Hyphenated. So what?

Sitting in class with my stat mid term paper in hand, brows furrowed looking for avenues to increase my score, I spied a section where I was given a zero. Flipping through the pages of my textbook to the part that ‘inspired’ my answer to that particular question, I found what I was looking for. Raising my hand when the Professor asked if any one had any questions, I explained to him what I was thinking when I answered the question and why in that situation it might be the correct answer.

He paused, looked at my cryptic bullets under the section labelled “Key Measures” and smiled. His face looked like a light bulb went off inside his head. Getting ahead of myself I was thrilled he actually got my argument. Sadly, that was not what illuminated his face. He said “Ahh! your first language is not English. I am sorry. I get your point.” Struggling to hide the consternation in my face, I hurriedly reassured him that my English was quite alright and explained in detail why my answers were cryptic. Wrangling 5 extra points from him, I sat down but my mind was in turmoil.

Later that evening, I read this piece on the Wall Street Journal. I quite enjoyed the article. Early this morning feet pounding on the treadmill, thoughts meandered down different paths all of them having to do with my hyphenated identity. I remembered my uncle’s visits decades back from the U.S. I remember the hero worship he and his family commanded. I remember colleagues at work in the late 90’s who returned from short term assignments in the U.S and Europe and walked about like they were exalted creatures. The bags of snickers and KitKat’s that lined their cubes told a story by themselves. Their voices raised in pride of automatic transmission vehicles and multi-lane freeways. I remember taking it all in awe.

I also remember moving to the U.S and being caught up in a different kind of race. The FOB – LTOB – Citizenship race. Meeting long time residents at get-togethers earlier on in my non resident life, I would look at awe at their appliances, their choice of clothes and such. If I met someone who said they had been here for many years, I would look in appreciation. Not that am proud of my behavior now but it was automatic. Perhaps a side effect of being raised in a culture that measured success in a different way. I remember looking around wistfully at the house my cousin bought even before I moved here. Every thing in it caught my fancy. I strived to emulate a lot of what she did. Years later, more comfortable in the skin I am in, these labels do not affect me as much. Talks of returning to India or moving elsewhere stir some amount of excitement rather than dread in me now. I am not sure why I feared moving back earlier on. I guess I will never have answers.

What I am trying to say I guess is that the hyphen matters. I may call myself Indian, Indian-American, American-Indian, LTOB or NRI but that in a lot of ways still defines who I am. It defines my mindset. It defines the struggles in me as I wonder what to say when I am asked “Where are you from?”. It brings out the divide in me when caught between being happy about an India trip and aspiring for a passport of a different nationality. In essence the hyphen is my identity.

7 thoughts on “Hyphenated. So what?

  1. That was a very well written piece Laksh. Reminded me of the conversation we had in the car – carrying American vs Indian passports etc. I guess for most of us Indians living in American, the hyphen, is what defines our identity.

    On a side note, can’t believe the prof said that though 🙂

  2. hey what is LTOB – is lit ong time off boat 😉
    i just made that up ..
    but what is it actually ..

  3. @Akay: I was thinking of that conversation too as I wrote this post. Am still shaking my head at the Prof. words.
    @Anamika: LTOB – Long Time Off Boat. 🙂 You were correct.
    @JS: Guess that answers your question as well? 🙂

  4. Laksh – why should the Prof’s words annoy you? English is really not any of our first language is it?

  5. @UL: It was not annoyance as much as bewilderment. I did not see what caused him to make that statement. I can understand if the rest of my paper was illegible or unreadble the comment would have made sense. Just by looking at some one you can’t make a statement specially aloud. I know we all judge and have pre-conceived notions but specially here in the U.S. I thought people were politically correct most of the time. 🙂

  6. I am still on a visa here with no desire to stay on. I’ll probably stop in another country and then eventually move back home- Bombay.

    I agree that even without really having a title with a hyphen, I still feel a bit torn, because I have been away for a while, so there are things that are unknown to me back home, and yet I am Indian completely when I am here.

    I think it gets harder with time, especially as you said when it becomes the whole Indian American, American Indian, or NRI etc.

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