One of the fundamental questions in an initial encounter between two people is “where are you from?”. It’s not just a pleasantry, it gives us insight into our interlocutor, we make educated guesses as to his or her persona, hopes and dreams.
Nevertheless, this question is an uncomfortable and deeply personal one, and one that is increasingly losing its cache as a method of gaining knowledge, or, simply casual conversation. In our century–a century that is defined by interconnectedness, fluidity of movement, and multiple use interfaces–a person is suddenly defined by a multiplicity of factors and the simple question that we often take for granted is now incredibly loaded.
People always ask me where I’m from. The answer should be very simple, because I am an American, by birth and citizenship. Presumably, the added complexity of having immigrant parents would make me add the caveat of “but I’m of Indian heritage” as a follow-up.
The truth is far more complicated, and I cannot answer the question in a simple sentence. I have no home. I was born in Palo Alto, lived until I was nine in Northern California, and then shifted to Bangalore, India, when my father decided to open a tech startup in India’s new Silicon Valley. At fifteen, we moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Later, I would spend two years living in Eastern Europe. These places have all shaped my identity and my personality, and they are all, therefore, home. But I would feel embarrassed by this long spiel, because I couldn’t answer a short question with a short answer. So I would generally have to resort to the plain and simple “Indian-American” response.
It always bothered me that I didn’t feel comfortable simply stating that I was Indian-American. Indian-American implied that I was a member of some outsider group, somehow disconnected to both cultures because I happened to be born in one country and my parents were born in another. Why could I not simply be Indian and American at the same time? Is it that impossible to identify with two distinct cultures as equally influential experiences?
My Indian identity is important to me because it wasn’t just that I spent years traveling to India, I actually lived there. I went to school in India, I learned Hindi from a nasally instructor, I went to after school tuitions, and I played cricket. At the same time, I played piano, watched Western films, and studied French—all things that Indian teenagers my age enjoyed. When I went to college, I found it hard to commune with other select people of Indian heritage simply because their cultural experience was different, based on multiple visits to their ancestral homes and Bollywood.
By the same token, I find it difficult to add a prefix to the term American. I was born in a country built on the immigrant experience, and it’s not fair for some ethnicities to be compelled to qualify their heritage while others do not. The United States is one of the few Western nations not built on an ethno-racial platform (though it may seem so at times) and it is somewhat disingenuous to set apart Indian-American as different from American. It implies that those who are second-generation are somehow not American enough.
It has taken me years to realize that I don’t need to have an answer to that question. That I can be both Indian and American. People hold multiple passports, and they live in multiple countries. We intermarry and produce children, bilingual and trilingual. In fact, we pride ourselves on being international jetsetters. Certainly, then, the issues of heritage versus nationality shouldn’t be incongruent. They should be complementary.
Frankly, in our technocratic and liberal age, the question of home, or homeland, or nationality are not irrelevant, but their valences have shifted. Home can be multiple places, as in my case, or it can be one simple town. But we can’t assume that everyone is the same, that everyone has had identical experiences. In an age of globalism, it is important that we see cultures as changing and fluid, rather than as concrete and limited enclosures.
And perhaps, in some years, the question of where one is from will no longer matter.