I’ve been loathe to write this post until I’ve had sufficient time in India, and I won’t do it justice without much more thought, but I wanted to at least begin writing about it. One of the things I wondered prior to arriving in India was how I would be received as an Indian-American. Increasingly, even if I ignore my heritage, it’s obvious that others place a fair amount of emphasis and meaning on it.
Much of it, I think, is based on simple misunderstanding. When meeting me and hearing my name and strong American accent, many Indians look at me quizzically. It’s only a few minutes later that the connection is made — wait, he said he works at the American Consulate, accha. Then comes the task of explaining what it is I actually do. Some understand it more quickly than others. Our FSNs get it because they do the same work. For others, they are ingrained to believe that almost anything relating to the U.S. Consulate that isn’t visa work must be intelligence gathering.
Beneathmuch of this there’s an undercurrent of the sell-out syndrome. Part of this is explained by the fact that I don’t speak any of the Indian languages, but I often sense a questioning of my loyalty. But what is your home country? is the unspoken (and often spoken) polite question. The rudeness is the ease by which I’m dismissed without any serious consideration of my answer.
When I am with a white American officer, such as the Consul General, the difference in treatment is clear. Regardless of their respective jobs in the consulate — which give them a defined status in the community — I’m struck by the attitude of many Indians that Caucasians are more “worth” speaking to. In Op-Ed pieces and in books here I’ve read authors deploring that “no Indian wants another Indian to succeed.” Is that the explanation in this case? Or is it simply a matter of the daily fight for things like privacy, jobs, and basic survival that causes the brown man to keep a brother down? Or, is it that white people are seen as more interesting, as curious objects, as “real” Americans? Or is it the legacy of being a colonized country that is unwilling to admit that under the British some things simply functioned better; and how could anything run by an Indian function well if it is related to government?
It’s one thing for the State Department to deal with these attitudes. Dept. policy is that all its diplomats are American diplomats, regardless of ethnic background, and to its credit it has advocated this policy in the face of foreign government discrimination. But more interestingly, and I think less discussed, is how those of us who face this type of discrimination are affected. Socially, we have advantages, like not being stared at constantly as we walk down the street, getting the local price instead of the exorbitant foreigner’s rate, and simply being able to disappear into the crowds of people. Work-wise, it gets a bit trickier. Things I’ve heard while discussing a topic with government officials:
- You must understand, as an Indian?
- On whose behalf are you saying this?
- Ahh, I know (insert white officer’s name) very well. I will tell him (instead of me).
The thing that bothers me most about dealing with officials here is the blatant corruption. The “leakage” as it is called that is factored in to every monetary transaction. And the concomitant belief that I should somehow “get it” just because I was born here. Is it naive of me to think that these government servants should simply know better? That’s another separate topic in itself.