Neither Here Nor There

Today was my birthday and my mother sent me some of my favorite sweets. I knew I would probably try to eat all of them in one go, so I made sure to share them with my colleagues at work and my professors. After office hours I asked a math professor, “Are you adventurous at all, food wise?”. I had learned from past experience that many people are not used to the taste of lentils or condensed milk, which are common in Indian foods, even sweets. He replied that he was somewhat adventurous and popped a kaju barfi into his mouth. My professor seemed to enjoy it and asked me where I was from. I plainly replied New York as I always do. Then he rephrased his question, “Where is your mother from?”. To which I also replied New York, and then he finally got around to awkwardly phrasing a new question to imply he wanted to know where my family was from originally. Now we were getting somewhere as I told him my family was from India and my grandmother is from southern India where kaju barfi is quite common.

Kaju Barfi- a sweet made of cashews, condensed milk, dried fruit, and spices. The top layer is decorated with edible silver foil.

This mixup seems to happen to me quite a bit. People will ask me where I am from and I am never sure whether they mean my heritage or whatever I define as my hometown (I’ve lived in New York for the majority of my life so why can’t I call that home?). A problem that probably arises from the perception others have of me. I once took a Spanish class, and a girl Heather thought I was an international student until I had to answer a question in class regarding where I went to high school. On the other hand some people will simply understand I am from New York by my accent. I had to conduct a survey on behalf of the borough my college is located in for an economics seminar. Every person in this corner of Pennsylvania immediately knew I was from further North, if not specifically from New York. So it is not the case that everyone is confused.

However my experience with my professor and the example with Heather demonstrate a common problem that immigrants or the first-born generation face. My facial features and complexion indicate that I am an immigrant. What I mean by that is people I interact with can’t quite put their finger on where I am from (in terms of heritage), but people observing me definitely know my family moved here within the past generation, if not a shorter time frame. This probably has to do with complexions and appearances people register as being common within the sample set of people they interact with everyday. If I appeared to be hispanic or black or Irish, there would be far less confusion since they are common within American society.

At the same time, I’m really not a complete Indian either. I do not uphold Hindu customs at all, I don’t speak hindi or any of my parents’ local dialects, and I appear American. When judged simply by the clothes I wear, my accent, and my mannerisms, almost everyone unanimously agrees that I am Americanized. All that makes me Indian is my visits to India (which have given perspective on what it is like to live there), the fact I was born there, the food I eat on a regular basis, my knowledge of Indian customs and religion, as well as a couple of choice phrases that only english speaking Indians are able to come up with. Therefore people around me are somehow able to pick up on both of these sides, and the need to categorize me as one or the other causes this split in the proper answer to the question “Where are you from?”.

This problem may be more unique to me, but since I don’t really care for Indian customs or religions I definitely get judged by other people with a similar heritage. In high school I was sitting in study hall and my teacher called me up just to talk for a bit since I was quite friendly with her. Hearing my teacher pronounce my name in an Americanized manner lead to this Indian girl peeking her head up and glancing back and forth between me and my teacher. Suddenly she just started ranting about how “that’s not my name” and “it’s your choice if you want to have everyone say your name wrong”. Before she could continue on for too long, my teacher started to actually wonder if she was mispronouncing my name, I just shut her up by telling her that it was none of her business and the solution was not as simple as she thought it was.

You see, I have struggled with having a name that’s hard to pronounce all my life and I have learned the problems and practicalities of such a phenomenon. Try and explain to someone that your name is Aditya (pronounced: ah-thith-yah). My parents pronounced my name to my teacher in first grade, she went ah-dee-tee-yah, my parents just nodded their heads, and from then on I just realized that most people would not bother/were not able to pronounce my name correctly. That is the pinnacle of my inbetweeness as a half Indian and half American person. This girl in study hall would probably slap someone in the face until they pronounced every Indian name correctly, but I would rather not get sent to jail for aggravated assault because I know that’s not really happening in my lifetime. Even though I have adopted the nickname Adi, pronouncing my real name can be a fun exercise for my close friends. They are kind of oblivious to the difference between the “thith” and  “deet” sounds so it’s rather amusing to just hear them say the same incorrect pronunciation over and over.

So if my physical attributes did not divide people, my name certainly does. For my fellow Americans trying to answer the complicated “Where are you from?” question, a glance at my name tells them I’m probably a first generation immigrant. From an efficiency standpoint, most people don’t pick unfriendly names from another language if they are planning on moving to the US. My parents did not intend to move here when I was born, so they gave me a name that is incredibly popular within India. At the same time an Indian person glancing at my name immediately recognizes that it is an Indian name. Then they take one look at me and they probably think I haven’t seen the light of a temple in a decade or two (not true actually, I attend temples with my grandparents on a yearly basis, but their hunch that I don’t follow Indian traditions is correct); or more seriously they struggle to categorize me as well because they can definitely sense I am not fully Indian. In reality this smorgasbord of confusion is not uncalled for. People are simply realizing that I have all these different qualities and interests from multiple cultures combined with a distinct physical appearance.

Appearance is telling, these 18th century stereotypes illustrate the categorization expected in society

My main point is that I am in a rather unique, but difficult situation. Both sides, Indians and non-Indians, are equally confused as to what nationality I represent. I don’t really see why others have a need to categorize me, but everyone I encounter has an equally hard time coming to their conclusion. People are confused by what they don’t understand and there are not that many people in my situation. I have all the biological factors to make me foreign as an immigrant, as well as the name to match. However when it comes to the way I conduct myself, it’s really hard to say whether I am more Indian or American. It’s funny to me that people have the inherent need to categorize me and slightly disappointing that some of my fellow Indians carry expectations of me simply because of biological factors that define me. My dad always claims he’s a world citizen, but I’m waiting for the day people understand the difference between ethnicity, heritage, and nationality. Then they would come up with a better question than “Where are you from?” and move a tiny bit closer towards understanding my position.

Small disclaimer: There are a few individuals who possess the rare ability to understand the complexity behind my nationality, ethnicity, and culture. Most people tend to cluster the three together, but they are three independent defining factors of a person. I have encountered some people who possess this worldly trait and the even rarer set of non-Indian people who can pronounce my name. I’m not really disappointed by my situation, but I thought I would explain it to show how obvious stereotyping is within society. I think this will change as the world globalizes, but for now progress is somewhat slow.

I chose the featured image of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island because it is symbolic to me of the irony behind the misunderstanding I am facing. The immigrants adopted the American nationality, but came from a variety of different ethnicities. To compound that they shared some elements of a common culture as Americans, but were divided by cultures inherited from their countries of origin. These immigrants definitely understood the differences between nationality, ethnicity, and culture. Modern society reflects the impacts of globalization and the increasing difficulty in categorizing people into a conglomerated category of ethnicity/culture/nationality. In Ellis Island terms I’m as American as the next person, but many people would probably disagree with that in private. Their confusion that I have described is definitely telling of that point of view.

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