The first time I told someone that I was from India, they exclaimed, “Wow, this might have been quite a culture shock for you then!” I didn’t understand what that meant. I grew up watching a considerable amount of American TV to know that most people lived as best friends across hallways from each other, popular girls always walked in a trio, and Christmas was the most magical time of the year. My healthy appetite of books was also crafted by authors from the West; enough for me to feel jealous of how the protagonist was ‘sent to her room’ as a punishment while I slept squeezed between my parents till age 12. So when I stepped on American soil last year, I was only mesmerized by how blue the sky was and how I didn’t sweat at all. I was surprised to learn about a season called Fall and how for the first time in 23 years, I would need snow boots and a hefty winter jacket.
The culture shock arrived on day two, while I walked the streets of North Michigan Avenue like a jet lagged zombie and someone heckled, “Hey you, go back to India!” I was absolutely sure that it was a hallucination, considering how I had fallen asleep with a Starbucks cup in my hand just two minutes prior. We turned around and she said, “Oh, I am just messing with you!” I was never educated on how racism could be a brand of humour, but I was very well aware of why I shouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Not only was my visa a logo for the “outsider,” it was also my golden key ― one I had to always protect.
“Oh you’re from India? Your English is so good!”
Now, unlike most of my previous experiences, I am the only Indian in my class. I am the difference in sound who says ‘caaan’t’ for ‘kayntt’ and spells honour with a u. I am also the one with the longest last name ― C-A-N-D-R-A-S-H-E-K-A-R ― and with the most unusual first name ― R-U-C-H-I-T-A or as 80 percent of the people I have encountered, say — Racheetuh, Rachata, Rucheetah and this is a list that will never end. So I changed my pronunciation to save my ears from bleeding each time. Whenever asked, I rolled the “r” and added cheetaaa at the end to create a completely new name that wouldn’t inconvenience them to pronounce. I started rolling my Rs too and practising my American syllables with the cashier at Walgreens just so I could fit in somewhere, anywhere. The spotlight on my differences were blinding and acculturating seemed like the only option. That’s the most wonderful thing about moving away from one’s country of origin ― it’s a lesson in humility and a journey in self-discovery. My accent was no longer equated to articulation and eloquence, it was worthy of entertainment since I sounded like Priyanka Chopra. So I tried. I tried listening to other members of my group during presentations so I could mimic their accent and not stand out like a sore thumb, I excused people for mispronouncing my name and for butchering my last name repeatedly, and I embraced their ignorance with open arms and became best friends with my own. But ignorance is like a form of cancer. If you don’t catch it at the right time, it spreads destructively and in absolute silence.
″‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is my favourite film about India! Ah, so touching!”
Representation is powerful because that’s the face the world sees; and we believe what we are shown. My early memories of America from the impressions I received as a child, reading books, and watching movies was that everyone had white skin and blue eyes. There was only one kind of accent you’d hear and anyone who wasn’t white seemingly did not hail from America. I had never heard of the word Caucasian or European-American. I knew nothing about the existence of Native Americans or Latinxs, and I truly believed that “white” was a stand-in for “American.” I, too, have believed everything I have seen. I have felt overwhelmed with shame for blindly stereotyping races as criminals because of what I consumed in the media and the language of the accounts told. Language has such a strong hold over us. Two sentences with the same content but expressed differently can mean two completely different things. I knew less and judged more.
I held my own biases, rooted in unawareness, failing to recognize that America is a country empowered by immigration. And as grateful as I am for the opportunity to be here, I am contributing to the empowerment of this nation and I damn well deserved the respect of a correctly pronounced name.
What we forget is that our perceptions have the power to manipulate the emotions we feel towards another person or community. When I considered wasting food on my plate as a child, my father would say, “There are so many children in the slums who do not get two meals in a day and you want to throw food?” He helped me identify my privilege of having as many meals as I wanted, but I also grew familiar with the feeling of pity for those in the slums. From then on, every time I passed one, I’d feel sorry for the young children playing outside their huts and the women cooking food on their chullas. I didn’t see the camaraderie between them, their resilience or their untainted happiness. In fact, I was startled that our own house help, who lived in a slum, had a daughter in a salaried job, because all I had learned was how hungry and poor slum dwellers were.
When I confessed that I was a native from India, my ability to speak English sparked a similar air of surprise. The fact that I wasn’t a child bride or that my parents could afford to support my educational needs probably burst a nerve or two, as well. What if my American counterparts knew of my ex-boss who fiercely began her own organisation at the age of 23 to end child trafficking? What if they knew of my closest friend traveling to different parts of the world to make successful feature films? What if they knew of my mother’s successful teaching career that she cherishes more than being a homemaker? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the danger of a single-story narrative in her beautiful Ted Talk. A single-story narrative that is so well fed that there is no possibility for human connection as equals.
But representation has had a lot to do with how much melanin you have in your skin. The less, the merrier. The brown dude is the terrorist, the black man is the thug, the white family has picket fences with 3 children and a dog. So when Hasan Minhaj or Vir Das earn their own hit Netflix special, or when Priyanka Chopra opens conversations about stereotyped India, my heart swells with pride. I celebrate it; not because America is the standard of entertainment, but because in the projection of how the world sees us, at least we are not reduced to Jamaal Malik and Apu from “The Simpsons” anymore.
“Can you say this sentence in your accent?”
My journey in the United States so far has taught me that everyone carries these single-story narratives, at some point, about different races, genders, ethnicities, countries, and cultures. I have too. “India is a developing country, which means we all live in poverty”; and silence is a poison in situations like these because if we don’t challenge these narratives ― if we don’t catch our ignorance or listen to one another ― we are laying the groundwork for our children to inherit this racism. If we don’t question one another on how we think and speak to the person next to us, we’re failing at the fundamentals of human connection with our heightened level of ignorance.
So I don’t practice my American syllables anymore, instead I request people to ask me to repeat myself if there’s something I say that they don’t understand, because my accent is different from theirs and that’s okay. I don’t let the “You speak English so well” patronization slide by; I ask them why they thought I couldn’t in the first place. The person in the wrong isn’t worthy of attack, but challenging someone’s thinking can only lead to some form of growth within themselves and for the world. Of course it can be easier to let things slide if that’s how one is conditioned, but aren’t we supposed to move the needle a little further than it is? We’re all thirsty for change and waiting for someone to bring it to us. More often than not, the means lie right in front of us, with the onus of choice ― silence or speech?