Indianness.
Dinner follows, hot parathas or pasta with a pinch of garam masala or rasam powder; then kids packed off to bed and CNN or a pirated Bollywood movie. In movie theaters, we wish for garam chai and samosa instead of Velveeta cheese on nachos. We witness chai packaged as a syrupy concoction in a carton sold in Starbucks. Just like yoga. And yoga mats, yoga bricks, yoga tees.
India sliced, packaged and served on America’s tray. We grudgingly acknowledge that the West may be preserving what’s worth preserving in Indian culture or what we think is Indian culture.
One kind of Indian immigrant is pained by his/her Indian roots. Her smile at a fellow Indian is distant and constipated.
The other kind is resolutely Indian. She hobnobs only with the same community, caste, and culture. It’s science fiction of a kind. She walks on Walter street but perceives it as Wadhwa Rd. They earn in dollars but when they look at the notes they see Mahatma Gandhi’s sagacious head. Take your pick. We come in many hues.
We learn to our dismay that we cannot speak of the United States without India, and India without the United States. A name followed by a surname. Or is it last name? Home now points to both sides of the Atlantic. Country is the space the mind inhabits, no longer a marked geographical entity.
Usha Akella is an internationally known poet. She lives in Austin, Texas. Occasionally she writes whimsical prose.