Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pride and Prejudice - Indian Style

Reena was having one of her usual tantrums. Hanging out with her was a chore in a lot of ways, but especially when she got into it with her parents. Ever since we were toddlers, I had witnessed countless shouting matches that seemed to spring up out of the most minor disagreements. Now, instead of terrible 2s, she was displaying the terrible 12s for all to see at this Toledo A&W. While I could certainly dish out some first-rate brattiness to my parents, I was no match for Reena.

"Reenaaaaaahhh... just ask them to switch it, bheta," her dad said with a look of concern.

"NO-WUHHH!" she exhaled as she rolled her eyes. 

"Okay, I'll do it..." he grabbed the hamburger that wasn't a cheeseburger and stood up.

"No! Dad!! Don't!"

"But you need to eat, Reena! We have another couple hours until we get to Cedar Point and I don't want to stop again!" he made his way toward the counter and waited behind a family staring at the menu. 

"Ughhhh, sooooo embarrassing!" Reena moaned as she buried her face in her hands. 

"What's embarrassing?" I asked.

She looked at me with an expression that suggested I was a crazy idiot for not already knowing. I stared back at her with an expression that suggested she was annoying the shit out of me. Reena and I were "forced friends" since our fathers had practically grown up together back in India. That bond led them on similar paths in finance, coming to America and settling down in metro Detroit.

"Are... are you embarrassed of your dad or something?"

"NO!" she snapped, "I just don't want him talking to them... ya know, with his accent..." 

"Seriously?"

"Uh... YEAH, it's so embarrassing!"

I looked down at the pathetic side salad in front of me not knowing what to say. I had decided to become a vegetarian a few months earlier, so stopping at A&W wasn't the greatest option for me. In addition to the semi-wilted lettuce and wrinkly cucumber slices, somehow the salad tasted like root beer... which I despised. 

Reena peeked through her fingers to see her father explaining to the teenaged cashier that his daughter wanted a cheeseburger instead of a hamburger. The interaction played out with no obvious embarrassment indicators, but that didn't stop her from re-burying her face into her hand basket as if she were watching the latest Freddie Krueger flick. 

"Here you go, Reena," her dad returned with a smile and set down a fresh cheeseburger. She silently unwrapped it and took a bite, not making eye contact with him. "How's your salad, Sheevani?" 

"Really good! Thanks!"

I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He had no clue how much he embarrassed his daughter... just by being himself. Sure, millions of daughters are embarrassed by their dads in so many ways... my dad's jokes and stained shirts often sent me to mortification station, but Reena's shame was on a level that I had never considered... she was embarrassed of being Indian. 

-------------------- 

A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of Armchair Expert, a podcast that has become a personal soundtrack of mine within the last year. Hosted by Dax Shepard, the show features guests that range from actors to neuroscientists and covers a wide range of topics. The co-host and producer, Monica Padman, is Dax's former nanny and dear friend (or soulmate as he describes her) who happens to be Indian-American. This particular episode featured the comedian Hasan Minhaj. Whenever they have guests of Indian decent, Dax always makes a point to mention that Monica is 100% Indian and that she may be able to relate to the guest's upbringing or past experiences.  

During Hasan's episode, he talked about how profound it was to see the billboard for Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, not only as an aspiring comedian, but as an Indian kid. Seeing two Asians as the stars of a major motion picture, and one of them being Indian, was an immense source of pride and possibilities, he said. Almost on cue, Dax brought up how Monica had the opposite reaction when Bend It Like Beckham came out. Both Hasan and I were confused. Monica explained that growing up in Atlanta, she chose to distance herself from being Indian and fully immersed herself into "being white," which apparently meant joining the cheerleading squad and loving the show Friends. When Bend It Like Beckham came out and the poster was everywhere, she "hated it." Monica felt that since she looked like the girl on the poster, people would think of her as Indian... and that wasn't something she wanted. She is quick to admit how that attitude isn't something she's proud of today, but back in 2002 at the tender age of 14, she was mortified to be "outed" as an Indian girl by a movie poster.

I have to admit, this really annoyed me. I scrunched my face as I listened to Monica open up about her past emotions about being Indian. My entire body was full of judgement. How dare she! Being Indian is awesome! Oh, oh, are you too good to be Indian, MONICA?!? No wonder you pronounced it TAN-doori chicken! Then I pulled myself off my high horse to dig into my own relationship with Indian pride. Have I always proudly waved my metaphorical Indian flag? 

Spoiler Alert: No.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I felt a sort of split identity growing up in a very white suburb of Detroit. During those years, I yearned for Indian kids at school as sort of a community touchstone in the hallways. But, as kids usually do, I figured out a way to fit into both worlds and make the best of my white weekdays and brown weekends. 

The Nose Knows
Here's some math for you:

SMALL HOUSE  + WORKING MOTHER WHO COOKS INDIAN FOOD BEFORE WORK + NO CLOSET DOOR + 90s GRUNGE ODOR ABSORBING FLANNEL STYLE + THICK ASS HAIR = SMELLING LIKE INDIAN FOOD AT SCHOOL

Sigh, I was the smelly kid. In 7th grade at the onset of puberty, I was the B.O. smelly kid, but once I got that sorted out, the smell was my delicious yet pungent home cooked dinner. Demanding my mom start cooking after I left for school was certainly not an option, and probably wouldn't have helped anyway. During that time, I also had an obsession with anything peach scented; shampoo, body splash, lotion, Lip Smackers, you name it. My fellow students at Kimball High School were no doubt inundated by a curious peach masala odor as I walked by... and I knew it. I knew it and I was embarrassed by it. I'm not saying that people ran away plugging their noses, but I certainly considered my spicy aroma a mild annoyance. 

Same with having friends over to my house. Look, I love it, but for folks who have little to no experience with Indian food, that smell is a full-on assault on your nostrils. I can still picture my brother's (super cute and popular) friend standing in our living room struggling to breathe as my mother was cooking in the kitchen. He was as meat-and-potatoes, All-American boy as you could get (which also meant I had a HUGE crush on him), so suffice it to say, he wanted to get the hell out of our house while all that masala popping was going on. 

I think anything that sets you apart from the crowd during your formative years can be embarrassing... for me, it happened to be of the odiferous variety specific to the foods I absolutely loved eating. Smelling like an Indian restaurant didn't ruin my childhood by any means, but there were many days I wished I just smelled like Tide... and peaches. 

Did You Say 'Vet' or 'Wet'?
Oh, the Indian accent. As evidenced by the opening story, it is probably the most popular thing for us first-gen kids to be embarrassed by. However, for me personally, I can honestly say I don't remember being ashamed by how my parents spoke. In fact, what I learned through their accented interactions was how ignorant and impatient some people could be. My parents studied the English language both in India and after they arrived in the United States, so while an accent is there, they were and are not difficult to understand. Unfortunately, some nasty folks tend to shut down if there is any hint of an accent.  

When I was around 8 years old, I witnessed an incident at the post office that I have never forgotten. I was with my dad and the postal worker behind the counter was clearly a bigot who hated foreigners. Since my dad was brown-skinned with an accent AND asking about the best way to ship something to his family in India, the odds were stacked against him to receive pleasant customer service. 

"Sir, I cannot understand you... speak English!" the man kept repeating. My father spoke slower and slower, enunciating each word only to get the same venomous response. Finally my dad called the man an idiot and we left. As Daddy led me out by the hand, I turned to look at the mean mailman who was giving my dad the finger as we walked out. I was so frightened and wanted nothing more than to hug my dad for the rest of the day.

I have to admit, there have been times when I've been embarrassed by an Indian accent, but not as extreme as my old friend Reena. A cringe here and there, but for the most part, the Indian accent feels like a hug. Sure, I'll have some WANILLA ice cream. Yeah, I'd LOVE the op-PORCH-U-nity to meet you. No problem, I'll give you a ride home from your cologne-no-SCOPY. 

Janak Desai vs. Panera Dude
This story is a Desai Family favorite.

It is the year 2000 and the first Panera Bread has opened in Madison Heights, Michigan. Upon hearing about this bread-centered food establishment, bread-lover Janak Desai decides to call the shop and ask if they also... serve breakfast. 

(This conversation was only observed from Janak Desai's side, and the following is what was heard)

JANAK DESAI
Hello yes... this is Panera?

Okay, hello... I was wondering, do you serve breakfast?

Do you serve breakfast?

Breakfast.

Breakfast.

Break-fast.

BREAKFAST.

BREAK-FAST!

BREAK! FAST!

No, BREAK ----- FAST!

...
...
...

YOU KNOW, YOU GET UP IN THE MORNING AND YOU EAT BREAK-FAST!

(hangs up)

Stupid idiot.


Damn, Meena!
Honestly, the harshest critics of Indians I've ever known... are Indian. After a large community event; a Diwali dinner, Indian wedding, my many dance performances... my parents were the first to criticize or be embarrassed by something the Indian organizers got wrong. Criticism was there no matter what, but if something was done in front of white people in an unflattering light? Oh man, my parents were so mortified. I swear, my dad could have written a novel about every Indian restaurant in the metro Detroit area and how they only catered to the lower standards of Indians. Anything from the owner's elderly father (who barely spoke English) at the host stand to the poor lighting, Daddy would notice and point out how it "looks bad" to Americans. 

I don't mean to sound like my parents were out to hate on their own community. Quite the opposite, actually. Coming to the United States meant they had to assimilate in so many ways. My dad went by Jay instead of Janak at the office. My mom wouldn't dare wear Indian clothing except to the temple or Indian parties. My parents made a point to speak English at home so me and my brother wouldn't go to school with an accent. While they accepted these things as part of being immigrants, they also wanted to represent Indians in the best light. It was because of their pride that they would be embarrassed when Indian events were disorganized, too loud or left behind a mess. They knew the beauty in their culture, and they only wanted the Americans to see that beauty shine through.

-------------------- 

I'm trying to be less judgmental as I get older. Monica Padman's comments on that podcast episode elicited a lot of judgement, and it was not fair. Her experience as a first-gen Indian American is completely different than mine... she's 9 years younger than me, grew up in the south and her mother came to the United States at the age of 6. I have no idea what that's like and I have no right to judge her decision to distance herself from her Indian identity. Rather than judge her, I choose to feel lucky that I was never ashamed of my Indian heritage. 

It is common for people of color, especially those who look "ethnic" to be asked, "What are you?" For some folks, this question is offensive and I completely accept and understand that perspective. Personally, I choose to appreciate their interest in my background because most of the time they are just that... interested. Plus, that question gives me the opportunity to smile and proudly say, "I'm Indian."

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