Friday, April 28, 2006

Back in the day...

I have become overwhelmed lately with the past. People and memories from years ago, long forgotten, feel nearer in time in ways they never have before. It's gut-wrenching. And beautiful.

So in an admittedly lame attempt at capturing these random bursts of nostalgia that I have been subjected to these past few weeks, I dug up this essay that I wrote in college years ago. I was the editor of an Indian literary magazine, and we were desperately scrounging for folks to submit their writing. So I wrote this silly little piece. The thing that strikes me immediately, is how utterly insincere it is while simultaneously being an important truth about my personal sense of identity and belonging. The moment I acknowledge that I am an American at least as much as I am Indian.

There was an ongoing war going on at the time between first generation Indians and Indians who had grown up in America. Quite conveniently (and superficially) the two groups were also divided into graduate students and undergrads. Someday I will blog about the perils and drama of the Indian community in a little midwestern college town. Or not. Whichever comes first.

The buried subtext of the essay below is that I think the Indian Americans at our school were pretty much totally bratty, and that these differences that they saw among themselves and the newly-arrived immigrants were mostly thinly veiled expressions of self-loathing. But I don't say that. Instead, this pretentious, slightly cringe-inducing piece is what I wrote (a piece that I have an odd fondness for nonetheless, hence the post).

American-Desi-From-A-Boat

If you are a desi, chances are you know who F.O.B.'s and A.B.C.D's are. Fresh Off the Boat. American Born Confused Desis. Perhaps the oddest acronyms known since it has so little to do with Indians or Americans. Certainly Indians in India would be largely puzzled by identities so carelessly linked to transportation. It is a strictly Indian-American term, referring to the gap between first and second generation Indian-Americans. Years ago (back when I was unaware of any such acronyms), when people asked I would say, "I grew up in India. I am Indian" Smiling proudly, rolling my rr's, extending my ee's. Iiiiinddiiaa. My India. Disclaiming America in every way. I did not grow up in the suburbs of Iowa. I grew up in Bombay-a name I belonged to, a name that had made space for me, understood my Indian-ness without needing an explanation. Bombay-a word with far more exotic possibilities than I.o.w.a.

It was only later on a trip to India that I discovered parts of me distinctly American, like extensions I didn't know I had. I imagine a fashion crisis with my body in a kurta and jeans underneath. In America, as Indians we are all trying to reconcile our Indian traditions with clashing American values. We are Indians in America, trying to lay down our Americanisms on top of Indian-brown skins. Perhaps that's why it is so difficult to understand the "F.O.B's" and "A.B.C.D's"-terms that clearly separate us, divide us. One would think such meaningless designations would be just that-nonsense. But as we know, they become a superficial, but strong measure of Indian-ness in a world that is not Indian.

You look around and you see white swamis with clear blue eyes in the Ped Mall, asking you about the Bhagvad Gita. And the Vortex is selling "Shiva Loves You" T-shirts for $25 and the Peaceful Fool has cut up my mother's sarees into dipping, hugging dresses that my mom would crack my head open for wearing. An uneasy inclusion that feels even more alien. These days when people ask me, I say, "I came here when I was eleven." And I nod when I hear, "Oh, so you are American."-a word that feels like an ill-fitting shirt. (Does it show?) "You have an accent," some note, puzzled. And I am grateful that I haven't entirely dissolved in some proverbial melting pot. I am an American with strong and proud Indian roots. Not an A.B.C.D. with an accent.

4 Comments:

Blogger Andy's Life in India said...

Someday we should talk about the trails and tribulations of being bi-cultural. Never exciting, but always fun. Ii assure that the issues are not confined to the Indian community. But an added layer for the Latino community is the overall low educational attainment that creates just as big a rift between those that are formally schooled and those that are not, similar to issues in the black community. It is a sad statement in the end that we always focus more on the few differences than on the many commonalities.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

yeah...I have always thought the sometimes especially strong venom that was expressed by the undergrads in our school (the Indians who grew up here) towards the graduate Indians (fobs) was a function of growing up in a culture that either ridiculed Indians or turned us into an exotic, spiritual, other. If I had grown up here, the last thing I would want is to be associated with anything "other" or "exotic" or "ridiculous". But then suddenly there were these Indian people with oil in their hair, happily eating curry, with thick accents and all their fobby ways. And suddenly all the white kids didn't see the difference between me (American) and them (Indian). I have always thought this was the real source of the very real animosity between these groups (aside from the pettiness of their complaints).

Having said that, I don't wanna say that Indian Americans weren't proud to be Indian, but it had an edge to it. Qualifiers. I am proud, only if you see me as American first. Which is why I think so many Indian-Americans identify with other "brown" cultures so often--black, hip-hop, latino. I dont' know, a theory.

12:09 AM  
Blogger vadakkan.com said...

Enjoyed your essay. Post the whole thing.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

hey thanks:)

whole thing? dude, that's the whole of the thing!

3:35 AM  

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