Angry Little Asian Girl

ALAG.jpg I love living in the middle of Washington, D.C. I love walking everywhere (only three miles to work!) and being able to run all my errands within minutes of my apartment, which is an extra fantastic place to live because the building manager is a sarcastic, blunt, eyeliner-and-nicotine-addicted mother hen of a woman who has me on lockdown (“Uh, no…of course I didn’t take some random young man upstairs, just because I’ve gone on seven dates with him!”) because she dotes on me more than my own Mother does. That kind of affection is priceless and it more than compensates for tiny kitchens or ancient bathrooms.

In the dark days of 2006, when I still lived in fArlington, I dreamed wistfully of such city living; I left Manhattan in 2002 and have never quite gotten over that loss. I haven’t felt the exhilarating, unstoppable happiness I am only able to experience when I overhear four languages on one city block, when cabs are plentiful 24/7 or when ambulances are screeching by at all hours, serenading me to sleep (when I visit my Mother at home in “quiet” NorCal, I sleep in the living room with the TV on because the silence is too eerie).

I was ecstatic when I found my new home (which I did thanks to one of you!) and I gleefully pictured myself walking down Connecticut Avenue to the metro every morning; I’d have a “drip” coffee in hand and I’d be beaming uncontrollably while humming the “These are the people in your neighborhood!”-song from Sesame Street as I “commuted” a whopping eight-minutes to work.

I love coffee. I have loved it since I was 18-months old. I am picky about it, as much as I am about everything else. That’s why I adore the fact that there is this little place which no one seems to be aware of, tucked away even while in plain view of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. I don’t know what kind of beans they use and I don’t care, their coffee is outstanding. The only thing which could possibly taste better is the elixir which my detail-obsessed Father used to make after freshly grinding beans every morning (gawd, I love engineers and the precision with which they seem to do everything).

I didn’t think I could feel such affection for a coffee place unless it was venerable Caffe Greco in North Beach, a joint which is the closest thing I will ever know to Cheers, since everybody knows (and shouts) my name when I walk in, even though I only go there once or twice a year now. But like Greco, my coffee-pushers now pour my drink the moment they see me through the window; it’s a beautiful way to start my day, to feel that seemingly inconsequential bit of recognition from the young man behind the counter who knows exactly how much space to leave in order to fulfill my ridonkulous addiction to half-and-half. He is Asian and if you’ve read this essay this far, I’ll reward you by telling you that he is the point of my entire post.Over the past few months, we’ve created the sort of content rapport which forms when you see someone right on schedule, five days a week, when the “How are you?” you’ve posed is actually sincere and answered with a smile. Today felt a little bit different and not just because there was a bewildered tourist obtusely blocking the tiny counter which holds all the sugar, stirrers and cream (they usually just go with the “sure” thing and hit the Starbucks across the street). He cocked his head and looked at me in a way I had yet to experience there. I was amused as I wondered what could possibly come next.

“Where you from.”

I smiled, but I was exceptionally conscious and somewhat surprised at how this felt so different, how instead of tensing up, feeling “othered” and noticing the hairs on my neck prickle, I was utterly relaxed. I tried to be extra mindful of the exchange, especially since I was already thinking, “this is going to turn in to a Sepia Mutiny post” even at such an early segment of a social exchange. While I felt my “blogger sense tingle”, he kept going.

“India?”

I replied immediately, casually, so easily.

“Yeah. My parents. I was born here.” I was smiling.

“Where?”

“L.A.”

“I was not born here.”

I continued to smile at him, waiting for him to continue but he didn’t and I wanted to laugh.

“What??”

“And you, you…are…from?”

“Oh, Mongolia.”

“Cool. I’ve never met someone from there. Awesome way to start the day.”

He smirked at me.

“Do you know where Mongolia is? I’m kidding, I know you know.”

I laughed and turned to leave, only slightly acknowledging his

“See you soon.”

…because I was already mired in thought about what it all meant and how profoundly different that interaction felt compared to how it usually goes. Maybe I was a bigot, who gave preferential treatment to other Asians, like I was U.C. Berkeley or something. Was it only a problem for me when someone black or white asked me about my past? No…that couldn’t be right…when I first met my Russian and Ukrainian co-workers and went through this with them, my reaction was similarly neutral, if not positive. The Eritrean and Nigerian cabbies get indulgent smiles from the version of me which has no guard up.

So…I’m only chill when the question is posed by…people who aren’t American? It was so much to think about and I cursed myself mildly for wearing 4-inch heels (platforms, people…platforms) because I was wasting grey matter by having to negotiate D.C.’s ultra-crappy sidewalks so carefully (I rolled my ankle my first semester here…twice). I wanted to delve, to turn this over and over again mentally and call myself out, if necessary.

Was my all-consuming adoration for my parents making me feel solidarity with every immigrant? I do feel an immediate connection to anyone with an accent from abroad. I do understand what it is like to be in exile. Maybe that was the key to accessing a kinder, not offended me. But was this wrong? Unfair?

Was this bigotry?

Why was it okay to ask me where I was from, as long as the question emanated from anyone except another American? Have I become so hardened and embittered by constantly dealing with either ignorance or stupidity that I was now emotionally over-reacting whenever confronted with this query, which I am on a daily basis?

As abhorrent as this is to type, if you kick a puppy enough times, eventually it will bite. That encapsulates how I react here to trolls as well as how I feel like lashing out and pushing back IRL. I hated the omnipresent insinuation that I did not belong here, that I couldn’t possibly be born here, because despite my lack of accent and the abundance of pearls, argyle and headbands, with my skin I was obviously a foreigner.

I loathed the surprise which registered on far too many faces when I answered “When did you come here?” with “I was born here.” This emotion has nothing to do with being ashamed of my roots or feeling scorn and superiority at all things Indian; it had everything to do with being treated like an unwanted stranger in my own home.

I love being South Asian. I am so proud of being Malayalee. I love being social. I wouldn’t mind answering the “WAYF” bit, if only it was asked without malicious intent, but maybe my radar was broken. Maybe, the next time someone who shared my American origin blurted the question out, I would remember this morning and how it is possible to exit such a conversation without feeling angry, alone or like the protagonist in a Jhumpa novel.

Maybe.

::

If you come back later, this post will be updated with my typical link-littering. It might provide more context for certain aspects of this essay, since I’ll be able to refer back to past discussions here etc. I know, I know…why publish this if it is not ready…well, the east coast needs lunch-time distraction and the left coast enjoys fluffy reading material during their coffee. I aim to displease.

120 thoughts on “Angry Little Asian Girl

  1. Err…why?

    Err…why not? Maybe because it’s her culture, heritage, source of her mothertongue, and the root of her identity? Maybe because her religious traditions (ANNA I know you’re Greek Orthodox but I’m just sayin’)have an amazing and long history there? Maybe because the cuisine, the art, the music, the warm people, the family ties, the beautiful landscapes, the uniqueness that is Kerala?

    ANNA sorry for answering a question addressed to you, you may not agree with my points, but I never understand why people sometimes question others’ pride in the inherited aspects of their identity.

  2. When people ask the question, I always answer the place in the US my parents live (even though I really am from India). However, I more often get asked “are you Indian”, to which I answer yes, or “are you from India”, to which I answer, “originally”. Somehow those questions seem better than WAYF. Or I get asked “what is your background”? My favorite? “Where are you two from with that pretty tan?”! By the way, it’s my “hick” patients that always pose the question in the most politically correct way, like “Is your family Indian?”. Not to go OT but contrary to aspersions cast against them on this site, many rural Southerners are interested in appearing knowledgeable about the world and go out of their way to indicate that they think I’m American, just maybe a different kind of American.

  3. Malayalee food is the best in the world, she should damn well be proud (I say this as a northie). And the Kerala model of development, high literacy, land reform, etc etc. Though the food would be enough even by itself.

    Camille, your anecdotes are great. The funniest one I had from a kid was when I was travelling with a Singaporean friend in northern Italy and we asked a guy with a little boy where such and such piazza was, and he told us, and then asked in his halting English where we were from. When I said “India,” he said to his little boy, “Marco, ….[italian words] Indiano!” Upon which little Marco’s eye’s widened and he promptly put a hand to his mouth and gave me an “Indian” battle-cry. I laughed so hard.

  4. Amibtah, between the age of 15 and 20, I had almost no contact with the desi community. The area that I grew up in had 75,000 people and 30 desi families[25 punjabi] and overall 95% white. Vancouver was 7 hours away, but at the age of 15 I stopped going on those trips with my parents which was drive for 7 hours, stay for the weekend, visit 7-10 people a day for 2 days, then drive back 7 hours home. I did spend a month twice in the summer in the Central California area where my mom family live. But most of my family in California was alot more western then most punjabi’s so I never really get the punjabi culture pushed on me. When I want to the Gurdwara for the 1st time in 5 years, I had to ask people what to do, and I can even recall asking my cousin when “halftime” was during the prayer. To this day everytime I go back, they joke about me saying that.

    While most of my family was modern, there were a few older relatives that were not and they used my clueness about my own culture, when I want to India, to brainwash my parents into that thing that I had to do when I want to India.

    Only 3 year ago’s did I learn what a jatt was. Before that it was a word that was in alot of punjabi marriage ads. It was at some punjabi wedding of some 3rd cousins. When 2 olders guy were talking, where every other word was jatt. So I asked them why they kept saying that. They asked me what my last name was, so I told them and they told me I was a jatt. As you friend being a “sophisticated jatt” from what I seen, they are rare. As for me I don’t consider myself a jatt since I’ve been told that I don’t act like a jatt, whatever that means.

  5. In our lifetime, there are going to be human settlements on the Moon.

    And you know, YOU JUST KNOW, what most Desi settlers are going to hear from a white settler, first day in the lunar colony…

    “Where you from?”

    Possible responses:

    A) Point at planet Earth.

    B) “I was born here.”

    C) “Mars, of course.”

    D) “What planet are you from?”

    E) “Oh, we’re all aliens here.”

    ;-P

  6. in india, you always get the wayf if you travel—which state are your from, rather.

    And some of the time it is also an attempt to do the is-it-India-or-is-it-Pakistan-I-don’t-want-to-guess-because-I-know-you-guys-are-sworn-enemies thing.

    i am curious now—how many of you would be offended to be mistaken for the other? i have been on occasion, but i don’t think i really care—it could be true for most indians as well. it is very unlikely someone mistakes for pakistani, so when it happens, it is more amusing than annoying. it may be worse for pakistanis, to be mistaken almost all the time.

    But what would be worse – to have someone totally assume who you are based on what you look like to them, and have them start a conversation in Spanish

    oh yes. worse than conversations—being ordered around in spanish! houston airport has these go-karts screeching all over the airport. one idiot racing along shouts “move aside senor!” to me—without slowing down. pissed me off, till i realized it could have been “move aside amigo”. :)

  7. The “trend” varies within the individual to within groups within time and space. It is a dialectic that can be at best approximately reconciled within the individual without some public showing for verification. Be mindful of exploiting the negative effects of a self diaspora when hurt and showing off the positive points when strong. They both originate from the same place.

    CAVEMAN: “Yeah, I have a response. Uh.. what?” KOKOMO: “Err…”

  8. Here at Penn State at one of the local parking garage we have a gentleman who ALWAYS says Namaste as soon as I pull in and says Dhayavaad when I pay him.

    I think I have actually met this guy. Kind of plum… bald.. oldish guy. He is very nice. When I first heard the Namaste from him after I rolled down the window to hand him the ticket I was shocked… I guess my brain was confused because the words did not match the source that it usually associates them with. Later I bumped into him at Irvings… he told me that he had been to India during the war and later during his service in the Navy. He picked up a bit of Hindi there. While he was giving me the change back he also said… here is “doh rupaya”. It felt nice because I am used to saying “do rupaya” instead of “do dollar” while talking to my Indian friends. I don’t see him these days cuz they installed the automatic machines there.

    Anyway.. I always got the impressions that ABDs were a bit offended when DBDs like me asked them WAYF. So generally I don’t ask or if I really want to know I ask where is your “family” from in India?. When I get the WAYF question from White American I sometimes feel like they are trying to find out… “are you an Arab or from some Islamic country?” (facial hair and brown skin kind of marks me out for that kind of treatment I guess). I also see a definite relaxed expression on their face when they hear “I am from India”. Then the conversation ususally turns to Bangalore or IT or outsourcing. I think I too feel a little less offended when the WAYF comes from another immigrant (from any part of the world) or from Asian Americans or African Americans. I dunno why this is so. Perhaps it is some bias on my part too. But when it comes from these people it seems like their curiosity is driven by their own experience of being treated as “the other” or “the outsider”. As if they are trying to find a way to relate to me through my foreign identity.

    Great post Anna.

  9. I dont think its just you Anna. I feel the same way. I am very particular about people questioning where I am from specifically because they are asking it because of my skin color. Its not always malicious and people are some people are not intentionally being untoward (another vocab word I learned from you). But some people are. I guess it bothers me because I dont feel like i need someone else making me aware that I am different when my everyday interaction with people lets me know my religion, belief I was raised with, and skin color arent what you see on television everyday. Perhaps I have also become too sensitive..hell I constantly scold my parents for referring to white people as Americans and everyone else by ethnicity i.e. Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans.

  10. @bytewords: “it is very unlikely someone mistakes for pakistani, so when it happens, it is more amusing than annoying.”

    In preschool I moved to New Orleans and discovered a new question: “What are you?” To which the only acceptable answers were Catholic, Protestant, or (sometimes) Jewish. I got asked this every day and usually ran off pouting, unable to answer.

    A few years later, we moved to New Jersey, and discovered another new question: “Where are you from?” Now you would assume (I did) the answer to this when asked of the new kid was “New Orleans.” But instead I got, “Are you Italian, Polish, or Jewish?”

    Ethnically I’m an almost-stereotypical WASP mush, who grew up in a non-religious (not just non-practicing) family.

    My point is that, while many times WAYF does mean, “Well I can see your not American, so where are you from?” at other times – even from “white” people, it just means “Everyone’s from somewhere – where are you from?” You’re perfectly right to be upset at the first, but you should be open to – or at least tolerant of – the second.

  11. Sorry. Don’t know where that one line went. That last post should have started:

    @bytewords: “it is very unlikely someone mistakes for pakistani, so when it happens, it is more amusing than annoying.”

    My wife (South Indian) has other Indians assume she’s Pakistani all the time and she is deeply offended by it.

  12. My wife (South Indian) has other Indians assume she’s Pakistani all the time and she is deeply offended by it.

    Depending on whether you think Pakistanis are better looking (on average) than Indians, it can be considered a compliment. I guess your wife doesn’t feel that way.

    I feel like there is a lot of pressure within the Second-gen south asian community to give up our traditional, regional cultures and embrace the pan-North Indian mish mash that the West considers to be “Indian culture”. I personally feel like this would be a huge loss for all of us who come from families that took the time and effort to pass on their local cultures.

    You’re right. But for those ABDs who know little to nothing of their original regional culture (i.e from those families that did NOT take the time and effort to pass that on), and happen to stumble upon the generic pan-North Indian mish mash during their college years or whatever, I think it’s better than nothing. But I could be wrong, especially if it leads them to feel badly about their own original regional culture or somehow consider it uncool or something.

  13. @bytewords: “it is very unlikely someone mistakes for pakistani, so when it happens, it is more amusing than annoying.”
    My wife (South Indian) has other Indians assume she’s Pakistani all the time and she is deeply offended by it.
    Depending on whether you think Pakistanis are better looking (on average) than Indians, it can be considered a compliment. I guess your wife doesn’t feel that way.

    @amitabh: no no, my statement had nothing to do with looks. for one, i personally think girls from my region (konkan/so karnataka) are the beshtest in looks. statistically speaking, it is true—more miss world/universes than pakistan! so there. :)

    the point is, i want to know if people are offended to be mistaken for pakistani. i am not, but ag’s wife is. for most people who don’t care, i don’t think the issue is that we somehow think pakistanis are better looking. in fact, i am not really sure how pakistanis are supposed to look either.

  14. more miss world/universes than pakistan! so there. :)

    Pakistan/Afghanistan have some of the most beautiful women on Earth…their societies are just too conservative for most of them to enter Miss World, etc. You’re right that women from your area can be very gorgeous too.

    Anyway, whenever I’ve been mistaken for Pakistani by other Indians or by Pakistanis (not a frequent occurance but it happens now and then) I’ve never minded…because in general I think they’re good-looking people.

  15. The only other group of people who ask me this question OFTEN with the same underlying assumption are black men trying to hit on me thinking that they can sneak in some exotic “are you flexible?” or “can you teach me the Kama Sutra?” dumbshit pickup line.

    Send them my way!!!

  16. Wow, Anna. Great post. Too bad you can’t read The Hindi-Bindi Club without incurring the wrath of fellow mutineers. The opening scene (takes place in DC) and this one other in the middle sound, well, an awful lot like YOU… Reading your post, I thought you and Kiran could be kindred spirits… But hey, what do I know? Since I love the book, I obviously have no taste.

  17. hey, i know what you mean. i get it all the time. “where are you from?” “canada.” “no, i mean where were you born?” once when i answered with the city we were in the time (which IS where i was born), an elderly lady asked where my parents were from, and when i told her pakistan, said: well, aren’t you lucky you weren’t born there.. ahhhhh! right now, i’m studying in england and it’s funny because when people hear my accent they ask me if I’m American. When I tell them I’m canadian, they get all apologetic, like that’s an insult to me. one guy actually said “oh sorry, I know that’s like the worst insult you can give a Canadian” . it was actually very refreshing. I get to be where I’m from, if that makes any sense at all.

  18. I always ask people where they are from. Just because nobody in Phoenix is from Phoenix. Everyone is from somewhere else. I think if a person takes it the wrong way it is because they are reading way too much into a question. If people ask me where I am from, I never feel offended, and I was born in a foreign country and didn’t move here until I was 30. I think it is a conversation starter, and not offensive at all. I guess I could be offended if I wanted to read too much into it but why should I? I think it would make me look way too sensitive.

  19. your parents (the one’s who either brought you here or gave birth to you here in the states) aren’t a little prejudice? Aren’t a little ethnocentric? I fail to see how the main contention is with curiosity among white America—–look at your own family tree and listen to some of the things that come out of the mouth of your parents with a hint of the native tounge—–please spare me.