Quintessential American – III

“Where are you from?”

That question still comes my way, even after twenty-five years of being in the US. Saying India, without hesitation, used to be easy.  The question was a welcome ice-breaker as far as I was concerned. Having pegged me securely and having assigned me a slot in their brains my interlocutors could now branch into several areas of conversation.

“How long have you been here? What brought you here, so far away from home? This is what I’ve heard about India, is it true? Does this still happen? My doctor is an Indian, love him to death!”

These were the expected branches of conversation once they ascertained my origins. I rather enjoyed the interaction.

But I soon learned that these questions were not always welcomed by other Indians or Indians who had lived here longer than I had. I met my husband in 1991. He had been in this country since he was eight. He grew up
in a very small town in upstate New York, the town of Dansville, population 5,000, where his family was the only one adding a tinge of diversity to the white demographic.

His childhood experiences were so different from mine with things like camping, fishing, inner-tubing, Little League, football and an adolescence replete with all experiences that are verboten for most Indian teens of the era in which I was a teen. Roasting s’mores by a campfire or going down streams or creeks in the inner tubes of a tire or knowing when it was trout season were alien concepts for me, things I hadn’t even come across in books.  And this was a list of things boys did, I haven’t a clue what girls did.  He does tell me that his older sister’s friends used to surround him in his pre-teen years as they tried to practice their kissing skills on him!

We’ve driven through his hometown sometimes.  He points out all the white picket fence homes of his childhood, the elementary school, the middle school, the high school, an old boarded up building that used to be the Blum Shoe Factory; that family now a part of ours.  As I try to see things through his eyes I realize things haven’t changed much here.  This is one of the places in real America where time more or less stands still, the kind of town that coming of age movies made in America use as a backdrop as they portray the angst of people who yearn to leave it all behind and chase big cities and bright lights.  When I see places like this I imagine Billy Joel talking about Linda and Eddy in this:

Or John Cougar talking about Jack and Diane here:

Or, finally Paul Simon, using an upbeat melody to point out line dried clothes getting dirty in the wind and the colors of the rainbow looking black in this:

Could one stake a claim at American quintessence while lacking all the experiences that make up an American personality?

I got the first chance to witness how annoying the origins question could be to someone who has been through these experiences when after we got married, on our first trip to NYC together, the driver of the horse carriage we had boarded for a trot around Central Park, asked with great innocence, “Where are you from?” I was still only four years into the country and was about to blurt out India when A stopped me with a gentle pressure on my hand and said, “Buffalo, now let’s go!”

I was surprised at how unnerved the question had made him. Back in 1992 I couldn’t wrap my head around this short, dismissive answer to the innocent question from the carriage driver.  The tone of A’s voice had stopped the poor guy from asking the follow up question that I saw him dying to voice, “But where are you originally from?”

These days India is not what I say when I am asked where I am from.  I say I am from New Jersey because I suppose I am more interested in steering the conversation toward topics of immediate interest, indebtedness, home values, unemployment, traffic on Interstate 80, movies, TV shows, late night talk shows etc.

I am ill-equipped when it comes to answering questions about India now.  Where before I was amused at comments like, “Oh, your mom’s coming! What does she look like, does she wear a turban?” or the people who asked, “Oh you’re from India, which tribe?” now I would stare at them as though their IQ points were about the same as that of a tomato. 

Perhaps now I have gained a better understanding for why my sister-in-law to be shooed away some curious, prying strangers who wanted a side seat at our big Indian wedding at a hotel in West Henrietta, NY. 

At some point the need to get taken for granted superseded the amusement derived from strangers’ extrapolations based on ingrained, false images of snake charmers and swamis.

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