Sharmila Sen | Not Quite Not White | Penguin Books | August 2018 | 30 minutes (6,053 words)
I had never seen a black man in person until I was 12 years old. If I search my memory hard enough, I can see a few faded newspaper photographs of West Indian cricketers in the Statesman. I can see dark-skinned Africans within the panels of my beloved Phantom comics. There are faint recollections of black James Bond villains in Live and Let Die. If I squint even more, I can remember the evening when we crowded into our neighbor’s drawing room, watching Pelé on a black-and-white television set, the first procured in our middle-class neighborhood. The first flesh-and-blood black man I saw was standing outside the entrance to the U.S. consulate in Calcutta, which is located on a street named after Ho Chi Minh. At the entrance to the consulate where Ma, Baba, and I had gone for our visa interviews, I saw two men in spotless uniforms. One was the whitest, blondest man I had ever seen in real life; the other was the darkest black.
The consulate smelled like America in my childish imagination. The air conditioned halls, the modern plastic and metal furniture, a water cooler from which I eagerly poured myself some water even though I was not thirsty. I breathed in the scent of wealth in there. It felt like newness on my skin. Everything was hushed, ordered, brightly lit. Not like my own loud, bustling city. Even the local Indian staff seemed to behave as if they were actually living in America.
I stood at the entrance of the U.S. consulate in Calcutta in 1982. In 1965, American immigration laws had been rewritten to allow for a greater number of non-Europeans to enter the country. Not only were Indians and other Asians considered unwanted newcomers before 1965, even naturalization — the process by which a foreign-born immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen — was disallowed for most who were not white until the 1950s. I knew little of this history when I entered the consulate with my parents. I did not even know I had something called race. Race as a category had not been part of the Indian census since 1951. I was about to move to a nation where nearly every official form had a section in which I would be offered an array of racial categories and expected to pick one.
In 1982, as it happens, it was not clear which race should be affixed to my person. Since the number of Indian immigrants was fairly insignificant in the United States until the latter part of the 20th century, the census barely took notice of us. At the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, there were essentially three races acknowledged by the government — white, black, and Indian. My kind of Indians, the ones from the subcontinent, however, fell into none of these categories. No matter how mysterious our race, we were not considered white during most of the 19th and 20th centuries by the American courts. In 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau declared people from India to be legally white. A decade later, in 1980, we were officially reclassified as Asian by the government, at the insistence of Indian immigrant groups who believed that the new classification would afford us greater affirmative action benefits. Yet, what was to be done with the decision to make Indians white only a decade earlier? What would happen to those white Indians? “Self-reporting” was the Solomonic solution to this problem. In order to satisfy the demands of the diverse Indian community, after nearly a century of shuffling people from the Indian subcontinent from one racial category to another, the U.S. census had finally thrown up its hands in despair and asked us to “self-report” our race. In the 1990 U.S. census, of the native-born population with origins in the Indian subcontinent, nearly a quarter reported themselves to be white, a tiny minority (5 percent) reported themselves to be black, and the vast majority chose to report their race using terms that pertain to South Asia.
Such an astounding array of choices was not always available to people from India who found themselves in the United States a century ago. If Ma, Baba, and I could have embarked on a time machine and arrived in the country eight decades earlier, we would have found ourselves in a different situation. If I had immigrated in 1909, I would have been labeled “probably not white,” but a year later — when the U.S. courts decided to change their opinion on the matter — I would have been “white.” If I was Sadar Bhagwab Singh in 1917, or Akhay Kumar Mozumdar in 1919, or Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923, I would have been “not white.” Naturalization in the United States was reserved mostly for whites between 1790 and the middle of the 20th century. Nonwhite immigrants could not become naturalized and partake of the rights reserved for U.S. citizens. Indians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens until the 1940s. They could, however, toil in American factories and fields, offices and streets.
So Indian men such as Singh, Mozumdar, and Thind kept trying in vain to prove they were white in order to become naturalized citizens. But what actually made a person “white”? Could you be both “Caucasian” and “nonwhite”? As Singh, Mozumdar, and Thind all found out, yes, you could be Caucasian and also Not White. The courts ruled repeatedly in those early decades of the 20th century that naturalization was for “whites” only, and some “Caucasians” were not truly “white” enough to qualify.
That the two words — Caucasian and white — are used interchangeably today would come as a bittersweet surprise to all who were caught in the deep chasm between those labels a century ago. Yet, that is exactly the chasm in which people from the Indian subcontinent, an area that is second only to Africa in its genetic and linguistic diversity, were placed by the U.S. courts. In those early years of the 20th century, miscegenation laws could have prevented me from marrying a white American in states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. The former governor of South Carolina and the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, identifies herself as “white” on her voter registration card. Of course, according to the laws of this country, Haley can legally self-report her race any way she pleases. The former governor of South Carolina was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants from India, and the racial category she chooses for herself tells a complex story of the state where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and where even today West African–inflected Gullah culture (brought by black slaves) does not easily mix with white French Huguenot culture (brought by white slave owners).
Indians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens until the 1940s. They could, however, toil in American factories and fields, offices and streets.
A hundred years ago, Indians immigrated to the United States in very small numbers. They were mostly agricultural workers who traversed the networks of the British Empire, sailors who stayed behind in American ports, or Hindu holy men who were invited to lecture in cities such as New York and Chicago. The Immigration Act of 1917 placed India squarely within the Asiatic Barred Zone, an area from which immigrants were not allowed to legally enter the United States. This zone would not be legally unbarred until 1946.
Contemporary racial labels used in everyday American parlance are an odd amalgamation of the geographic (Asian), the linguistic (Hispanic), and the pseudobiological (black, white). The rise of Islamophobia threatens to racialize Islam and conflates race with religion. This, however, is not a new phenomenon in American history. Early 20th-century America was still in the old habit of seeing Jews as “Hebrews” — as much a racial label as a religious one. It also happened that many Jews themselves preferred this system— until the murderous actions of the Nazis in Europe—because Judaism cannot be folded neatly into the box we call “religion” today, a box whose dimensions are largely of Protestant specifications. Similarly, “Hindoo” was as much a racial label as a religion in early 20th century America. Today what is considered my religious background might have been seen as my racial identity had I arrived in America at the beginning of the last century.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, changed the quota system that restricted nonEuropean immigrants from coming to the United States. People like me were going to become a bit more common on American soil. Hindoo, Asiatic, Caucasian, nonwhite, brown, Asian, South Asian. During the era of self-reporting in the early 1980s, I was a young girl faced with a plethora of racial categories based on a wild mashup of genetics, linguistics, theology, and geography, who landed in Boston on August 11, 1982. The entry date is marked on my first passport.
I carried an Indian passport back then. Navy blue with thick cardboard covers. I received that passport in December 1979. On page four, there is a line printed in minuscule letters: “Countries for which this passport is valid.” Below it a stamp, in purplish blue ink, slightly tilted, partly smudged, is still vividly legible after nearly 40 years. It says (first in Hindi): sabhi desh dakshin afrika aur rodeshiya ko chhorkar — ALL COUNTRIES Except Republic of South Africa and Colony of Rhodesia.”
Before immigrating to the United States, I had never left India. My 1979 passport was an aspirational possession. Yet, I was already becoming aware of certain countries that were forbidden to me. My parents explained that India did not allow me to travel to South Africa or Rhodesia because of something called apartheid. There existed places where people like us had gone as coolie labor, as merchants and traders, and even as lawyers (the young Mahatma Gandhi practiced law in Pretoria in the 1890s), during the time of the British. But white people did not treat brown and black people fairly and each group had to live apart. Unlike my forebears who had borne the “malodorousness of subjecthood” for two centuries — as the Indian political scientist Niraja Jayal once wrote—I was fragrant with citizenship and protected by the laws of my nation. And those laws prevented me from going to Rhodesia and South Africa, places where complex designations such as black, colored, Indian, and white would determine where I could live, where I could go to school, and who I could marry. But in the late 1970s, when I received my passport, I barely grasped what apartheid really meant.
Caucasian but Not White. Not White and Not Black. Minority. Non-Christian. Person of Color. South Asian. I never thought of myself as any of these things before the autumn of 1982. I had grown up back in Calcutta with an entirely different set of extended labels for putting people into boxes. What language do you speak? Which gods do you worship? Which caste do you belong to? Are you part of the bhadralok (the Bengali word for the bourgeoisie)? Do you eat with relish the flesh of animals, fowl, fish, and crustaceans? Do you eat beef? Or do you eat only plants and grains? “Veg” and “Nonveg” in India are almost as evocative and important as “black” and “white” in America. We can detect a person’s religion, caste, ethnic group from the foods they eat and the foods they shun. Every society invents ways of partitioning themselves and methods of reading the hidden signs displayed by those who wish to cheat the rules. A person of a lower caste might want to pass as a Brahmin; a Muslim might want to pretend to be a Hindu when caught in the middle of a riot; a Hindu might pose as a Muslim to gain entry to a restricted space. We were taught to be vigilant about such trespassers. An Indian’s surname holds a multitude of information about her. In India, if you know my surname is Sen, you already know which language I speak as my mother tongue, my caste, the religious holidays I celebrate, my likely economic class, my literacy status, whether I am vegetarian, the birth, wedding, and funeral rites I might have. Conversely, a last name that holds very little information is suspect. What is this person trying to hide? The way one pronounces a certain word, the way a woman drapes her dupatta over her head, how her nose is pierced, whether a man’s foreskin is intact or circumcised, whether a little boy has a red thread around his wrist or a tabeez, an amulet, around his neck signifies so many things in India. In some cases, it can mean the difference between being killed by a mob during a communal riot and being pulled into safety. We had all these distinguishing labels. But race we did not have.
I grew up in India for the first 12 years of my life with out race. After ruling us for two centuries, the British had departed in 1947. The India of my childhood was a place marked by what economists call “capital flight.” These were years preceding the arrival of economic liberalization. Before the Internet and cheap cell phones, our knowledge of the United States was channeled largely by a few Hollywood movies, occasional headlines in the newspapers, magazines such as Life and Reader’s Digest, and hand-me-down clothing brought back by relatives who had immigrated to the West. Television had not fully arrived in India during the first half of the 1970s. We tried halfheartedly to imitate American fashion, eat American fast food, or listen to American popular music. Still, we were always a few years behind on the trends. Of course, we were also happy with our own popular culture. We watched Hindi films made in Bombay, hummed along to the songs aired on All India Radio, and ate delicious street foods such as phuchka and jhalmuri without missing global chains such as KFC or Mc Donald’s. Our drinking water was procured daily from the neighborhood tube well. Ma, Baba, and I each had our own official ration cards. These rations cards were used for purchasing government-subsidized basic commodities — rice, flour, sugar — which we used to complement our groceries from the local bazaars. I had never seen a mall or a super market before I came to the United States. Ma and Baba did not own a telephone, a washing machine, a television, a cassette player, a car, or a credit card until we emigrated. Our sole mode of personal transportation was a blue Lambretta scooter purchased by Baba in the mid1970s. When Baba was not around to take us around on the scooter, hand-pulled rickshaws, red double-decker buses, trams, and the occasional taxi were the usual ways we navigated the sprawling metropolis that was Calcutta.
We vaguely understood ourselves to be Not White because our grandparents and parents still remembered a time when white Europeans ruled us. The Indian notion of Not Whiteness was shaped more by nationalism than by race talk. The subcontinental obsession with skin color cannot be explained solely through the American grammar of racism. In a subcontinent where melanin can appear in wildly differing quantities among family members, the lightness or darkness of one’s skin cannot easily be used to mark rigid racial boundaries. Yet, the preference for paler skin was clear to all in Calcutta. Girls with “fair” skin were supposed to fare better than those with “wheatish” or “dark” skin when marriages were to be arranged. I grew up reading numerous sentimental tearjerkers about sisters whose fates were determined by their complexions—the fair one always married well and the dark one was forever shunned by all prospective bridegrooms. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous lyric about the beauty of the black-skinned woman’s dark doe eyes was quoted often in literary families, marked by the same self-righteousness with which well-off Americans buy fair trade coffee beans. Still, I never came across a matrimonial advertisement in any newspaper that boasted of a dark-skinned girl’s beautiful doe eyes.
I was warned regularly not to darken my own light complexion by playing too long under the noonday sun. Mothers and grandmothers had numerous homemade concoctions at the ready for keeping my skin pale. A ladleful of cream skimmed from the top of the milk pail, fresh ground turmeric, and sandalwood paste, as well as numerous citrus fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, and nuts, were our allies in the endless war against the sun’s skin darkening rays. Women walked around Calcutta brandishing colorful umbrellas during the sunniest days lest the “fair” turn into “wheatish” or the “wheatish” into “dark.” Some of us had complexions as light as any European, but we knew that an invisible line divided us from the pink-hued Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese. In the comic books of my child hood, the colorists painted the Europeans a homogeneous shade of pale rose and reserved every shade from light beige to dark mahogany to the brightest cerulean blue for Indi ans. This is how I saw the world as a girl — Europeans were pink. We were not.
The Indian notion of Not Whiteness was shaped more by nationalism than by race talk.
It would be a lie of the greatest magnitude if I were to claim that I lived in a society of equals, in a society without barriers, hierarchies, and labels, before I came to the United States. I have already said that I grew up as an elite—a speaker of the dominant language of my state, part of the dominant ethnolinguistic group, and a follower of the majority religion. I was an upper caste Hindu Bengali. The maternal side of my family were haute bourgeoisie, or upper middle class, by virtue of their landowner past. Three generations ago, some of these landowners — called zamindars in India — had turned to law, one of the few professions open to Indians under British colonial rule. They trained in law in Britain and returned to India as barristers, dressed in European-style clothes, living in homes furnished with massive Victorian teak furniture. In time, some of these ancestors — men of my great-grandfather’s generation — had made the transition from practicing law to agitating for political freedom from British rule. Eighteenth-century American colonies had seen similar professional trajectories from law to revolutionary politics.
On my father’s side of the family, our cultural capital outstripped our financial capital. Ours was a family of scholars and intellectuals. In some parts of our home state, West Bengal, the mere mention of my grandfather’s name endeared me to total strangers. I did not need to read the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction in order to learn that one can inherit cultural capital just as conveniently as one can inherit property, stocks, jewelry, or money. My paternal grandfather did not leave me a house or a trust fund. But he did give me a slight edge over my peers. Our school textbooks often included short essays on historical topics written by well-known Bengali intellectuals. One of those essays focused on Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, a 19th century Indian queen famous for going to battle against the British who annexed her kingdom. Whenever we read that essay in class, I sat up a little straighter. We were supposed to take pride in our female ancestors who fought British men on the battlefield long before the independence movement was born. My pride, however, was of a pettier sort than grand nationalist sentiments. My grandfather was the author of that essay. Each time I saw his name in print, I felt a secret pride swell inside me. I was the descendant of a man whose writing was part of the official school syllabus. Even though I did not always tell my classmates or my teachers that the author was my grandfather, the knowledge itself was my cloak of protection. It gave me confidence — a bit of smugness even — that I took for granted. This is how elitism works.
The first morning I woke up in America I could smell bacon frying. I was nearly twelve years old. I had spent the night sleeping in the living room of Baba’s childhood friend. This friend, an architect and the grandson of one of modern India’s most influential artists, was married to a white woman. She was cooking us breakfast in the adjoining kitchen when I opened my eyes. Their duplex apartment was right across the Charles River from Harvard Square. My parents slept in one of the two bedrooms on the top level, while our host and his wife had the other bedroom. The couch was allotted to me. It was a modest apartment. As a parochial Bengali girl, I had envisioned the wealthy West as the land of opulent overstuffed sofas, velvet drapes, crystal vases, and expensive carpets. This home was utterly confusing to my eyes. The dining chairs were made of metal tubes and woven cane; the lamps looked like crushed white paper balloons. I had imagined America was the land of rich people with air conditioning, big cars, cities laid on grids, and skyscrapers. A new world, a young country where everything sparkled and smelled good, unlike Indian cities where ruins, rickshaws, crooked gullies, and the smell of oldness prevailed.
When I opened my eyes that morning, the first thing I saw was a triangular neon CITGO sign. I had no way of knowing that this had been a beloved Boston icon since 1940. Being an immigrant child before the era of the Internet, Wikipedia, or Google, I was seeing America for the first time.
It was a week of many firsts for me. I had flown on a plane. I had traveled outside India. I had bacon for breakfast. Even now, if I get too complacent about my sense of belonging here — my ability to speak, dress, look, think like an American — I only need to smell bacon frying and I am a newly arrived immigrant again. That morning, I smelled it, heard it sizzling and crackling, before I tasted it. It was a complex animal smell, making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time. Today, my favorite sandwich is a BLT. I greedily search for those salty bits of bacon in a Cobb salad. Yet, the actual smell of bacon frying is a powerful reminder that I did not always relish these tastes, that there was a time when I struggled to train my palate according to the custom of this country.
Immigrants are supposed to be delighted when they arrive in America — huddled masses who have reached their final destination. But in 1982, I was sad when our British Airways plane landed at Boston’s Logan Airport. Baba, who originally trained as a geologist, and spent most of his working life in India as a sales representative for pharmaceutical companies, had been unemployed for many years. Since the late 1970s, our middle-class life in Dover Lane had been sliding imperceptibly toward the unseen basti behind the garbage dump. My bharatanatyam classes ended because the fees for the dance school had become a luxury we could no longer afford. The number of maids we employed dwindled as the household budget shrunk. Fish and fowl appeared fewer times on the menu until one day they disappeared completely. Ma went less frequently to the tailor to order new dresses for me. Instead, we waited for the autumn, when my aunts sent us the customary gift of new fabric — a few meters of printed cotton, enough to make a dress for a young girl — for Durga puja. We began avoiding family weddings because we could not buy appropriate presents for the new couple. We stopped going to the nicer cinema halls of Calcutta and began to patronize the shabbier ones where ticket prices were lower. Those trips to Park Street restaurants such as Waldorf or Sky Room became a distant memory. We went there only when a better-off friend or relative treated us to a night out. The blue Lambretta was brought indoors and stowed away in our hallway as a reminder of happier times when we could afford the price of petrol. The sofa and coffee table vanished one day and instead of buying new furniture, we began renting it. Because new school uniforms were expensive, the hems of my blue school skirts had been taken down one too many times. I used to rub my finger over the light blue line, the part of the fabric that had been bleached with repeated washes and ironings. Each time the hem was taken down, the faded line of the old edge became a token of my precarious status as a member of the bourgeoisie. I began to ask girls who were older than me if I could buy their old school textbooks because new textbooks were beyond our budget.
As it happened, our downward mobility coincided with a meteoric rise in my grades at school. The more we moved toward the unseen world where Prakash and his mother lived, the better I performed in my examinations. In our brutal Indian school system of ranking students, I used to be ranked among the bottom five girls in a class of 40. That was when I was 6 or 7 years old. Baba became unemployed when I was 9. Suddenly I was appearing in the top ten, then top three, and by the time I was 11, I was consistently ranked first in my class after our examination marks were announced. Yet, I had to ask around school for a set of used textbooks as each new school year approached. I was no longer able to invite all my classmates for my birthday party where a cake from Flury’s, decorated with marzipan roses, would have pride of place at the table. No matter how hard my mother tried to keep my uniforms clean and ironed, my blouses were never as white as those of the girls whose parents bought them new uniforms each year.
Even now, if I get too complacent about my sense of belonging here—my ability to speak, dress, look, think like an American—I only need to smell bacon frying and I am a newly arrived immigrant again.
I became friends with the school bus driver’s daughter, who was enrolled as a scholarship kid. She was one of the girls who received a free loaf of bread during tiffin time. I never ate bread that tasted so delicious, when she began sharing them with me during the bus ride home. Other girls might go home to daintier snacks. I saw such homes in advertisements. Tidy middle-class Indian homes riding the wave of upward mobility. Homes with televisions that children watched with their parents; with refrigerators filled with rows of soft drink bottles; with toaster ovens in which beaming mothers baked cakes for their kids who returned from school looking as fresh as they had left in the morning. But children in downwardly mobile homes know that an atmosphere of fear, resentment, anger, and dejection awaits them at home. One wrong move, and the whole house can explode. One mention of extra money needed for a field trip, or the cost of a new dress for the school chorus, or an art assignment that requires costly materials, and everything can go up in flames. As much as I hated the crowded, hot school bus, I was in no rush to return to Dover Lane. The bus driver’s daughter and I enjoyed the free bread at the back of the bus, and she tantalized me with promises of fluffy kittens. My new friend seemed to have an endless access to kittens and each afternoon she promised that she would sneak one into school for me. She strung me along in this manner for months, describing the kittens in great detail.
I tried, with partial success, to mask the bitter taste of genteel poverty with the sweet taste of arrogance. Arrogant — there is no other word for how I felt when I sat on those rented chairs in our drawing room and studied my report card at the end of each term. A row of beautiful numbers — 95, 96, 97, 98 — written neatly in blue fountain pen ink. Those numbers made me feel strong when, in reality, I was weak and vulnerable. A girl in a poor Indian home during the 1970s had limited options, even if she possessed an English- education and her grandfather’s name elicited looks of admiration and her great grandfather once sailed from England wearing beautifully tailored suits. If I were to maintain the crucial space between myself and the boy who swabbed the floor, and Darwanji who washed cars at 4 a.m., and Jamuna whose father collected her monthly wages, and the maimed children who begged on the streets, I needed more than faded photographs of my ancestors leaning against elegant teak furniture.
In an irrational act of generosity, the Architect arranged a job for Baba as a salesman in a men’s clothing store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He helped us apply for green cards — a process that took nearly three years, over a quarter of my life at that point. The Architect had immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and studied design at Harvard. He had lost touch with Baba for many years until one day he decided to look us up in Calcutta. Spontaneously, he decided to help his unemployed friend and his family. Immigration routes are patterned on kinship networks. Brothers follow brothers. Children follow parents. Grandparents follow grandchildren. Through marriage these networks become ever more expansive and intricate. A new bride follows a husband. A few years later her mother might follow. Then her brother and his wife. Entire districts from certain parts of the world might find themselves in a small American town as families follow one another across well-established migratory paths. A new immigrant feels secure knowing there is a brother with whom one could stay for a few months until a job is arranged. A cousin might provide just the right tip to secure employment in a new country.
Occasionally, friendship trumps kinship. A sibling might distance himself from his less successful brother, and kinfolk might slowly inch away from a family member emitting the faint whiff of poverty. In a poor society, impecunity is treated as a communicable disease. If you stand too close to poverty, you might catch it. Others see the poor as lacking merit and virtue. We were becoming infectious, virtue-less, without merit. And suddenly, just as I had begun to adjust to a slightly lower social class by giving up the little luxuries — new school uniforms, meat at the table, the use of a scooter — a long lost friend led us to a new life. Without accruing any financial benefits for himself, without any social or moral obligations, what was the Architect’s motivation? Perhaps he remembered rainy afternoons spent chatting over hot tea in a canteen. Maybe he recalled the red laterite soil of his hometown. He could have missed speaking Bengali with someone who knew him as a boy. Or maybe he wanted to be near someone who knew how to pronounce his name correctly. Perhaps he wanted to fashion three new immigrants into his ideal of the American nuclear family. I can only guess. I became the unintended beneficiary of his whimsy.
We waited for almost three years in India for our visas because Baba was too nervous to emigrate without a green card. We were making a historic leap from one continent to another, yet we were an extremely riskaverse family. Many immigrants carry these twin traits within themselves and some even pass them on to the next generation. As risk takers we leap far from the safety of home. Having left the comforts of home we know all too well that there is no safety net of kinship or citizenship to catch us should we topple. This makes us cautious. We check the lock on the door three times before going out. We save more than we spend. We collect sugar and ketchup packets from McDonald’s and cannot throw anything away. At work, we beat every deadline in the office and never pass up a second gig to make extra money. We tell our children to keep their heads down, study hard, and always look for a bargain. As riskaverse immigrants, we do not rock the boat. If you were a trapeze artist without a net below you, wouldn’t you act the same way? Anything else would be irrational.
Scholars who study immigrants such as Baba and Ma would describe them as the classic example of Homo economicus. Economic man makes rational decisions that will increase his wealth and his ability to buy nice things. In those early days in America, whenever people asked why my parents immigrated I felt a sense of irritation and embarrassment. I could not say that we were fleeing war or political turmoil. We were not exiles seeking political or religious freedom. We were seeking economic gains. We were seeking more money. That is a humiliating thing for a 12-year-old girl to have to repeat in a schoolyard. My parents sounded greedy. Or, worse, they sounded like people who had failed to be successful in the country of their birth and sought a second chance in a richer country. Because I arrived with them, I feared I too was tainted by these labels — greedy, unsuccessful, Homo economicus. At 12 I had made no rational choice, but the accident of my birth made me Homo economicus all the same.
In a poor society, impecunity is treated as a communicable disease. If you stand too close to poverty, you might catch it.
I wished we could pretend to be expats. Expats are glamorous and cosmopolitan. Cool expats like Ernest Hemingway sip Bellinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice. Modern expats are the well-heeled white Europeans or Americans one encounters in cities such as Dubai, Singapore, and Shanghai. They are foreigners who have moved to distant shores for all the same reasons as a humble immigrant — higher wages, more job opportunities, greater purchasing power, and faster upward mobility. White expats often hold themselves apart from natives in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, seeing themselves as superior. They send their children to the local American, British, French, or German school. They go to restaurants and shops frequented by others who share their tastes. They have their own clubs. In the West, we do not begrudge white expats their seclusion. New immigrants in America, by contrast, are perceived as undesirables who bring down the real estate value of a neighborhood. The women wear strange garb, their illmannered children run amok, and their grocery stores emit unpleasant odors. Meanwhile, white expats add value to their surroundings. Shanghai’s French Concession is chic because of the presence of white folk. European expats add glamour to the highend restaurants of Abu Dhabi.
We weren’t chic expats or political dissidents with lofty ideologies. We were three people moving from a country with fewer resources to one with greater resources. I doubt we added glamour or value to our surroundings.
“Why did your parents come to America?”
“For better jobs.”
To this day this small exchange — repeated endlessly throughout my years in the United States — instantly determines the social hierarchy between my interlocutor and me. I wish I could say my parents possessed some extraordinary professional skill for which an American institution wooed them. We did not hold noble political or religious convictions that were at odds with the government of India. There was no war raging in my city and we were not being resettled. Homo economicus has a duller, more prosaic story to tell.
“Why did your parents come to America?”
“For better jobs.”
The native-borns nod and feel pleased that they are citizens of a country that offers better everything — jobs, homes, clothes, food, schools, music. I would feel the same if I was in their shoes. It must feel good to be born in a country that has more wealth than other places, to have the hardest currency in your wallet. It must feel good to be generous and invite others — after intense vetting and preselection — to share in this plenty. Even though I had no say at all in my family’s decision to emigrate, I felt my shoulders weighed down with the plenitude of the host country. This plenitude of which I was to be the grateful recipient was evidence that white people were superior to people like me. How else could one nation be so wealthy and another be so poor; one country have so much to give and another stand in a queue to receive? The inequality of nations was surely a sign that some races were morally, physically, and intellectually superior to others. The inequality of nations surely had nothing to do with man, but was shaped by Providence.
“Why did your parents come to America?”
“For better jobs.”
From From Not Quite Not White, by Sharmila Sen, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Sharmila Sen.