In a world where boundaries between countries and cultures have never been so lucid before I get this question about once a week on average: “Where are you from?” And despite the frequency of being asked this question I never know how to really answer it. I could say so much and it would still not make sense to many and I could say so little and people would still have questions. At times, the inner adventurer in me wants to come up with imaginative answers such as: “Oh, I am originally from the Maldives, but I was raised in Nepal and then went to school in Sicily to eventually end up here in the Silicon Valley.” Sometimes I just say: “I am a little bit from everywhere” or “Depends on what exactly you want to know.” But the truthful story goes like this: “My parents are Indian but I was born in LA. I then grew up in Germany and moved to Northern California after college.” More often than not I can see people’s eyes tracing an imaginary world map trying to understand my migratory patterns leaving them cross-eyed at the end.
With as much certainty as the sun rising from the East the next question is: “Ok, but who do you feel you are?” My inner voice gravitates between saying I feel like the Empress of China or the Duchesse of Cambridge but then I quickly snap back to reality and try to come up with an answer that, to date, I have no idea how accurate it is. What does it mean to be Indian? Or German? Or American? Are there certain traits that make you one or the other? Many prejudiced and narrow-minded people like to label me as an ABCD at this point. In fact, a friend of mine used to jokingly call me ABCDEFG (American Born Confused Desi Especially From Germany). Yes, I am confused! But not about my identity. I am confused about your definition of being Indian, being German and being American. I am also confused about your changing value set that seems to frame a person’s general Indian-ness, or whatever other nationality-ness.
When my parents left India almost 40 years ago their image of India was that of humble, god-fearing people, where our community consisted of vegetarians and abstained from alcohol and smoking. Having boyfriends was a non-topic (not that I had any choice of having one that would fit my mental model while growing up in Germany). They raised me with exactly those values and I never rebelled aginst any part of it because that was who I was and I was living a perfectly happy life within that environment. Until the day people started questioning my Indian-ness!
All the uncles, aunties and relatives in India were secretly waiting to hear about my trysts with alcohol, cigarettes or that German boyfriend and I kept disappointing them. Not to prove anything to them but to live the life I felt comfortable living. Time and again I was asked questions by prospective in-laws if I knew how to speak Hindi, if I knew how to cook Indian food, if I wore Indian clothes, if I understood Indian family values…the list never ended. The only question I ever had was: “Who are YOU to question my Indian-ness!?” If being Indian means not consuming alcohol have you ever noticed your children sneaking out of your house at night and drowning in alcohol as if there’s no tomorrow. It has become a status symbol for them and when I don’t participate they call me a “bore” or a “party pooper”. Oh, and did you know that having access to hukkas and weed has become an instant coolness enhancer to your lovely Indian offspring who feel ashamed uttering a sentence in Hindi? Who are you to question my Indian-ness?
My mom who would secretly hope I never pack a skirt or dress in my suitcase on our trips to India so I am not brandished too modern had no idea that over the years I was the one running around like an aunty whenever we visited India whereas the hemlines of all the other girls seemed to get shorter and shorter, their necklines were taking a plunge and they forgot to tell their tailors to sew a back to the blouses of their saris. Yet, I was the foreign one, the one being questioned about my Indian-ness!
To the present day I am unable to raise my voice in front of my parents, not because of a stifled relationship but because I love and respect them so much that it would never occur to me to behave like that. We had this running joke in class that I would leave wherever I went by 10.30pm because my “curfew hour” was 11pm which meant I wanted (not needed!) to be home by 10.45pm. 🙂 Jumping out of my bedroom window, making excuses to stay over at a friend’s house and going on a “school trip” to Goa were your daughter’s excuses, not mine. And yet, you question me on my Indian-ness?!
I don’t regret any of who I was and who I am. In fact, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way because the choice was always mine. But what I do regret is that I felt obligated to stay quiet and not show you who you are in the mirror when you questioned me on my Indian-ness!
I have absolutely no issues with your evolving sense of culture because its yours to make and live. Nor do I want to be judgmental (though I may have sounded like it). But if you try to measure me by your ancient, lost standards of Indian-ness, whether and why I posses them or not is insignificant, I will have to tell you to go caliber your values first.
I hope the next time, instead of asking me questions you give me answers. Looking forward to our conversations.