By Jyoti Singh
As a child, I used to think that America and England were the same. Later I learnt that America was a bigger and more relaxed version of England. Then one day I found out that Americans were in fact prudes – like Indians! I had to unlearn that wearing undergarments in public and holding sacrosanct views on sex and marriage were not mutually exclusive. (As a child, marriage as a concept had seemed so Indian to me that I thought it was invented by Indians.) Soon I knew I was saying America/ England and thinking France. Referring to a continent (Africa) as a country is ignorance, but calling a country America, which is not one but two continents combined, is exactly the same. USA became America when it became great. Now Trump wants to make it great again. But then Michelle Obama came out and said that it’s the greatest. So maybe Trump should rethink his words.
I migrated to the USA four months ago. Trump had already happened, and Brexit was waiting to happen. Major cries on both fronts, even if reductionist, blamed the outsider for the disappointments of the Anglo-Saxon population. It’s a weird time to be migrating anywhere, not just the hottest migrant destinations. Nationalism is being hijacked by the oldest scam of “us” versus “them”, in a domino effect, across continents. It seems to me that the more the world interacts, the more we contract one another’s diseases, which, interestingly, has given rise to the prejudice paranoia. And then we have people who live off stoking it.
I am what you may call a useless migrant. I immigrated here for love. I could as well be in Timbuktu. I had been here five weeks when a stranger exclaimed that she couldn’t believe I had only just arrived in the Promised Land because it didn’t show! I did not know what to say to her; we know what we know. It reminded me of something that was happening a lot while I was in India. Some friend-like people would tell me how excited I must be going to the US, but would chuckle sympathetically that I was essentially going to the Bihar of the US. I was moving from a very cosmopolitan city to a very segregated city – from Mumbai to Jackson, Mississippi: not the favourite type of American destination for migrants, or even Americans. Bihar is one of the most economically and socially backward states in India, hence Mississippi equals Bihar. Either of the reactions – the stranger who couldn’t believe I was fresh off the boat and friends who laughed at what they considered a step down – makes you wonder how even in this age of hyper information do people manage to live under a rock. I wondered if people were still selling and buying the “America Dream” narrative. It was expected that people would ask me — here and back home — about how I was I dealing with the change. But perhaps my answer was not satisfying enough. My husband and I had done this across continents for four years, of which marriage has been for only the last one year. I must have taken a long nap when the year-long bureaucratic process was over. If there was something I had looked forward to, it was to be able to live under one roof. I can see how, to one section, this could come across as downplaying to appear cool while the other maintains that my overwhelm is too much to take in and probably hasn’t hit home yet. All I can say is that today you don’t need science to tell you that the world is round. Just travel from one part of the world to another.
The best definition of stereotype I have ever heard comes from Chimamanda Ngozi: “…the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” In my limited interaction with people (I still step out of the house only for two reasons — groceries and gym), I have come to know whites who can talk about things other than voting and recycling, and blacks who refuse to be dragged down by the weight of history. There are two very popular impressions about the whites and the blacks in the US — the victimhood of the Blacks and the moral self-righteousness of the Whites. Interestingly, if anything, the Black victim and the priggish White is quite telling of how far removed from each other they are on the spectrum of issues that matter to them.
Last week, we had gone to get my learner’s permit so that I could begin my driving lessons, because as we know, public transport, especially in small-town US, is a joke. When we go to these places, I often hope Mukesh, my husband, does the talking, but being a gentleman he doesn’t, and I have to fend for myself. I find myself wading through the Southern drawl to hold onto words and syntax to form some contextual sense. Some see through my struggle and they start talking slowly, repeating themselves, and widening their eyes thinking their irises might communicate the English language better. Anyway, so this gentle lady at the desk informs me that if my birth certificate was in Arabic, I should bring the translation as well. I told her it was in Hindi; but I didn’t have to. Going by her confidence, to her, Hebrew could pass off as Arabic. Let alone the fact that only 20% of the world’s Muslim population speaks Arabic, and not all of them Muslims. Imagine her crisis if I were a Christian with an Arabic birth certificate, or a Muslim with a birth certificate in French? She’d probably have gone back home and burnt her television set. Ignorance does lend a certain arrogance to its possessor. They walk tall with their badge shining in the sun.
Now this by no means was new to me. It reminded me of two very recent incidents that occurred while I was in India.
One: A Marathi clerk in Mumbai admonished me for being unable to fill an utterly useless form in Marathi (the regional language). My type of person must be her favourite — the one who becomes servile in front of authority. In India, people who sit in chairs that haven’t been updated since the 80s have that power over me, I feel like it is important for them to like me for them to do their job. Perhaps it comes from having watched my father. I have an instinctive fear of authority. Between the two of us, my husband and I, it is he who routinely trespasses upon reading those signs while I sit with my fingers crossed. And I bet it’s I who looks like the one with a trespassing streak. In the end, I had to pay 30 rupees to a guy stationed outside to fill the form. The lady inside probably pocketed 50% of what he made.
Two: I had to go to the passport office to get my passport reissued. The good old Indian clerical incompetence had rendered me without a surname — my full name was written in the first name section and the surname was left blank on my passport. And since clerks at the USCIS didn’t recognise names like mine, to them I did not have a surname. They were going to give me a visa under FNU (First name unknown) for my first name and my full name was to become my surname. Now if it were a non-immigrant visa I wouldn’t have bothered. But this was threatening to be slapped on all my documentation going forward. The world of bureaucracy, never mind the country, is full of absurdities. Finally, when I reached the desk of the clerk with my application, she looked at me funnily that after marriage, I was not living at my husband’s house but in a flat that belonged to my father. Now I don’t think she could see that if I could join my husband under the same roof, I would not have been there in the first place. But relishing irony isn’t how she spent her lunch time, I was certain. She looked at me suspiciously and murmured something to her colleague about women like me who didn’t “look” married. She looked over me, picked up her lunchbox, and strolled to the canteen without a word to me. Her colleague pushed my application forward when she went to lunch.
Gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, colour, culture, etc, I am not sure which category-based discrimination is where on the hierarchical ladder, but I don’t have a favourite. It happens in a place as cosmopolitan as Mumbai and it happens in Jackson, Mississippi, a picture-perfect small-town America, where complacency could be the name of the car they drive. (To anyone who cares, please Google Mississippi’s H.B. 1523, and learn about some legal bigotry.)
Back home, as Indians, prejudice has been a part of our lives. I have grown up seeing it as a side effect of diversity. Therefore, even though it shows up in everyday life, practical living has very little use for it. It is often reserved for jokes. Or, anger — when everybody turns into their bigoted grandfather.
In India, I belong to the right class, caste, and the wrong gender, but the misfortune of the third wrong was absorbed by the first two rights. Here I am a migrant, a wrong. Yet I don’t feel it, but then I have never felt that way. Granted there has been a padding of privilege, but also because I am not tribal enough to feel indignant in the face of prejudice. Intellectually speaking, I understand prejudice, but personally I don’t feel it. I never felt like a Maharashtrian vendor didn’t give me a good bargain on vegetables just because I was a North Indian migrant in Mumbai. Similarly, if I see a grumpy white/black shop attendant here, I see a grumpy attendant. They may be as racist as they come, I don’t mind as long as I can enter the store, buy what I want, and get out of there before the lights turn me into a zombie. Perhaps I am more equipped to handle prejudice than retail therapy.
Taking prejudice (ignorance) with a pinch of salt comes under my low-expectations-lifestyle. I can’t stress enough the benefits of recognising the limitations of the average. It frees up a lot of the angst, which of course you can expend elsewhere. It also prevents you from becoming defensive or politically correct when in the company of the ever increasing population of professional offence takers. Having said that, I do realise that if I were rejected the learner’s permit or failed in the written test because of my race, or had they turned me down because my post-marriage housing arrangement seemed weird, or because I didn’t know a regional language having lived in the city ten years, I would have felt differently. Yes, sure. Intolerance institutionalised is injustice. Prejudice at best is an irritant. But doesn’t the definition of what’s normal keep changing? We move at a much faster speed than we once did. Intermingling is unavoidable. Shouldn’t this be education enough? But as this movement of masses, on one hand, gives us the opportunity to educate ourselves, on the other hand, it also creates an environment where prejudice will keep rearing its head. The only way some know how to belong is by un-belonging somewhere else. It’s just ways of seeing, formed by the human condition rather than an active bias.
I have been here only a few months, but my husband has lived here for 20 years now. He formed his identity in this country, but for the first time he feels like there is a possibility that we enter a restaurant and the owner could say they don’t wish to serve us. But I know it’s just how the air is these days; he doesn’t really believe that. USA’s favourite obsession used to be race, until Trump came along. Now it’s race, migrants, and Trump himself. This news media obsession is reminiscent of Modi in the pre-general election days in 2014. Crude as it is, a bomb going off somewhere is a welcome break from Trumping. Same things said in different words and the same people reading different articles. While on the ground, Republicans lament that they’d have to vote for Trump, and Democrats cry tears of Hillary. And, since I am about as interested in governmental politics as I am in nail spa, I’ll leave it there.
An Iranian friend of ours, who holds a US passport, was once asked at a bank that his passport did not have a visa. He just walked out of there. I doubt the banker ever realized what had transpired. He took his business to some other bank where they knew what holding a passport meant.
I have a friend, a Canadian American of Indian origin married to a German migrant. They live in San Francisco, fairly multicultural. I always chuckle imagining a racist scenario involving them — whom would they send back to their country?
We were going to attend a famous 4th of July fireworks and I joked with someone about how I was wondering if I should go wearing a bikini. It would do two things — one, they could rest assured there isn’t a bomb strapped to me, and second, I would look “integrated” enough. She laughed. She is a Muslim immigrant.
Now in an ideal world I wouldn’t be making a joke like that and the aforementioned scenarios won’t happen in the first place. But until then can we just relax a bit? We need to be able to tolerate some of the weaknesses. We need to be the voice of reason, but we also need to protect the world where comics don’t have to begin their act with disclaimers. We need to open our minds as much as we need to hold onto our identities. Can we not cry wolf every time we see a tail? Yes, we need to educate ourselves, and so can we do this without hating our neighbour? Aren’t there enough people ready to turn into bombs to kill strangers? Aren’t we suffering enough?
As for the original question of how at home do I feel in America — a few days back I saw a white woman, covered in menstrual blood, smoking in a lonely Walmart parking lot and it took me to a bunch of brown kids playing in a sewage pond in Mumbai. Of the two, who is worse off? We are. It is not a competition.
(The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Kitaab, or any other entity under Kitaab International Pte Ltd.)
Jyoti Singh is a writer based out of Mumbai/Jackson, MS. Some of her work (fiction/non-fiction) have appeared in Himal Southasian, Tehelka, Kindle Magazine, kafila.org, Reading Hour, among others. Links to her work can be found at www.jyotiwrites.com.