Almost overnight, despite the bubble wrap of privilege and the relative affluence of our lives, our brown skin has begun to chafe and blister under the alternate American sun. Across the San Francisco Bay Area, several Indian-Americans heard words that were never quite strung together this way before: “Go back to where you came from!”
In the exclusive vale of Saratoga downtown where capitalism gets a thumbs-up, a man showed my Indian-American friend the middle finger of his racism as she waited at a traffic light. Indian-Americans have been hurt by this expression of hatred around the country even as the current government’s imposition of H1-B restrictions has directly affected their career prospects. As the discussions heat up over the shooting of several Indian men in this nation, one question hovers among those of us quivering behind the brown veils of our skin: Why us?
Hello, aren’t we the Model Minority? We are a productive, tax-paying people. We cloned our workaholic selves for these United States. We slaved in doctor’s offices, hotel front desks, gas stations and research labs. We built tech companies. We plowed money back into the country of our adoption. Our children were exemplary in school and in the work force. What had we, as members of this honorable Indian-American community, done to anyone other than, maybe, say “vine” instead of “wine”, wear black western pumps under our saris, test okras by breaking their ends or infest the parking lot of a strip mall with the aroma of samosas? Surely, we’d done nothing wrong?
The truth was we’d done nothing much either. We wore blinders. We went to work every day and returned home to drink masala chai with friends and family. We stayed in our dead-bolted, double-paned indoors, away from the heat of political fracas, often telling our children to continue plodding, as we did, towards professions that offered safe havens. “Don’t become a teacher. No money in it,” we said. “Public policy?” we asked. “Why on earth would you want to be close to politics and policy?”
In a recent column on why Indian-American children excelled at contests that rewarded memorization, the writer observed that the reasons why the last ten consecutive champions at the Scripps Spelling Bee were of Indian origin were obvious. Indian-Americans prized education and most parents had advanced degrees. Furthermore, Indians relied upon family and social units to enhance skills and built social networks to train their children for success.
Yes, we participated in the success of the nation, but only so long as it suited us. Mostly, we’ve hovered over the politics of the nation with the indifference of the tricoteuses, the ladies who gossiped and knitted as Marie Antoinette’s blood spattered from the guillotine. We watched television. We rolled out our rotis.
An Indian-American friend who works with the International Rescue Committee—which helps people rebuild their lives—told me that watching the sufferings of refugees has made her realize how much our community conducts life within its own hermetically sealed package, disconnected from the gritty realities of both local and international tragedies.
While we spoke the language of diversity outside the confines of our homes, we spoke another tongue altogether within. To our children, we spoke of values—“our” values, not quite those of the country we’d adopted, and of always making the right choice that made Indian-Americans proud of one another. We did not have conversations about the importance of civic engagement with the larger community. While our passports were blue, we couldn’t admit, even to ourselves, that our blood still bled brown—that we were Indians first, and Americans second.
We forgot, however, that our children were quite the opposite: they were Americans first, global citizens second, and Indians third. A recent event in the family highlighted, painfully, the split between my generation and the next; it reinforced a point my children bring up about how most Indian-Americans live out small lives inside a bubble several decades after making a life in America.
Following the engagement of my nephew to an Indian-American girl, a friend had commented thus on Facebook: “I’m so happy to see this kid choosing to marry an Indian-American.” My Indian-American friend had added another line, a pet peeve for many of us: “I wish my kid would do the same, keep to our traditions, that is.”
That did not go over well with my nephew who, like my children, sees himself as an American first. I felt that his retort spoke for all Indians born on American soil. “As one of the parties involved in this engagement, I could not disagree more,” he wrote. “I don’t want to be held as an example of the “traditional way.” The young man explained that he and his fiancée had been introduced by a friend at a movie event. Over the next many months, they realized that they shared a lot of values and interests. He stressed that, for him, racial purity was unimportant. “I didn’t seek her out because she was Indian. I see absolutely nothing wrong with Indians marrying people with different backgrounds. What is important is people finding others that make them happy.”
Upon reading his words, I realized that if our natural emotional response was to always look at the closest identity markers—like language, caste, faith or place of origin in India—Indian-Americans had failed to become an organic part of this nation. As the fastest growing immigrant group in the last decade—Asian Indians are about 2.8 million people in the United States—we had a moral and civic duty to engage with other communities and to give back as much as we had received. At a time when brownness is under the microscope, we need to step out of the community, not huddle within its confines. Then, perhaps, we would belong.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com