Despite sitting tight in India and turning down every job offer the OA gets that leads us to the US of A, I was outraged by Joel Stein’s piece on Indian immigrants (along with half the rest of the world). I have never been to the US so I really can’t claim to know whether Indians have added to the flavour of a state and how ugly the strip malls in Edison are, but I can’t believe they’re uglier than America’s contribution to the world – shapeless shorts. Hairy, pale legs in shorts that show up everywhere, no matter how momentous the occasion. Here’s a deal – take your unimaginative clothing back and we’ll bring our doctors, engineers and cab drivers home! Honestly, I’m a little sick of inviting people home to a sit down dinner and having them turn up in shorts (the OA is subjected to me singing Chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai) if he decides to visit someone wearing those God awful knee length baggy shorts my brother got him from the US – he loves them. I don’t mind them being worn to the beach or the local market. I object to them being omnipresent.
Being of mixed heritage myself (part Tamil, part Bengali, part Garhwali with a dash of Chinese for flavour, in case you’re wondering), I sometimes think I might be missing the point. I don’t get this parochial, xenophobic reaction to immigrants, just as I don’t understand why the old Bangaloreans hate outsiders coming in while packing their young off to the greener pastures of the US. Just as I don’t get why Joel Stein (he’s Jewish, isn’t he?) is getting all Nazi-like about other immigrants like himself in a country that is built by immigrants. He reminds me of a playground bully. Just the kind my kids deal with everyday. And even they aren’t as whiny or petty.
I think the reason why most Indians are so horrified by this kind of reaction is because as a country we’ve always welcomed immigrants. Parsis in Bombay. Jews in Cochin (whaddya say to that Joel?), the Portuguese and sometimes to our detriment, outsiders like the British who pretty much ripped us a new one. Yet we Athithi Devo Bhava them even today and half of Goa is owned by pale skinned people who want to soak up the sun and get tattoos and a tan. Manali is overrun by dreadlocked Israelis who have run away from their compulsory military service. We welcome the lost souls who want to find themselves and those who want to learn Hindi or Indian classical music.
There was a time when I harped on about brain drain but I’ve outgrown that (or atleast learnt to shut up about it in public – see Joel, there are things you’re allowed think, but have the common sense and courtesy to keep mum about – that’s what politically correct means!) and I hope I’ve been the soul of courtesy to all immigrants. In fact I have nothing to say about desis immigrating to the US except to beg my brother to move back. Partly because I miss him like a phantom limb and partly because I can’t stand the idea of my little brown skinned nephews and nieces opening their mouths to reveal a slow drawl and a nasal twang. Except that my kids beat them to it and inspite of being shudh desi bachchas (purer than desi ghee) sound like call centre executives (thank you (not) Barney and Disney!). If I close my eyes and hear my daughter ask for warrerr to drink, she could be any other desi kid in the US. Perhaps its time to put them into little call centre sweat shops. Because even at 3 and 5 they are smart enough to help Americans reboot their computers and yes, remind them that the contents of their coffee cups are hot and their kids should be removed before their strollers are folded. I can see why apart from engineers and doctors they even need our cabbies. These poor people need us, dude. They’re so stupid that their hair dryers come with warnings not to use them in the shower and their toilet brushes say ‘don’t use orally’. And don’t get me started on the water they waste while showering (get a bucket, save the planet!) and the numerous electronic appliances they use while telling us poor developing countries to conserve. Can you see how terrifying it is for them to have people with funny accents turn up and win their spelling bees?
There, see, even we can make jokes at their expense – but there’s got to be a line we don’t cross. And I, brown skinned Jesus believer was horrified by the disparaging reference to an Elephant headed God, multi armed Gods and the reference to the dotheads (whoa!). Don’t get me wrong – the Hindus can see the Elephant head and so can everyone else. But it was the tone – it was simply vile. Jokes about religion are rarely funny – remember the Danish cartoon? Now you can debate that its all in jest and that we didn’t get the humour, but dude, if we didn’t get the humour then it’s time for an apology. And not a half -arsed “I thought they’d follow that Gandhi thing…” We are following the Gandhi thing which is why you weren’t pulled out of bed at midnight and lynched. This is non-violent protest. As for the assumption that all Indians are Hindus.. tsk tsk.
I also encountered a lot of desis (NRIs for the uninitiated!) who are shrugging it off. I am not sure if they are really as cool about it as they seem. To me it seems as though they’re doing their best to keep their heads down and weather this storm, plod along, show that they understand the American sense of humour, hold on to their visas and not cause any more trouble. To give their babies American names, to integrate seamlessly and not be the kind of Indian Joel talks about. Frankly none of us want to be the kind of gold chain and gel-dripping Indian that Joel talks about (other than Bappi Lahiri who has cornered that market). Neither do any of them want to live in Edison I am guessing. Heck, from his description, neither do I! But is he saying no other parts of the US are equally garish/in poor taste (although I am still trying to figure out what an inappropriate roof is)? If they’re not the sort of Indian that Joel is referring to, surely this is the time to make that point.
I also read a couple of Joel’s posts because most of his supporters seem to believe that he has a certain kind of sense of humour that is an acquired taste (I’d really be more inclined to call it tasteless… but whatever floats your boat!). And I notice he talks about his own religious and ethnic background at times. Why then does he want Indians to wipe out every trace of their ethnic background and become baggy-shorts-wearing, barbeque-burger-tossing, appropriate-roofed-housing dwellers? Leave us our smelly, spicy curries at least!
I’ve been thinking about an appropriate response to Joel all this while and finally I realised the only thing he deserved was an equally juvenile, senselessly rude – pppbffftttttf.
PS: I suppose Joel’s going to take this post amiss because I didn’t poke gentle fun of myself as a face saver. Not even one word about the Indian head wag… damnit. I should do a re-write. In fact I would, if it weren’t so darn hard to type sitting atop an elephant, balancing my turban with the other hand.
Edited to add: More responses