Kalpana Mohan

Kalpana Mohan
Saratoga, California, USA
October 14
Freelance writer in CA www.kalpanamohan.org kalpanamohan.typepad.com Member, Left Coast Writers

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MARCH 4, 2009 1:59AM

The Brown Frown: East Indian, Asian Indian or Indo-American?

Rate: 16 Flag

 Hawaii Around Kauai 12-2005_26


“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.


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Very funny. Sounds like the game of musical chairs! When the music stops, jump into the first available race-chair! Be ready, the music is about to start again..... :D
What a beautiful post, Kalpana! It's all crazy-making isn't it? I've always viewed people whose ancestors originated in India as Asians. I wouldn't be offended by the dirt comparison. If you live in Georgia, you are well aware of the reddish nutmeg color of our clay dirt. Even the lovely deep black topsoil comparison would not offend me because dirt is where we all wind up eventually.....plus I know quite a few people who are that hue and there's nothing offensive about how beautiful God made them. But nevertheless, I'm afraid it is something that you will have to get used to. America loves to put people in boxes and different categorizations..... thank heavens, kids are somewhat immune to such folly. Rated!!
Hmm, over here this is considered south west Asia...so I think of India as Asia.
First of all, I love the color brown. As a caucasian, Eastern European semite, and second generation American, I have spent an abundance of time basking in the sun to achieve what is yours by genetic right and which is usually accompanied by long, thick, shining black hair.

And while I have recently been advised by the media that you are South Asian, which I had never really considered, thinking in my ignorance that you were Indian pure and simple, in the final analysis, I believe that you and your son are right. We are what we eat. And since my house smells much like yours, and my skin has been darkened by the sun to a lovely earth tone, and I understand what "Namaste" means both literally and in its spiritual sense, I guess I too am an Indian-American or maybe I am a Hindjew.
Coming from the UK I always find it amusing when I hear US newsreaders refer to someone from South Asia as "East Indian", which to me would mean they were from Java or Sumatra.

People over here were confused by the BBC description of some arrested would-be terrorists as "Asian". "Why would Chinese guys be planting bombs in the UK?" said one poster on Salon.
Great funny post! 'Asian' as a category is just ridiculously broad- everyone from a sephardic jew to a Papua New Guinean is an 'asian'. You might as well just have 'earthling' as a category and leave it at that. Also- a lot of surveys like to lump in 'asians/pacific islanders'! Gee- you mean 'asian' is not broad enough a category for you?
Isn't the south bay wonderful though? The vast majority of american high schools don't even have badminton as a sport. Some of the Cupertino public schools, with their mandarin programs, after school tutoring, ping-pong teams and >90% asian (both the fishy kind and the masala kind!) student body, woud be pretty shocking and foreign to the vast majority of americans.
Until a recent trial I worked on, I never viewed Indians (you know, India Indians - to quote myself and others from years past) as Asians. This plaintiff was accusing a cop of arresting him because of his color, his race. His attorney was going on about him looking like a terrorist - or of the cop saying so - with Middle Eastern overtones; whereas the plaintiff said it was because he was Asian. Regardless the dichotomy in the testimony, I thought "Asian? They're terrorists? Wait, he's Asian? Indians are Asian?"
I looked at the globe. Sure 'nough, it's Asia. But India had always been such a distinct culture to me that it startled me and now I feel so stupid.... nevermind.
Skin color.
When I was little, we visited my grandparents in SE Kansas several times a year. Across the street were the Yanezes. Mom, Dad, ten kids. The twins, Juanita and Anita, were a couple of years younger than me. Amelia was about my age. Paul Mark was the toddler we all watched out for. The older boys called me Corny (I hated that, but they were so gorgeous, especially the one that became a priest; I forgave them). We used to go to the community pool every day. They tanned. I freckled, and burned.

I have a vivid memory, the smell of cut grass in the air, a brown hound dog walking slowly from one side of the front porch to the other, seeking breeze, of sitting on the sidewalk with Amelia. Our skin reeks of chlorine from the pool, and is dry in that salty way. We're back home now and have been playing with the water hose. She puts her arm next to mine. Beautiful, warm latte brown, next to ugly, freckled, fishbelly white. The envy I felt at that moment rivals any I've felt since. Brown is beautiful.
Thank you for this. Not only was it wonderful to read but now I know what I'm craving for dinner tonight.
If we go by food smells in the house, I am definitely southeast asian - lemongrass and cumin and kaffir lime. But not so. I am German/ Russian / Ashkenazie Jewish/ French/ British with probably a little American Indian thrown in for good measure. You are right though, it's all code for skin color. I am a little depressed on hearing this.
:) the comments here made me smile especially the lady that said, she thought Indians were not Asians. Can understand your sentiments...
When my husband and I were considering renting out our San Jose home, we gave a great deal of consideration to what it would smell like if/when we moved back in. After talking it over with multiple friends (from multiple cultures) we decided that Japanese renters would be the best. Indian renters were very far down the list.

Having moved away, I miss the food of the Silicon Valley so much. Especially Indian-American/East-Indian/Asian-Indian food which is my personal favorite. Since the Indian restaurants in Arizona leave much to be desired, my husband is trying to master cooking it himself. And our home now smells like masala.
I have a beautiful daughter who is the product of an Asian man from India and me. Although, I raised her totally by myself, I always considered her paternal roots to be Asian and also to be honored. I wanted my daughter to be proud of both heritages. My daughter and I lived in Philadelphia for most of her childhood where there was such a diversity and mix of people that we did not have too many concerns or questioning of her cultural or racial identity. Not only is your post very well written but I appreciate getting this first hand take on your experience. Thanks for this share!
I can just check off "white," so it must be hard for people who can't. When I was in high school, an Indian friend (by that I meant Asian Indian, the best I can do) and her Phillipino friend would call themselves, "Other," as in, "What's up, Other?" This was a nod to the category they were left to check on forms.
Good post. Well-written.
Hi! We are the people whose house smells like popcorn! (At least right now.)

I loved this. How typical of Americans to boil down all the cultures and languages of India to "other." A couple of years ago my husband and I discovered the delights of Bollywood and went to our local Indian grocery, which also rents movies. We asked about Hindi movies, and he explained that although they had a few, most of theirs are Tamil... so I went home and looked up what languages are spoken in India, and after a few hours reading I was humbled by how little I know.

Thank you for sharing this. I think brown people are beautiful, and I bet your house smells delicious!
To Allie Griffith:

Unfortunately, my house smells (this evening) of Vanilla Cream (Candle). Yesterday it reeked of Alu Poha (Potato Tapioca stirfry...kind of). Thanks for all your comments. It's interesting. After 25 years in these United States, I don't have a little checkbox to call my own.
Our house smells like Ardee's roasted roots, eating them for days. It's tiresome keeping track of what you are, but you must, I suppose, when filling out forms. My ex-husband's father's mother is from Japan. His father is white. My ex looks Asian and so does our oldest daughter. When she was born, a white nurse filling out a form asked if she was white, to which I replied "I guess," and a black nurse behind her yelled, "she's a child." That ended that. My daughter had a friend who was Vietnamese and Muslim (which I admit confused me at first), and I only knew that so I would always get pizza without pork.
Tsk, why can't we all just be americans?
Asia is just too big.... but then, so is any continent. How many Irish-, Italian- or Polish- Americans refer to themselves as European-American? But then, they're identified by census forms are "white." Why should one group of people be identifed by color and another by geography?
Yesterday I saw the Post on Open Salon's front page. I sensed:`I bet that is a beautiful post. Yes. Your homeland is amazement upon amazement. So, I'll thank you.
I could not find a "professional" job in the seventies. The mason tender (mix cement mud) at a construction site who befriended me was brown skinned. We did the menial cleanup jobs. He could not speak Yiddish, Mandarin, or American's loco ling. After each chore, we'd compliment each other by slightly bowing:`Nameste, and


Then we'd smile and go back to common labors. It was the "unskilled" work at a town-house project. I couldn't 'land' a job as a migrant peach tree pruner. We were maniacs seething with danger, according to the "News" and Hollywood's portrayals of '`Nam veterans?


My fellow laborer was from Nagger. He had a green card. His relatives were physicians. I'd eat curry dishes, and enjoy fellowship at their hospitable home. Later, I spent one month in Latur district in your India homeland. In 1993, post-Earthquake (weapons testing?). The Deccan plateau shifted. I mentioned the experience one other time @ O.S.. It was a life changing experience. A 28, 000, mostly farmer, died.
It was Burial detail.
The first reports UPI report was as many as 60,000 may have been crushed when at 4AM, the walls shook like a baby cradle, and then collapsed. Rock, timbers,
walls collapsed as people
No day in the farm field? no.
Not that day. I've Memories.
Golden mustard, marigolds,
sunflowers, twin goat births,
makeshift shelters, wails, and
homeopathic physicians. Beauty.

Then I went to Nepal to watch the sun rise in the mountains. I loved the train rides from Bihar, Nepura (Buddha), Calcutta, etc., and those hamlets, forest (Kipling's 'Jungle Books'), flamingoes, cranes, monkeys, mud-constructed homes, thatch-roofs, stone bungalows, embroidery, silk-brocade, metal craft-persons, ornate mansions - 'havelis' and the rural folk were my favorite folk... All you had to do was scratch the skin slightly of a person - and out flowed hospitality,
and a depth of gentle, spirituality.
I still have yet processed it, awe.
Kalpana, hope Benjamin's voice rings out loud and clear and Arthur James' account is amazing, re read ur post :)
What a great post! I think brown is great. Rated and posted