Tuesday, August 27, 2013
"Where are you from?"
People in the United States are obsessed with color.
Yeah, we're a melting pot. Our pedigrees are like recipes. One-fourth cup of Ireland. One-eighth cup of Puerto Rico. Half cup of Germany.
But that doesn't mean anything.
If you're white, you're American. If you're black, you're American. But if you're not white or black...well, you must be something else then, right?
My father immigrated here from India 43 years ago. My mother's ancestors immigrated here from Sweden more than 100 years ago.
And my entire life, there is one question I have been asked more than any other: "Where are you from?".
Never mind I have an American accent. Never mind I'm living in the Midwest. Never mind my name is JENNIFER.
No, no. I simply must be from somewhere else. Because I'm brown.
Some of you may not really understand why it upsets me so much. After all, people are dumb and it's just a question. But to constantly be asked where I'm from in a country that is my home is insulting, frustrating, and sad. When I was a kid, it almost felt like I didn't really belong here, which was a very scary and lonely feeling.
What hurt even more is that my childhood best friend was a Polish immigrant. She had only been in the country for a few years. Her name was ridiculously foreign. People always fucked it up. But nobody ever asked where she was from. The girl named Jennifer got asked all the time. It was like Katarina was the American and I was the immigrant. Being around her caused a lot of resentment and bitterness for me. Why was she treated like the insider and I was treated like the outsider?
I hated being a mixed race kid. It was embarrassing always having to explain to everyone that the blonde haired, blue-eyed woman standing next to me was my mom. Always. Nobody ever assumed she was related to me. I was always unsure what to checkmark in that box when we took standardized tests. Was I Caucasian? Or Asian? Seriously, what the fuck was I? (This problem was eventually solved 20 years later when I was arrested and the police officer wrote down 'Caucasian female' in his report. I was thankful to finally know the answer, despite being in handcuffs).
Growing up, the world idolized Heather Locklear and Britney Spears. I so badly wanted to be a beautiful blonde American like my mother. No one ever asked her where she was from. I was determined that one day I was going to marry a white man so my kids and descendants would NEVER be treated like a foreigner in their own country.
(My first serious boyfriend ended up being half-Egyptian and half-Irish. So much for that.)
When I grew up, the world started changing and I started maturing.
There are now Indian immigrants everywhere in this country. There are gorgeous women all around me named Anika and Ridhi and Navya. There are so many that now when people learn my name is "Jennifer" I don't get asked where I'm from as often. I've become less exotic.
And I no longer have the desire to marry a white guy. I simply want to marry someone who makes me happy, whether he's black or Chinese or a global mix.
I love that Rian is a quarter Sioux. The stories that run through his blood are inspiring and heartbreaking. His grandmother, who grew up on a reservation, is one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. And even though I'm not super close to Rian's mom, I feel a bond with her that I don't share with many others. She is also half-Indian (the other kind) and from what Rian tells me, it wasn't easy for her either.
I've learned that to be a part of the melting pot, I need to embrace it. I need to respect it.
But I'm only one person.
The United States as a whole is still obsessed with color. My name could change to Jennifer Smith tomorrow and I would still have people curiously asking me, "where are you from?".
And no matter who knocks me up, my kids will be multi-racial. They will have color in their skin. When I was a child, I hated that fact. Now, I adore it. They'll be just like me!
Except there is one major difference. They will be far removed from India. They will be far removed from Sweden. They will be far removed from the Native American reservation, perhaps.
And when someone asks them, "where are you from?" they will have to just shrug, with a smile, and say