I’m Indian. And I’m brown. Not the very light brown that can pass for a slightly tanned, white American (yes, those exist) but Indian-brown.
I’ve been here in the US shy of two decades and have not run out of ways my name is pronounced incorrectly. I’m fine with that and now actually enjoy the various mispronunciations. Sometimes, it’s quite painful to watch. Heck, I’ve even jokingly called myself ‘Bob’ in a few meetings just to make the other person feel less uncomfortable.
I’ve also had white colleagues tell me that until they got to know me, they thought that all Indians had the last name Patel. Really?
Then once in a while – and this is happening more recently – someone will actually pronounce my name correctly, leaving me pleasantly surprised…
When I’m on the phone with a customer service rep, I default to spelling my name automatically when they ask for it. It’s just the way it is, and I’m used to it. Most minorities are, I would assume.
I briefly toyed with the idea of changing my name when I was taking the oath to be a US Citizen. It would just make everything easier – from customer service reps to walking into a client meeting and have the client get your name right the very first time. Kinda sets a tone for the rest of the meeting, doesn’t it?
I grew up speaking English in India, albeit with an Indian accent. Luckily, I didn’t have to go to ESL classes like The Luxe Strategist did, mostly because I came here when I was well into my 20s. The way I speak is there to stay for good, although I did try hard to assimilate. My American friends feel I speak with an Indian accent and my relatives in India think I speak with an American one and roll my R’s. Hey, I tried.
Funnily enough, within the first year or so a Korean friend and colleague mentioned that I pronounced ‘Wednesday’ incorrectly and the proceeded to teach me how to say it. To this day, I don’t know if I say it right.
Although my 10 yr old will occasionally make fun of the way I speak, more so when I remind her about homework. 🙂
Did I mention I was brown? This means that people automatically think “Oh you must be in IT”. Yes, I am but why do you categorize me before you’ve even met me, much less gotten to know me?
I guess I should count myself lucky. I didn’t grow up here so escaped the marginalization that I might have experienced in childhood. A friend who is Indian by race but born and brought up here in the US was telling me stories about his childhood. He mentioned that when he was growing up he always had to be careful and not be ‘too Indian’ in his school or surroundings. He had missed out on a few traditions and didn’t get to experience the culture that he otherwise might have been exposed to, but had come to terms with it.
So yes, I am lucky as I didn’t have to deal with that aspect as it’s tougher for a kid.
The Good And The Bad
I’m also happy that America today is generally much more accepting. My younger, distant cousins who’ve grown up here have all weddings where their white friends made the effort to dress up in Indian garb, and also dance to a Bollywood tune.
Unfortunately, there are lots of cases where we’re mistaken for other ethnicities. Sometimes, it ends badly. I can completely understand the reasons why – ignorance being the primary factor.
But that’s no excuse.
I still remember the hordes of brown folks who suddenly put American flags on their windows and car bumpers within a few days after 9/11. Yes, they were peace-loving and wanted to show support. But deep down, they were also terrified. They had families and homes and had worked hard to be legal immigrants in the land of opportunity. They didn’t want to die at the hands of an ignorant racist.
We Contribute To The Problem
First generation Indian Americans are non-confrontational by nature. When we first get here, we’re already in learning mode, cognizant of the fact that we’re from a different culture. We get help from those that came before us, ready to assimilate as best as we can. We do not want to rock the boat under any circumstances, a fact that some folks take advantage of.
Once we spend a few years here, we finally get our homes and our Hondas and Toyotas in the driveway (see what I did there?). We still don’t want to disturb the balance or stick our heads out for what we believe in. I think it’s because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t want to screw up what we worked so hard to build.
So we adapt and keep shut and pat our miserable selves on the back while sharing articles on how all the top CEOs are of Indian origin on Facebook.
In the process, we actually end up hurting ourselves and other minorities by our complacency.
The only reason I’m even typing all this up is that I felt it needed to be said. It’s not about assigning blame, or what happened or didn’t happen in the last few weeks and months (and years). It’s about what America stands for – liberty, opportunity, and equality.
I want the America that looks outward and not inward.
The one that doesn’t stereotype me by the color of my skin, the way I speak or the pronunciation of my name.
Yes, it’ll take a while before we get there but in the meantime, stop hating.
Thoughts? Bouquets? Brickbats?