Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Cautiously Opening That Door
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
A few weeks ago, another Indian-American and I were talking and agreed on one benefit of that particular childhood: if your parents are well-off enough to drag you to India & back a few times, you get used to long flights such that they're not much of a bother later in life.
This got me thinking about other advantages I got by dint of being born in the US to South Asian immigrants (educated middle-class ones, to be sure). That is, where did I get a leg up on children born to US-born white parents?
A few thoughts:
I had a hard-to-ignore set of lessons on intersectionality and multifaceted diversity. My parents aren't just Indian, they're Karnatakan Kannada-speaking Hindus from the Brahmin caste, and they didn't come from ease or wealth. And I'm leaving out some markers here: aesthetics, politics, culinary tastes, the places they've lived, the jobs they've had, their ages, what other languages they speak... I never could have believed that The Rest Of The World was a homogenous, forgettable mass.
From the start, I've had a taste of what it's like to be Other, or at least an edge case. My name didn't fit on forms. A classmate pointed to Indiana on a map and said, "That's where you're from!" A logic tutee, astonished at my US accent, said, "But you're Indian! ... Didn't you ever think that accents were innate?" Back when I was writing my newspaper column, after I wrote a piece about Indian-American TV shows, someone wrote in and complained that all I wrote about was "not being white." My parents looked hard and fast for US flags to put on their car and house after 9/11. And before that was the jerk in the car repair waiting room who called my mom a Satan worshipper, harassed her because of her kumkum (red dot on the forehead), and made her cry. Being brown in this majority-white country has given me a zillion anecdotes amusing and bemusing, from little irritations to strange, nebulous frustrations to disheartening dismay. So, the seeds of my reflexive sympathy for the underdog and pain-in-the-butt edge-case pedantry, check.
My parents spoke English and an indigenous Indian language (Kannada) at home. My parents could easily talk with my teachers and friends, but I also got sensitized from birth to the possibility of other tongues, other orthographies, and other ways of thinking. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and take my parents' Kannada lessons more seriously, but I couldn't see the point in it. Silly me. I do have ready access to study materials and practice partners should I wish to get fluent.
Growing up Indian-American tends to correlate with learning to handle spicy food. I in particular also grew up vegetarian. I never quite understood how omnivores could stare at vegetarians and ask, "but what do you eat?!" until I understood that, in the standard late-twentieth-century US meal, there is one high-profile meat chunk surrounded by bits of starch and vegetable for flavor and texture. If you think "vegetarian = removing meat chunk" then of course the plate seems empty. I grew up with a cuisine that gives beans, nuts, grains, leafy greens and other veggies first-class status.
Timezones. I was used to hearing people talk on the phone late at night, and got used to looking at the clock and quickly calculating the time n hours away. That's come in handy since.
Those are all effects I can at least take a stab at articulating. But I can only begin to think about the giant assumptions I take for granted, like "of course we've travelled abroad" and "this is a country of immigrants, Exhibit A, us" and the positive (and negative) effects of the Model Minority, doctor-or-engineer expectation. And I'm trying to limit this list to stuff common to middle-class US kids of professional-career South Asian parents (Canada seems rather different). I'm working towards some reminiscences specific to my dad and mom, but that's divergent.
Other children of South Asian immigrants, tell me what I forgot.
12 Mar 2010, 12:02 p.m.
12 Mar 2010, 13:44 p.m.
13 Mar 2010, 5:44 a.m.
13 Mar 2010, 11:30 a.m.
13 Mar 2010, 12:11 p.m.
13 Mar 2010, 12:26 p.m.
13 Mar 2010, 17:48 p.m.
16 Mar 2010, 7:32 a.m.