Different Degrees of being Indian

Something has been gnawing at me ever since I started reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books with a vengeance, taking them to work and reading whenever nobody was looking; her books speak a lot about race, identities, and such. I thought of how every time I met an Indian in the US, I automatically categorized him or her in my mind.

There are those who start graduate school in the US (notice I say graduate school, not post graduate, not college, not university; I say it in the manner of someone who is comfortable saying graduate school). There are those who went there for their undergraduate degrees and therefore have at least four years of seniority when it comes to understanding Americanisms. There are those who entered the country in the recent past, as spouses of men with green cards or H1Bs. They have their own circles, moving with those of their kind, quick to take note of the one woman who hadn’t made quite the seamless transition or who still dressed in the slightly awkward way of someone experimenting with jeans, having worn a salwar for most of her life before this. They took pride in speaking to their child in English, and their mother tongue was something they lapsed into as a mistake, or when discussing disturbances within the family. There are those who grew up in the US, whose parents are first generation immigrants saving plastic bags (now hidden from view) and filling up their empty Horlicks bottles with cloves (after meticulous washing). These Indian Americans (because American Indians sounds somewhat wrong), looked upon as privileged and other unflattering things by other kinds of Indians, consider themselves American first, Indian next. They support the sports teams of their hometowns, they drink cold coffees in the summer and pumpkin lattes in fall (as opposed to drinking hot milky sweet tea all through the year). There are those who meticulously change themselves, quickly adopting strange mannerisms (such as saying ‘I know right?’ or the strange ‘Wow’ to mean something negative instead of something wonderful). There are those who don’t change at all, who like to remain cocooned in their comfortable skin, while being seen as odd by others around them. They become more and more staunchly Indian, regressing to the customs of a time period that even their parents in India may have shunned. There are those who pretend effectively, saying ‘fast’ instead of ‘faast’, ‘math’ instead of ‘maths’, and come back home to watch YouTube videos of a Hindi or Tamil serial. There are those who are stuck in the decade during which they left India, their slang and funny stories out of date, but you don’t have the heart to tell them that.

And then there are those like me, who resist everything when they are there, and who miss it when they leave.


5 thoughts on “Different Degrees of being Indian

  1. You have touched a point that is bothering me for couple of years.

    What ever you have stated is true, but if you step back and ask the fundamental question. What makes you feel like an Indian?

    Clothes? Accent? tvshows? Way you think?- The analytical side would prefer to say, its in the blood and not in appearances or in the way you talk

    But then why would people change (Not that i consider myself not changed- I reside in your list)?

    I am not mature enough to delve deeper than this but this thought does resonates in my head.


    1. What makes one Indian?
      Maybe being Indian is having the right to complain about your country, the way an insider would. Maybe being Indian is the way we nod okay, or the way we find ourselves standing up when a teacher walks into the room. Maybe it is being taught that you cannot speak to elders as your equals, maybe it is forcing your guests to eat or have some water at the very least. Maybe it is understanding that before you love someone, you should have checked if their religion, caste, means of gainful employment, bank balance, property, rural/urban background, height, weight, balding patterns, and history of genetic medical problems were all acceptable to your family. Maybe it is eating with your hands and then licking your fingers clean, or the burp after, that is considered a sound of satisfaction. Maybe it is our mentality of scarcity, our thinking that if we don’t get it first, we may not get it at all: be it getting into a bus or getting down. Maybe it is referring to a close friend’s father as ‘father’, not ‘your father’. Maybe it is in calling the neighbours ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’, the street cricket and the fan clubs for movie stars. Maybe it is the expectation to adjust, to conform, to compromise.
      And why do people change? I suppose it happens whether you like it or not, either as a consequence of people you meet, places you see, experiences you have, or something you wished to change in yourself. I didn’t think I changed, but on returning to India, I realized that I had, in even small ways like paying more attention to garbage than I used to (cliched but true example, I couldn’t think of any others at this instant).


  2. This one struck a chord.I went there as a “dependent”.Having worked right out of college(was a a “campus recruit” as they say it here) and living pretty much according to my whims and fancies,it was strange to be stuck in a house all day while my husband went to work.Of course,I saw some beautiful places and have some wonderful memories.But I was glad to be back in India and working again.
    What is strange is that technically I should have fit into the american scene.I have watched only american sitcoms,my friends gang pretty much resembled and spoke like they were on american TV sets.And here I was yearning to be back home when even the most “indianized”(I am not being patronizing) ladies adopted and loved the american way of life.
    But two years here and I sort of miss everything about that place!I wonder if it’s just about the countries or is that how I am made.Restless where I am,always yearning to be someplace else.


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