Indian Americans:  The Spice in America’s Melting Pot!

Indian Americans: The Spice in America’s Melting Pot!

The first to go was the bindi on my forehead. Then I traded my Indian clothes for Western clothes. Someone watching my transformation might say that I was giving up my identity to assimilate, but no, I gave up my external identity to be safe.

I am an Asian American. Well, Indian American to be more specific. When it comes to any talk about Asian Americans, the focus is on Chinese and Korean immigrants, with immigrants from the South Asian countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka becoming footnotes. Yet, one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States is Indian Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, they are also the group with the highest median annual household income among Asian Americans. Indian Americans head major companies like Google, Microsoft, Mastercard, and Adobe. They also occupy positions as deans in major universities. And now, Vice-President Kamala Harris.

You would think that Indian Americans would be immune to everything because of their educational, and therefore, economic stability. But, unfortunately, no, we endure like every person of color in this country.

I could go on about the microaggressions that I have endured.

From the 1980s when I chose to wipe the bindi off my forehead so that I did not stand out to the so-called Dotbusters, to the day in 2016  when I was told by a co-teacher that I was chosen as the 2016 Texas Teacher of the Year just to satisfy the equal opportunity criteria.

And those in-between times when a speech teacher offered to help me correct my Indian accent. (I said, sure, after you have fixed the person with the Texan accent or the Bostonian accent or after you have identified what the “correct” accent is.).

Or the time at a stadium gate when my purse was searched so much more thoroughly than my Caucasian friend's purse. She asked, “What was THAT all about?” and I shrugged and just said, “Skin color.” I am used to it. Flying to Canada one day, the immigration authorities came straight over to us like a laser to check our papers. As if it was OK to enter Canada without papers as long as you were white, even if you were not a U.S. citizen.

I have had my fair share of bias directed towards me as an Indian American teacher.

Taken individually, they do not derail me, but taken together and taken over time, they wear me out. But I choose to ignore them because I think that my purpose as a teacher is to provide a safe space for Indian American children and to be an ambassador to my culture for a gradual elimination of bias.

Enough of my experiences. Let’s talk about children of Indian immigrants, like my own, and how they have  to adjust to dealing with a darker skin color, albeit an accepted accent. Which sort of makes them American on the phone, but not-so-American in person.  As a parent, I could see the conflicts they faced amidst a clash of cultures and academic expectations. In school they were expected to excel in math and science, another stereotyping of Asian students. Their social studies textbooks emphasized India, not as a country with a rich and vibrant culture, but as a backward land of snake-charmers and the caste system, which left them confused and ashamed and made them distance themselves from anything to do with their country of origin. Many Indian students refuse to bring lunch from home because they are teased for their “smelly” spiced lunches. If only their friends knew that Christopher Columbus put his life at risk in uncharted waters searching for those same “smelly” spices that brought about the accidental discovery of the North American continent.

COVID-19 was just the spark needed to set off the Asian hate that had already been festering since the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment camps.. The real issue is the feeling of economic threat from China and India. They possess the emerging markets and purchasing power that threaten to dictate global trade. But when we are unable to control the bigger issues, we tend to lash out at easy targets such as Sikh Indians after the 9/11 attacks or Asian women owning spas. Laughing at Indian customs or polytheism or preventing yoga from being taught in schools because of the mistaken belief that it teaches Hinduism misses the bigger point that we fear what we don’t know.

Therefore, I invite my friends from other circles to know more about Asian Americans by having at least one Asian American friend where the conversation goes beyond stir-fried noodles or chicken tikka masala.

Instead of asking, “Do you speak Indian?", ask, “What language do you speak?” You might get any one of 22 official Indian languages as an answer.

If you can travel, visit India because the best way to understand a culture is to live it.

And a note to educators. Your Indian American students have two fantastic cultures supporting them: the rich customs of the Indian subcontinent and the promising future and opportunities of America. Be curious about what they bring to the classroom and discuss topics that include their identities.

Every time that we are curious, we learn more. We fear what we don’t know.

Revathi Balakrishnan,  2016 Texas Teacher of the Year, teaches fifth grade in Austin, Texas. She also has experience working with gifted students and believes in bringing in Shakespeare, chess, robotics and coding as an integral part of the classroom experiences. She is a recipient of the Horace Mann Excellence in Teaching award sponsored by NEA Foundation.  One of her interests is in making the Indian-American community aware of their civic rights and of issues like equity. Outside of school, Revathi enjoys gardening and reading. She is grateful to NNSTOY for providing a forum for her blogs.

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