I was out at our neighborhood pandal a few weeks ago for Jagaddhatri Pujo and was informed that I “almost sound American” by a community member. I tried to clarify that I was indeed from the U.S.–however, he responded, “But really, you’re Indian.” He wasn’t wrong so I let the distinction slide but the conversation sparked a deeper desire to engage with my dual identities.
Being an American-born “Person of Indian Origin,” comes with a lot of privileges. Back in August, when I was completing my Foreigner Registration out in Santiniketan, using my American accent allowed me to cut corners as the office fast-tracked my application and completed all the necessary paperwork in-house. Later, when touring the girls hostel, the warden of the building left her post to show me around. One of the girls who was waiting to speak with the warden asked, “Are you giving her preferential treatment just because she’s a foreigner?” As I realized, it’s not just because I am a foreigner–but because I am American. (Other international students–from Bangladesh and Myanmar at least–were not receiving the same benefits. And another administrator didn’t speak to me at first as he had thought I was an international student from Sri Lanka. Upon realizing I was American, his entire disposition changed.)
I have gotten used to being American in Kolkata: when I don’t want to attract attention, I speak in broken Bangla with lots of head nods; when asked where I hail from, I say Hyderabad, to keep conversations short. If I’m lucky and inconspicuous, I can get into monuments and museums at the Indian price. It really does feel like the best of both worlds as I engage with my identity on my terms. However, I was not expecting to qualify my Americanness when back on home turf.
Last week, I found myself in Washington DC–I had to make a quick trip and fly back for an interview and stayed with Oyumaa at her place in Rosslyn. She had mentioned to her roommates that I had flown in from India and while getting dressed, I heard one of them ask her, “How’s your friend from India?” “Oh she’s fine!” Oyumaa said. I wondered whether I should go out and explain my situation. I mean I am from India–literally, I had just gotten off a flight. But is it even worth explaining that I’m American-with Indian roots-and am just living in India for the time-being? Probably not–but later, when taking an Uber, I was talking to my co-riders about how I was living in Kolkata–and felt the need to qualify my statement: “I’m actually from Arizona-I’m just in India on a Fulbright for the year.”
It’s funny though–while in India, I have the ability to be “as Indian” as I’d like, in the U.S., I now realize, I’m not always given that same opportunity. “Where are you from?” is a far weightier question when you are not obviously part of the in-group.
I also wanted to link to this short film made by filmmaker Chai Dingari–not completely pertinent, but still a lovely piece about being “Hyphen American.”