The Brown Frown: East Indian, Asian Indian or Indo-American?
“So you don’t consider yourself to be Asian? What are you then?”
The gentleman was puzzled. He was Chinese-American and he was reflecting upon how our high school’s badminton team was made up solely of Asians. My son had already mentioned to me that he was the only “brown” kid on the entire team. I told the soft-spoken gentleman that my son had already informed me that he was the only non-Asian Indian-American on the badminton team. The man’s inquiry wasn’t off the mark.
In response I wanted to tell the gentleman that while I firmly believed I was Asian, everyone and everything around me wanted to pigeonhole me into another category based upon my skin, race, waist to hip ratio, origin and accent.
“I really don’t know who or what I am,” I finally ventured, laughing. “I guess it depends on who is asking-or telling?” The man smiled genially. Obviously, he found my predicament funny. We drifted into a general discussion about South-east Asia. Soon my mind detoured, as it always does, to the color of my skin, brown.
Brown is a strange state suspended between white and black. It is neither here nor there. It doesn’t stun like red. It doesn’t whistle like blue. It isn’t cool–like green which smells of money. Brown is the color of a tree stump. It’s the color of a nut. It’s the color of loose soil. You can understand why when writers refer to a brown woman they tend, consciously, to veer towards the lyrical.
“Sudha’s skin shone like copper.”
“Paroma was the color of the earth.”
Can you imagine anyone likening my skin to the color of dirt, huh?
And so, Indians, Pakistanis, Srilankans and Bangladeshis–sifted and hand-picked by their shade of brown–are thrown into a cattle cart whose label shifts, along with changing demographics and the politics of the times.
No wonder I seem to end up with a multiple personality disorder whenever I fill out a form or talk to an official. Last month, the local library wouldn’t pull up anything on Indian-Americans from its catalog until the lady at the information desk waved her magic wand.
“Try ‘East Indian’,” she said.
I was East Indian from then on until a few days later when the same library told me I was indeed something else.
This time I was at the reference section of the library thumbing through a tome titled Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. Heck, I couldn’t locate anything on Indian-Americans. So we didn’t figure in the immigrant experience in the United States? That couldn' t be. So, once again I found myself at the information desk.
“Did you, may be, look under ‘Asian Indian’?” the lady asked. And what do you know? Asian Indian I was, according to the Gale interpretation of multicultural America. Now this week, as I fill out my US citizenship papers, I’m finding I may just be ‘Asian’. Plain and simple ‘Asian’. The only options offered to me by the Department of Homeland Security are Asian, Black, White, Alaskan Native, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. But while I’m thinking I’m Asian, all North-American publications focusing on India want me to call myself ‘Indian-American’. So now, when I’m around people of Indian origin, I’m Indian-American, not Indo-American as I once thought. And then in some random application forms, I may become a ‘South-east Asian’ or just an ‘Asian from the Indian sub-continent’. On a few occasions, however, I’m just a measly nobody, a good-for-nothing. I’m crushed into a ball of loamy compost and tossed into a bin marked ‘other’. I want to roll over and disappear, dust to dust, into the arms of Mother Earth.
While I’m ruminating over the racial and dermatological underpinnings of my profile in America, something happens to radically alter the hue of my rusty outlook.
My son calls me to pick him up from school. Could I, he asks, also give his friend, Sean, a ride to his home? But, I tell my son, I didn’t know who Sean was or where he lived.
“Mom, you remember. Sean’s the kid whose house smells fishy.”
I had a sneaking suspicion Sean was right next to him and I told my son he was crazy to be loose with his words. “Don’t say it out loud! What if Sean heard you? What will he think?”
“Oh, he’s fine with it. Say Sean, I’m telling my mom she needs to drop you at the house that she thought smelled very fishy.” I hear post-pubescent roars of laughter at the other end.
Soon a smiling Sean climbs into the van along with my son and I drop the nice Asian boy at the home that reeks of fish and kimchi. Would I ever again summon up the courage to ring the doorbell at Sean’s sweet-smelling home with a steady brown finger?
While I was twisted up in knots over labels and square boxes, two mindless teenagers had boiled all differences down to the lowest common denominator–the smell of food.
I hope I’ll run into the Chinese-American man again at badminton practice. If I do, I shall have to tell him that I’m Asian, after all, and, most certainly, Indian-American. But, most of all, I shall have to tell him that I belong to a racial tribe whose carpets, blinds and walls reek of hot oil, fried samosas and masala chai.