‘What are you?’
If I had a dime for each time I’ve been asked this loaded question, Franklin D. Roosevelt would have a good share of real estate in my purse.
Biologically, I’m a human—a female, specifically. I’m a college student with three jobs. But when someone asks about my race, nationality or ethnicity, that’s when straightforward answers take a backseat.
According to a University of California-Berkeley study by Ramán Grosfoguel, race is defined as “the biological and/or cultural essentialization/naturalization of a group based on a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority related to the biological constitution of their bodies,” while “ethnicity is frequently assumed to be the cultural identity of a group within a nation-state.”
I can answer the questions: my race is Asian, my ethnicity is Indian and my nationality is American. But can I really say I’m American when I was raised by an Indian mother and Trinidadian (but Indian, racially) father? Can I call myself Indian when I’ve only visited the country twice?
I’ve never felt fully integrated into any culture, including the one I grew up in. I visited India for the first time last year to study abroad and went back with my family a few months later. I’ve traveled to more than 10 different countries on four continents, and I’ve never felt more like a foreigner than I did in, of all places, India.
Ironic, right? I mean, I’m supposedly more similar to Indians compared to the people of any other country, yet I felt little to no commonality with them and their culture (minus the food). I walked the streets like a pariah and couldn’t verbally communicate with anyone courtesy of my mother not teaching me Hindi. So, how can I call myself an Indian?
Then I flew back to Minnesota, the place I’ve called home for the past 17 years. I felt comfortable, safe, and most of all, a sense of belonging. After all, I’m American, born and raised.
But my fridge that’s stocked with Indian and Trinidadian food, my religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and my mirror that reflects a female with dark features and “gypsy eyes”—according to my dad, say otherwise. I walk into classrooms on the first day of school with the expectation that I’ll be the only Indian. It doesn’t frustrate me. I’ve actually come to like it. Regardless, it still separates me from every other American in the room, and that separation intrinsically makes me feel less American.
I find these instances reminiscent of track and field Olympian Leo Manzano winning the silver medal for the 1500-meter in London. He’s a Mexican-American who represented the United States. On his victory lap, the medalist waved both the American and Mexican flags.
Putting aside the inevitable controversy his decision brought about, I wonder if he shares my confusion about his identity. Does he feel less Mexican having represented the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics? Does he feel the need to identify himself as either Mexican or American? To me, the guts it took to carry the Mexican flag translates into a sense of comfort in coexisting in these two cultures.
I can’t speak for other multicultural people, let alone Manzano; I can only speak for myself. No matter how long I live in the United States or how many parathas and doubles I consume, I’m probably never going to feel completely assimilated into any culture. And as nonplussed as the depth of the question, “What are you?” may make me, I continue to harmonize in the many cultures I identify with: Jai ho!
Geena Maharaj can be reached at email@example.com.