Divya Ramesh |The hyphenated American
Through My Eyes | If I just considered myself Indian, I would be leaving out half of my identity
March 10, 2013, 11:56 pm·
Through My Eyes
I was standing in line at Houston for lunch with my first-grade PennPal, Akina, as we counted the number of people in the pasta line to practice numbers.
“What are you, anyway?” she asked. I looked down at my blouse, wondering if I had accidentally ventured out in a costume. It was only around the trick-or-treating season that anyone asked me that question.
From the honest and innocent look in her eyes, I knew that Akina sought a real answer. I had no idea how to respond.
I had dealt with other interrogatives before: Who are you? Where are you? Why are you here?
I faltered. My weakly attempted responses crashed against walls of negation.
“I am a person.”
“I am a student.”
“I am a human being?” I ventured, pleading for some clearer direction.
“No. I mean, I’m half Indian and half black. What are you?”
Then it made sense. “I am Indian-American,” I said, confidently.
She pointed to a red-haired, Caucasian girl filling a cup with a Fanta and Pepsi blend while balancing a tuna wrap in her left hand.
“She’s American,” Akina remarked, triumphantly. “Not you and not me. You’re just Indian.”
I have always felt American and Indian. I was born during a record-breaking Ohioan snowstorm to immigrant parents from south India. I hang both flags in my room and know the national anthem of both countries.
“But you and I were born here,” I countered. “We’re both.”
My argument fell on deaf ears and an adamantly shaking head.
The little girl’s point made me think. Did the designation of being American belong only to a certain color and creed in the minds of some people? Did immigrants and their Ohio-born children really feel American?
Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri takes a middle stance. When talking about her own experience in a 2008 interview with NPR, Lahiri said, “there is sort of a half-way feeling [of being American].”
She even comments that her parents, naturalized citizens, didn’t really consider themselves Americans, because they felt more tied to Bengal. “It didn’t matter that I wore clothes from Sears,” she remarks. “I was still different. I looked different. My name was different.”
Engineering freshman Meryem Essaidi believes that “American equals U.S. citizen” and nothing more. “I don’t like generalizations, bottom line,” she said. “People tend to make hasty conclusions without considering all the facts and variables.”
Essaidi’s definition places me, an Indian-American, under the American umbrella. It includes all the second-generation Americans at Penn who have a foot in both camps within the American fold although we may not have the red hair or eat the all-American cheeseburger.
However, this desire to embrace the hyphenated, non-white American — the Nigerian-American or Asian-American, for example — is not something all children have.
I went to Powell Elementary School a few weeks ago to pick up Akina. As I conversed with the students, I was again faced with the same question and comments: What are you, anyway? Are you Bengali like that boy in my class? Woah, you sound American, but you’re not.
I fruitlessly gave the same answer I had to Akina. “I’m Indian-American.”
Two blunt students responded in unison: “But you [aren’t] white.”
With minority births now outnumbering Caucasian births in this country, I wonder why some members of minority groups do not see themselves as American. Why is there a sense that being American has to include being white?
Part of the problem might be that schools like Powell are demographically skewed — most of the student body is African-American or Bengali-American.
The reason I feel Indian-American is that a part of me involves Indian Independence Day and Indian traditions while the culture I grew up in — I was only one of seven students of color in elementary school — was stereotypically American. Powell is missing the second half of my experience.
We don’t need schools with just seven students of color — there were racist tensions in my school. But all-minority schools can foster other problems, as evidenced by Powell.
If we don’t reach a balance, there might be a generation of children born here who when asked, “Are you American?,” might say no.
Divya Ramesh is a College freshman from Princeton Junction, N.J. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @DivyaRamesh11. “Through My Eyes” appears every Monday.