“Oh! That’s Why You’re so Down.”

I think people really believe it’s a compliment when they say it. When they find out my husband is black, they screech with excitement, “Oh, thattttt’s why!” like they’ve been playing a secret guessing game and nobody told me because I’m the subject of the conundrum.

Excuse me. I wonder, “That’s why” what? Well, lots of presumptuous things, according to some. They go on to explain freely, without my prompt:

That’s why you “Talk American,” or “Don’t have an Indian accent,” or “Have that accent,” or “Dress like that,” or “Aren’t like those other Indians” or “That’s why you’re so down.”

Or this, which happens every time my own friend introduces me to someone new: “Hey guys, this is my Indian friend, Patty. She’s Indian, but she’s really black. Cuz she’s cool.” Ouch. Cool does not equal Indian, apparently. I love this particular friend and I know she means no harm and most importantly, totally misses the underhanded comment. So, I quietly forgive her. Every damn time. I forgive her also because of the dumb stereotypes portrayed  in the media of the stiff, Indian doctor with no bedside manner, droning voice and serious personality deficit. Or the heavily accented convenient store cashier who also lacks personality and wears a name tag with some version of Abu or Apu or last name default, Shah, Patel or Ali. Customers cringe as they try to get through a simple transaction of buying cigarettes because the guy’s accent is as thick as cement.

Ultimately, I know it’s not because of ill feelings or the intent to insult or belittle. It’s just that people simply don’t think of Indian-American me when they look at me, they (in their minds) see Indian, dot wearing, blingy sheet wrapped, molasses accented, curry smelling, personality-lacking, good at math, bobblehead-movement-having, Indian me. I’m none of these (well, except for the bobble head thing, when feeling particularly passionate about something).

People are accustomed to making rash estimations of who a person is. We make crazy ignorant assumptions in a matter of seconds. There’s a reason for this. Survival. The part of the brain called the limbic system wants to know whether someone is a threat, a friend, foe, neutral, same or different. It’s the same reason women quickly assume an unfamiliar man is a potential danger. And when the limbic system is trained by ignorance, it’s the reason people clutch their purses when they see a black man walking towards them. It’s the reason a person is convinced her attacker was some shade of brown. It’s the reason a woman on an airplane thinks the person in the seat next to her intently solving math problems is a terrorist making plans to blow something up (even though he’s a well-respected Italian economist). The limbic system isn’t racist. A frightened society is. The limbic system isn’t biased. People are.

Thus, in some folks’ perspectives, I’m down not because I was born in Chicago and grew up among Puerto Rican, Mexican, Italian, Cuban, black, white, Indian and other ethnicities. It can’t be because I have friends from many walks of life, like those who were once homeless to friends who have some really phat summer homes. It’s because my husband is black. I’m reduced to my affiliation with the person I married.

It’s cool though (my black husband didn’t teach me to say that, by the way). I know most people don’t mean to make ridiculous generalizations. They’re fascinated by oddities like not marrying someone from the same race or people whose impeccable American accents don’t match their brown skin. And that’s why I’m teaching. Hopefully people are learning that individuals are just that, individual, dynamic and not reduced to how they look or who they love.

 

Why I Write

I write because the struggles of immigration grieve me in a personal way, a way that for a long time divided my family to near disrepair. Despite this, I believe my very conservative Christian, Indian parents attempted to understand why this American-born Indian girl had to do things a bit differently than what they had planned. And what I wanted was exactly the opposite of what had been customary for thousands of years. I, a female, wanted to do whatever I felt like doing.

Often, the shame related to making independent, very “American” decisions has led to heartbreaking consequences in some families and particularly for females. These endings are often preceded by children of immigrants desiring to adapt to American society while balancing Indian roots. These endings are also preceded by parents quickly becoming disillusioned as they begin to see the land of milk and honey for what it really is. Sometimes, it doesn’t receive families with open arms or flowing vats of opportunity. It is a place that takes far more than it can ever offer – hopes, time, a longing for family back home, culture and many, many tears. But above all things, it wants their children the most.

Some might believe I write to shame my family, and in essence, the Indian community, as we’re a highly collectivistic society. And in fact, allowing a look into the private lives of a collectivistic society is like waiting to be exiled. However, I write because if I don’t, relationships may be broken forever and families may be destroyed. Lives may potentially be lost.

I was once watching a video of author, Arundhati Roy, advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable of India. After it ended, I scrolled down to read words of praise for her efforts and her work of fiction, God of Small Things, which clings close to the often unspoken truths of India. But as I continued to scroll I saw far more comments addressing Ms. Roy with vile, demeaning adjectives and even death threats written by brutish men raised to despise females, to view us as nothing more than insentient things to be assaulted of body and spirit to their liking.

I don’t doubt opposition. Some might even say I shouldn’t be allowed to share my accounts of Indian culture, maybe that I should be banned. I should know where my place is. I should be silent.

And this is precisely why I write.