Your Home Country

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.

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3 Comments

  1. I have often wondered about just this topic. As a caucasian American diplomat, I got instant “status” in Nepal — no question who I was or what I represented. I found it an uphill battle to demonstrate that Americans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors — people really do think we are generally all white, rich, and live like in 90210 or something. My guess, though, is that each person you meet will at least re-think what he or she thinks of as an American. That’s one step in the right direction.

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  2. Its interesting here in Dhaka, where things are double confusing. I’m two/three generations removed from being Bangladeshi and thus a conundrum, especially since they aren’t as westernized here. I’ve actually found it pretty good for me work wise because I understand the cultural nuances and can see through the related BS. But given your perspective, well, I imagine its pretty complicated.

    Oh, and did you get my email? I’m Calcutta bound the 24th…

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  3. “is it that white people are seen as more interesting, as curious objects, as “real” Americans?”

    As a fresh-off-the-boat Indian, I concur, it is a widespread “notion” among Indians that Americans are essentially “Whites”!

    I think the root cause of this ignorance is lack of travel and education among Indians. Most Indians still cherish “tribal” attitudes of Identity. Certain color and custom denote particular identity and BS as such. Bit ironical, for India is avowedly secular and plural!

    “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?”

    Well put! I do beleive that vast majority of Indians do think (including my family) anything associated with the ” West” is better than India, rightfully so. But the truth is, we are comparing apples and oranges.

    its even more ridicullous that vast majority of anti-globalisation brigade in India prey on this attitude of equating “whites” and ” West” with imperialism and colonialism. A case in point, pepsi and coke get a lot of rap on their knuckles for being “imperialistic” preying on hapless “brown” Indians. This is an emotive call for the Illiterates during elections to kick out western MNCs. The truth is, Indra Nooyi is a native Chennai woman who is the CEO of Pepsi!

    I wonder what these morons are going to accuse pepsi for?

    I look forward to your next post. It should be a kickass one!

    Reply

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