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I say American. You say I’m not: Part I

21 Sep

by Rajshree Solanki

“Where are you from?” is such an innocent question. People come from all over the place to work and live in DC. It’s a way to break the ice. I’ve been living in the DC area for 10 years, and when I hear that question, it seems innocent.

Is it really an innocent question? Depending on which part of the country I am in, I am suspicious of the true intent of the question.

I had gone to a Southern university in the 1990s, at which the majority of the student population was white or black. Those “in between” stuck out. There was a small Indian student population, which was made up of mostly students who came over from India to study.

I was asked often, “Where are you from?”

I responded, “Connecticut.”

“No. Really, where are you from?”

“Connecticut.”

“I meant your family…”

“India. But my family lives in Connecticut.”

“Oh. That’s so nice. When are you going back?”

“To Connecticut?”

“No. To India?”

“…”

Connecticut.

Is it an easy way to categorize me? Put me in a nice neat little package and say, “Indian” and then dispel my American identity. I’m curious about your thoughts on the topic.

How do you respond when asked “Where are you from”?

Check out Tell Me More’s Blog entry on the topic.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on September 21, 2010 in Diversity

 

6 responses to “I say American. You say I’m not: Part I

  1. J-Co

    September 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    As a resident of the Constitution State, Connecticut *is* harder to spell than India. Just saying.

     
  2. M Raghavan

    September 23, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    This is a challenging situation, because mainly 1st generation Asian Indian Americans, we still have strong ties to India and perhaps, still feel a certain sense of patriotism towards it.

    I personally tell people that I am originally from India, but have been living in Denver all my life. That has helped me put things in perspective.

     
  3. Monica Shah

    September 27, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    My funniest memory of this is when I had an internship at National Museum of the American Indian, in the Bronx. Almost every day for the first two weeks, as I met people, here were my responses, all in succession, every time, to when they asked “Where are you from?”.
    “I’m from Alaska. No, not Alaska Native, I’m Indian. No not Native American, from India. The other kind of Indian.” Funny and always make me smile since it was at an institution at which I always felt so comfortable.

    But, this question has always bothered me. Especially from a stranger. What right do they have to ask? To assume. Do I go around asking people: Where are you from? Anchorage, really? No, where are your family from? Minnesota? No really, you’re so white, they must be Norwegian or something…Why is it okay to ask anyone with a tint to their skin this type of question?

    Of course, the irony is that I am fascinated by geneaology and totally interested in where people identify themselves as being from. (Okay, can you tell english is not my first language?) Therefore, this question does not faze me from friends, colleagues, or even recent acquaintances. Which is why it never bothered me at NMAI.

     
  4. eJ

    October 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    My family went to the World’s Expo in Vancouver when I was a kid. We drove cross-country from our home in a Midwestern suburb. One day during the Expo, a couple of kids my age came up to me saying “Are you Ismaili?” My name was not Ismaili and I had no clue who he was! Of course now, I wish I had met those kids.

    I react more strongly when the question comes from someone “inside” the community because I feel like I’m being located in some ancient registry/database. When they’re trying to be friendly and make a connection, I’m getting squeamish. This is funny b/c my overseas relatives definitely do not think I am in Indian.

    I think it irks me sometimes b/c identifying characteristics such as skin color or last name can have little to do with who you are (Thank you Mr. President!). But, I also take advantage of that: when traveling overseas, it is much easier for me to quickly blend-in when needed.

    Most people are just curious. My wife kicks me if I don’t say “My parents emigrated from India” when I respond “I’m from [insert state here]”.

    Sometimes, I try to add “and how about you?”

     
  5. Famin

    October 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    This is my least-favorite question of all time. Unfortunately, I’m asked said question at least once a month.

    I also went through the same rigmarole you did, queenraj. Except that because my family moved around a lot, I didn’t even have a nice, neat, accurate response like “Connecticut” to fall back on. I grew up in nine states and three other countries, so I had to also gauge whether they were asking, “Where did you go to high school?”, “Where do you live now?”, or “What is your ethnic heritage?”. I discovered that nine times out of ten, they just wanted to know what my ethnic heritage was. Nothing else mattered.

    It is irritating. Very irritating, in fact. But in a way the question is like asking, “How are you?”. The person asking really just wants to hear a one-word response like “Fine”; not “I’m recuperating from chemotherapy and my boyfriend dumped me yesterday.”

    Could be worse though. I did a semester in London with a friend who was half-Puerto Rican, half-Trinidadian. Her great-grandparents were diasporic Indians who ended up in Trinidad via Africa more than 100 years ago; but she had both an Indian-sounding surname and an Indian-looking face. One day, we were in an Indian restaurant and the owner asked us where we were from. We both responded, “American.” This was an insufficient response apparently, because he kept pestering my poor friend until she had recounted half her family tree back to India. Because that was the only response he would accept!

     
  6. QueenRaj

    October 3, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks for the responses! Keep ’em coming.
    J-Co – I know where you live.

    Raghavan – Thank you for following the blog and submitting insightful comments. You bring up an interesting thought: 1st gen vs 2nd gen vs 3rd gen and so forth and their reinterpretations of identity. As the Indian American population is growing, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

    Monica – Thank you Thank you for your comment. I was inspired by our conversation in my kitchen. And of course, if there is a part one…there is a part two. So stay tuned…

    eJ – “I react more strongly when the question comes from someone “inside” the community because I feel like I’m being located in some ancient registry/database.” —-Now I have inputted you in my database. It’s actually an excel spreadsheet of all the Indians I know. Done and Done. I don’t know if you meant to touch upon this. Your comment reminded me of an Indian organization in the US where each member would receive a membership directory, which would be very specific on geography and lineage of its members. It is something perhaps a lot of Indian Americans do not want to talk about, but is asked about it quite a bit by other ethnic groups. Yes, you or your family are from India, but what part or what is your lineage, etc.

    Are we still seeing a carryover of a caste system from India in the US? Is there discrimination occurring because of the carryover? Check out this article from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7856969.stm.
    Is there an anthropologist who is studying this??? WRITE IN!

    Famin: Word! Thank you for your HILARIOUS comment! It is true “how are you” and “where are you from” and “what is your job” questions are expected to be one word answers. Ahhh… pleasantries.
    I have a friend who is half Vietnamese and half white. A lot of people ask her what she is. She tells them they have to play “Guess My Ethnicity” Game. The “player” gets to ask a few questions. Then she gives the answer and no one is the winner. Argh…I feel like your friend should have gotten something for free after explaining her whole family tree. Did she at least get a lassi for free? Again…no one wins.

    Thanks everyone for writing in. And keep reading the blog.

     

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