Indian, But No Expert


To some it is fairly evident that I am from India. I should say that it is fairly evident to those who, for lack of a better term, share my “heritage”. To others it is a mystery that they nags them.

When I was growing up it was not too uncommon for people, mostly my peers, to assume I was Black since I wore my hair short and was pretty dark. Then after high school I spent a year in Argentina and most people thought I was either Mexican or Brazilian. Back in the U.S. after most people hear my name they guess I’m from India (thanks, in part, to the motion picture hit Harold and Kumar go to….name something ridiculous).

In most instances when people realize I am from India they begin a set of fairly routine questions. These questions vary depending on whether or not I have divulged that I’m adopted, which seems to follow almost inevitably from learning I’m from India. Most questions relate to language, place of birth and family.

Language

The question that brings me the most shame is that I don’t know any Indian langauges.It only brings me shame because often times I am asked that question by a South Asian or Indian that recognizes I am of similar descent. Often times they will great me in Tamil or Hindi and I will shamefully respond in English.

One incident, where I was working in a kitchen, doing catering work, I manage to personally offend a fellow Indian. While I was in the back chopping mushrooms and tossing them into an oil and salt mixture I overheard a man speaking some foreign tongue. A begin to try to decipher what language he is speaking when I heard my boss, Sarah’s, voice. She, speaking to the man said,  “yeah, he is from India”  and then called my name. I knew it, he was from India and had been speaking to me in Hindi. I approached the middle aged very “Indian” looking man wiping my hands on my apron. I reluctantly explained I knew no Indian languages, even as he tried a few other dialects on me. I think I even tossed out a sorry. After finally accepting I knew no Indian language the expression on his face told me I had somehow betrayed him and  my “true” culture.

Family

“Have you maintained any contact with your family or anyone in India?”

“No”, I reply,  “but I went back to the orphanage once while in high school for two-and-half weeks with my sister, who is not adopted.” Sometimes I get a variety of follow up questions that end up making me “feel” adopted. These questions, about my biological relatives often make me wonder if I should try to find out who they are or try to initiate contact with them. I usually realize that the desire for that information is more based on my desire to be able to answer these questions than a genuine desire to know.

Place of Birth

Of course once people learn I am from India they want to know what part I am from. I think this is more of a formality because the vast majority of people who ask me what part I am from couldn’t locate New Delhi on a map (I’m included in this majority).

At any rate the questions continue, “What part of India were you in?”

“Well I was in a city in the south. It is called Trichy for short but is Tiruchirapalli. –Me

“Is that where you were born?”

“No, I’m not sure where I was born.” The look of sadness and horror that cross some peoples’ faces is priceless. I continue, “My birth certificate says I was born in a small town in the southwest, but the orphanage thinks I was born in New Delhi, the capital. But to make things more complicated my Indian passport says I was born in Tiruchirapalli.” If I’m in a good mood I’ll joke that since they don’t know where I was born they probably don’t know my birthdate so I could be 30.
I think that I would have a stronger “connection” to India if I had more information about any of those three categories above. If you think about it, they are the a few of the strongest things that link people to place. Family, heritage and language. I don’t speak a native language, I have no family there and although I was born there, I have no idea where.

Most of the time these questions don’t bother me too much, but it does aggravate me that I am assumed to know a lot about my heritage because I was born somewhere else. Its like I’m a damn ambassador of India. I don’t go around assuming my American born friends know a lick about their ethnic heritage and it doesn’t sadden or disappoint me in the least.

I understand the inclination to assume I have a strong connection with India, but it is tiresome to explain that I don’t.

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2 thoughts on “Indian, But No Expert

  1. I totally feel the same way. It sucks feeling like you are expected to know all this stuff that you were never exposed to. I took a leap of faith and decided to work at a local Indian restaurant. Ahh. Not my greatest idea. I learned a lot but man, it was frustrating. You are definitely not alone.

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