A friend of mine was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area from Massachusetts. Both of us are recent entrants to the United States, but regional loyalties had taken root already. The perennial East Coast v. West Coast debate was just waiting to make its entry. Sure enough he remarked, "I don’t like Silicon Valley. So many desis". Now it would be easy to burst out in indignation at this remark, but for the fact that the same sentiment is expressed, or at least felt, by most other Indians. Or desis, shall we say. Including myself. And then continuing in the same vein, of total identification with the New Englander’s contempt for the "newly moneyed", he expressed total pride in being from the "old country". Where it all began, so to speak.
No, he wasn’t thinking of India when he said that.
‘So many desis’. A remark that would certainly have categorized the speaker as a racist had he been anything other than Indian. It is not my intention here to condemn any attitude or behaviour. But this phenomenon is too prevalent to ignore. I own that I myself had moved from my heart-of-the-valley apartment to an obscure ocean side town that is 50 miles away, within months of arriving in the US. And there is no denying that one of my prime motivations was to get away from the desi crowd that hung out at discount supermarkets. What is the reason for this? Whatever it is, there is no point in pontificating here. If I there is some deep-rooted aversion to my own countrymen, I might as well accept it and live with it. But it sure deserves some in-depth probing. Which is what this is all about.
It is remarkable though, that the same "fellow" feeling towards compatriots is not exhibited by the members of another widely spread race, the Chinese. The Chinese never look at other Chinese the way Indians do. For all the indignities the Chinese suffered at the hands of Western powers, they have never accepted that the white man is superior. It would be unthinkable to any Chinese that they are anything but citizens of Zhong-Guo - The Middle Kingdom (read: Center of the World) and all other races and cultures are totally inferior.
I can recollect an observation made by one of my Beijing acquaintances, when I was there a few years ago : "I don't like Hong Kong. The people there are ashamed of us even though they too are Chinese." They say that you can always make out the Mainland Chinese in HK by their ill-fitting clothes and bad haircuts.
The English did this to the Hong Kong Chinese, just as they did it to us Indians. And we in turn extend the same treatment downwards. Once we go up the ladder by acquiring a college education and lose our parochial selves and widen our horizons, we cannot help feeling contempt for those who seem to typify that very identity we left behind. This manifests itself in many different forms.
The people who make the most fun of South Indian accents are those second generation South Indians who grew up in Northern cities. It is almost as if they have to prove their altered identity to their northern friends. Similarly, I have heard Bengalis who grew up outside the state of West Bengal tell me, "I hate Cal (cutta) Bongs!"
No hate is quite so strong as the insider’s who, now, perceives himself to be an outsider.
I have been in California for a few years now and no American has ever poked fun at my accent or mannerisms. But I still have to put up with Indians who heckle me if they happen to hear me conversing in my Dravidian native tongue on the phone. One Bombay bred South Indian I know, proudly proclaims that he has never eaten Sambar in his life. Why? So he can appear cool to his mates, perhaps. ("Hey, I am no hard-core Southie. I am a dude"). If you feed him the same stuff calling it ‘Lentil soup seasoned with exotic tropical spices’ he will in, all probability, lap it up.
I see very young Indian children who grow up in America forbidding their parents to speak in their native Indian tongue at home when their American friends visit.
I understand and empathize with the feelings of these uprooted individuals as they struggle to forge their identities and have to come to terms with the conflict of where they come from and what they want to be and what they think others see them as.
It is clear that we compartmentalize ourselves into distinct identities. There are those who belong and those who don’t.. The criteria that is used to decide this is usually the level of education that manifests itself in sophistication in speech and manners.And we invariably associate fluency in the English language with sophistication and use that as an acceptance criterion. Even those of us who make a conscious effort not to do this, do not see too much evidence of excellence in Indian languages among those who don’t impress us with their proficiency in English.
There is another side to this phenomenon too. There are those Indians who seek comfort in the company of their countrymen and avoid going out of the circle. You come across many of them at work who need the services of other Indians who serve as a conduit to communicate with the outside world. It is almost as if Java is their second language, not English. Coming back to the original theory, the existence of these 'desis' intensifies the aversion that the others feel and their desire to be seen differently becomes more acute.
Given the polyglot nature of large American cities on the coasts, the attitude of the American populace to these new entrants can best be described as a polite shrug of the shoulders. ("Hey, I am no racist. I don’t care"). While debating on the touchy issue of immigration, the pro-immigrants argue that the second generation of immigrants invariably speak English like Americans and assume the cultural profile of Americans. This argument is to counter the anti-immigrant view that immigration threatens America’s social fabric by introducing non-English speaking people and their customs.
Even more interesting is the feeling of superiority that many Indians express amongst themselves when comparing themselves to Americans. I am always hearing from my Indian friends about how Americans don’t have any interests outside sports-recreation-food-movies and are not as interesting to get to know, even if the opportunities arise. Contrast this with the desi-shunning phenomenon and you get a truly bizarre, confusing picture.
So, we Indians like to be thought of as sophisticated in language and culture. We do not like to be associated with any racial group because we are too individualistic. We have a deep-rooted shame about our colonial past that co-exists with our fondness for the English language and, by extension, popular Western culture. And we are introspective enough to realize this without being able to tear ourselves away from it. So when we come across others who remind us of what we really are, we run. 'The rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, wrote Wilde (albeit in a totally different context).
An American colleague at work, said, "I like Indians. They are all different and don’t think alike. They are not homogenous like other groups. They are more like Americans, in that respect". Which provides the impetus for me to provide a positive spin to this ‘desi-shunning’ phenomenon.
Is it our individualistic nature that makes us look with contempt upon other desis -- the penny-pinching, Toyota-driving, Dravidian-tongued, greencard-seeking, discount-loving, safe-neighbourhood-residing multitude -- even though we may share some of those qualities ourselves?
I don’t know if this can be verified, but I would like to think that that is the case.
(Mesial Stephes is a transplanted Indian living in exile in California)
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