No, where are you really from?
Pivotal interludes from growing up brown in Louisiana.
“Where’s your wigwam? Do you have a tomahawk? Are you Cherokee?” The perplexed questions flew at me like high speed yet dull-witted daggers from the unknowing, the unfeeling, the clearly confused white hillbilly youngsters on a playground during recess at an elementary school in a small college town in north central Louisiana. It was dubious whether college was in these kids’ future. One of the young cronies was eating dirt rather salaciously.
No, not that kind of Indian. We’re from India. I think I was rockin’ a Michael Jackson t-shirt when I stated this point. (Indians loved MJ during the 80s! )
“Naw, you mean Indiana. My pee-paw (sp?) says Indiana is pretty boring, just factories and farms. WOW, you can be the Indian and we can shoot you, buster!! Yeehaw!” (imagine some pudgy white kid doing the finger gun thing at me with spittle flying excitedly. Gross.)
Umm, not quite, but okay…Wait, what?? Shoot me?? Where’s that teacher on duty…? Jeeezus…
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
No, we’re Hindu. We pray to different gods and…
“You’re a Honda? My mama drives a Honda. Well, my daddy will baptize y’all. He says if y’all don’t believe in Jesus you’re gonna go to hail.” His eyes grew wide in anticipation of “gonna go to hail”. I think he licked his lips. Another chimed in menacingly, “I’ll beat you up if you don’t get baptized.” This particular not-so-future brain surgeon hall of famer had a really screwy scolding look, and just glared at me as he inched closer.
Hail? (It’s Southern speak for “hell”. Work with me here.) Physical assault?? Umm, what?? I just wanna go home right now and eat a hot dog or grilled cheese sandwich. My parents would encourage us brown kids in this small community to try to acculturate as much as possible, since we’re foreigners in a strange land. Actually, I’m a US citizen born and raised in the US. I just look like a “foreigner” — to a certain simple-minded demographic.
Yeah, growing up as a skinny nerdy brown kid in white, semi-rural Southern Baptist town in Louisiana during the 80s pretty much sucked.
Fast forward to 2008 at a Friday tech company “happy hour” at a local bar near San Jose. The tall white blonde user researcher asked me after a martini (or two), “So you’re from Louisiana, right? How did you get so ambitious?” Because I guess the two are mutually exclusive, right? <insert eyeroll emoji>
But subconsciously I knew what it was that drove me (other than my parents, in conventional Indian cultural style of demanding highest standards per the immigrant value system that is fairly consistent across many shades of brown) and it was quite simply… Revenge.
“Whatcha standin’ around for, scratchin’ your head? Dumb ass!”
The worst for me was P.E. “class” (and that’s a truly generous word to use) where I’d be proven to be a pathetic POS (and I don’t mean “Point of Sale”) in front of other rednecks and black kids, too. I wasn’t just nervous or anxious about PE like you’d see in an episode of “Freaks and Geeks” or “The Goldbergs”, I was literally fucking terrified. I got nauseous and shaking hands before PE started. I had/have still zero physical prowess at all. I was plagued with horrible hand-eye dexterity and couldn’t run at all. The brutality of being yelled at by semi-literate redneck coaches (who apparently worked the off-season mowing lawns — no joke!) and taunted, pushed around, and altogether ruined by bullies proud of their whiteness, their redneckness, their stupifyingly parochial worldview (such as it was in grade school) was enough to fake being sick, make up stories about having illness or other issues, so I could escape. Looking back, those PE sessions were truly abusive environments but in the 80s nobody cared about that. Not just physically, but also verbally. It was years later (literally like decades) I realized a PE “coach” (prison warden?) who kept calling me “jugabee” was actually invoking the racially loaded phrase “jigaboo”. I thought it just sounded like a stupid non sequitur. But whatever. Certainly couldn’t happen in a small town shaped by a white redneck culture of male domination and belittling, alienating “the other” into subconscious subservience. In other words, they radiated white privilege and fundamentally racist attitudes that became institutionalized in their classes and programs. It became part of this invisible infrastructure of living and schooling, being “the other”. And something I had to deal with and tackle in my own way — be the best student, with the best grades so I can get the absolute hell outta there.
Now, I could go on and on listing stories of being bullied and assaulted as brown kid in a small Southern town. That time I was punched in the gut by a large kid whose father was a city judge — I never knew what having the “wind knocked out of me” felt like, but OMG that was painful. I still wince at the thought. Another time this kid who worshipped Reagan (truly, we suspected he kept an actual altar with bacon incense — before he went vegetarian, inexplicably) and championed right wing extremist (and opiate addict) Rush Limbaugh, he pushed me down to the ground at recess one day, for no reason other than to just do it. He thought it was fun! I kinda disagreed. Oh, that other time the same judge’s kid (now backed up with some of his goons) threatened me if I didn’t give him my homework answers (yeah, I went to parents and teachers on that one). Or when a teacher actually suggested I not score 100% on the next test to “let the other kids have a chance.” Seriously??
Meanwhile I kept up my personal revenge. Memorizing entire chapters of books. Acing quizzes (truly 100%) and doing extra homework. I spent winter and spring break doing science fair projects and writing papers on Iran-Contra, etc. Writing entire thesis level “book reports”, arguing the critical aspects of an author’s point of view. I dominated calculus, indulged in Shakespeare, and even (ha!) passionately absorbed American History. I loved the American History AP course I took in high school (partly due to the phenomenal teacher who explained in great detail the narratives and dilemmas that shaped this amazing country, and what it stands for). I was even awarded a special plaque/trophy award for my excellence in American History, with a photo in the local newspaper. That’s right, suckas! A BROWN kid mastered American History. Ha! I truly did wonder how that made the rednecks feel. But I was too busy studying for finals and drafting college essays. Gotta keep up my revenge, after all! Personal satisfaction in achieving something most can only imagine…
But still the question kept arising, across departments and disciplines and venues, or simply in the juice aisle at the local Wal-Mart. Where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? Sigh. And the genially condescending, “You seem like such a nice young man.” (which we all saw echoed when McCain shut down a lady accusing Obama of being Muslim, saying, “No, he’s a good man” — as if those two qualities are mutually exclusive??) What are these people even thinking? Do they think? Hmm. I wonder if they ever left the 1950s.
I never developed a Southern accent, thankfully. As that liability would severely hamper my personal revenge of achievement (just Google “Bobby Jindal SOTU response”). Yet I was complimented so many times for my “very good English”. Ha! But do you speak Indian at all? Umm, no and guess what — nobody on the planet does either because there’s no such language as “Indian”! Argh. And one of the official languages of India is actually English (along with Hindi). Anyway, attending college in Austin and then transferring to Michigan (from civil engineering to industrial design) was a fun time to explore this aspect of being anywhere anonymously, not regionally identified. While the contexts were fairly welcoming as large liberal institutions of higher learning, I still got those curious or funny looks from the off-campus locals wondering, “where are you from?” Of course, I knew perfectly well what they meant, but I toyed with them, saying Louisiana. And then the dreaded, “No, where are you really from?”
Sigh. Why even ask that, and what does it matter to you? What’s the implicit intent and subconscious framing going on here with such a deceptively simple question? What if I went around asking white people where are they really from? What kind of response would I get then? How would they feel?
Just recently, last Christmas I returned to a local regional airport in Monroe Louisiana after almost 20 years. The interiors were quite well designed, with lovely decorations and nicely arranged sitting areas. I was truly impressed by these improvements to such a small airport. Wow things are really modern now! And then the “record scratch” moment — While standing in the baggage claim area waiting for the carousel to start up, I saw an older white gentleman, who looked rather local. He glanced at me and said, in a thick but happy drawl, “How are you little man?” I was quite shocked to even hear that, like are you seriously saying this to a brown guy in 2016? I wonder if he voted for George Wallace (the “segregation now and forever” speech guy) back in the day.
So where am I from? I’m from a land where I grew up among constant bullying, torment, and ignorance by those either threatened or simply perplexed by the presence of someone unlike themselves, who lacked the personal and social mechanisms to understand and cope. I’m from a place where I have to constantly, neverendingly prove myself as a human, as a brown colored person despite all the sleights, all the taunts, all the insinuations — both explicit and subconscious. I’m from a place where I exert my own personal revenge against my childhood tormenters as a motivating force towards excellence and accomplishment, even decades later. I’m from a place that has incredible opportunities and devastatingly oppressive social conditions, and I strive to keep my mind on both, never forgetting my success depends on others and helps the greater good. I’m from that land where the subconscious attempt to put down brown people via questions like “where are you from”, prematurely suggesting they are “the other”, an alien to be exotically ogled is yet another challenge to be handled in the quest for equality and achievement. And I’m from the place where the eternal struggle to balance one’s cultural & ethnic heritage with one’s multifaceted identities across work & life is a constant chore, that provides opportunities to improve oneself and enlighten others, even just a little bit.
So, where I’m really from is America, pal.<mic drop>
Next week, I’ll share some thoughts on “Brown Privilege”.