You’re Indian; do you speak Hindu?

602371_10100517845964332_1098616509_nPoonam Dreyfus-Pai,
Berkeley, CA.

It wasn’t easy to choose just one sentence (6 words, no less) to summarize the constant negotiation between frustration and a sort of mirthless humor that I experience when dealing with questions about my race and ethnicity. On the most basic level, “Hindu” is a religious identity — not a race, ethnicity, or language. And many Indians are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or — like me — not particularly religious.

So the ignorance alone might make me laugh. But then I have to answer the question: Yes, I’m Indian; no, I don’t really speak Hindi (with an “i”), though I can understand it, etc., etc. I can’t ignore the question; it’s usually not a stranger, but an acquaintance, asking it. I’d like to avoid it, because it’s the kind of question that gives you very little information about who I am as a person, though it gives you plenty of opportunity to air your supposed knowledge about Indians. In other words, it’s not about ME; it’s about YOU. Ditto to the questions about arranged marriages, or the questions about “curry”. I’m not sure what validation I’m supposed to give you for knowing any of these things. Am I supposed to be proud of you? Am I supposed to correct your assumptions about Indians? Couldn’t you just Google all of these things on your own time, so I wouldn’t have to engage in these “teachable moments” when I’d rather enjoy a nice meal with my partner?

I didn’t always feel this way. I used to like answering questions about all things Indian and India — I liked being a representative. When Madonna and Gwen Stefani started wearing bindis, my family and I were pretty excited about it. When people sampled Bollywood music or imagery for more mainstream American things, we recognized it and were proud of it. We liked that people were interested in us, wanted to know about us. The questions – however ignorant – were a validation that it was acceptable for us to be in the United States.

These days, however, I like being a token less and less. People aren’t interested in “us” — they’re interested in the exotic, the mystical song-and-dance show that they think India is. They may well feel a genuine appreciation for our art forms, our polytheistic religion and mythology, our food. But it doesn’t feel like that; it feels like appropriation, like “other”-ing. These days, when there are many more Indian-Americans than there were 30 years ago, representing a huge range of professions, families, and regions, it feels simplistic and dismissive when you ask if we had an arranged marriage, or whether or not we like spicy food, or how well we speak an Indian language. We are each complex individuals, with varied histories, personalities, families, and mother-tongues. I no longer seek that kind of validation.

Really, at this point, ask me about what I do (reproductive health research and activism), where I grew up (NJ, where I was born), where I went to college (Barnard, in New York), how I like where I live now (California), what my brother is up to (he’s in college in Michigan), what my partner and I like to do in our free time (cook food and watch The Wire). Being Indian is a big part of my identity, but it is one part of many. Let me tell you about all of it.

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