“No, but actually, do you?”
This question and its variation is something I have heard too often in America. It is especially targeted at my parents, who speak perfect English, but quite often Americans defer to me at restaurants, stores, and cafes instead of speaking to them. I am the Indian-accent free, supposedly less foreign version of first generation brown immigrants.
So I surprised myself a few days ago when I found myself on the other end. I was not the one asked, but the one asking, in that patronizing flustered tone.
“Do. YOU. SPEAK. ENGLISH?”
I was on the phone with customer care, huddled on the floor of my (fancy) hotel room that I share with my fellow CASI intern Mallory. It was 7 AM in Bangalore, where the two of us and Alexi are working this summer. I was trying to set up my data plan for my Indian number; frustrated after 3 phone calls to customer care and having had no data for my phone for two weeks (very dependent on that, American millennial as I am), I found myself borderline screaming at an Indian customer care representative. She had repeated the same thing to me, and feeling frustrated and entitled and refusing to listen to her, I asked her in my very thick American accent, repeatedly, “do you speak English?!?”
The woman put me on hold and I eventually hung up. I called back later and spoke to another rep, only to find out that what the first woman had told me was right. If only I had listened.
Navigating India as an Indian-American, as diaspora, is its own experience. I was born in Hyderabad, India, but moved abroad when I was three. Ironically enough, English isn’t even my first language; my mother tongue is Telugu and I learned English alongside it. I have never lived in India since 1999, except for summers spent visiting family and more recently, summers working here.
This trip to Bangalore, my first time spending a lot of time with other American students in India and outside Hyderabad, has already been different in so many ways. We interns float from one air-conditioned room to another—our hotel, our work, the car. There are many people and resources constantly available to help and take care of us, whether it is staff at the hotel, our host work organization, or Penn resources back home. While I have always been comfortable and well taken care of on my visits to India (and my immediate family is definitely privileged in terms of class), in all the times I have been back, I do not think I have ever lived a lifestyle this opulent and insulated from everything and everyone else.
And it is precisely this elevated status that has forced me to confront what has always been so easy to forget; while I have grown up mostly conscious of ways in which I may be marginalized, it has always been easier for me to forget about my privileges—English speaking, living abroad, upper class, caste, etc etc.
There are many famous theorists that talk about imposing “western” frameworks of understating on the “east,” and the often harmful effects of that. (Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Edward Said being two of them.) I had read their theories in class and felt quite enlightened by them. Yet I never wanted to see that despite being of Indian origin, I too am quite able and often guilty of perpetuating and subscribing to imperialist and colonial perspectives. The little things that don’t seem to matter but definitely do: flashing my American passport at the airport, or speaking in enunciated American-accented English. These are ways of proving myself in the world, ways of saying “although I am brown, I too am worthy.” And here I was on Sunday morning, doing the most microagressive and frustrating thing I myself hate: being crushingly rude to someone because I had deemed her English unworthy. All of these, results of a lifetime of internalized racism and a privileged life abroad.
At lunch the other day, one of my Indian friends joked that he feels the most American when he speaks with customer care. Interestingly enough, a similar experience now too has led me to question my Americanness, my privileges. As I begin to question the ways in which I perpetuate the same problems I claim to fight, I feel as though I better understand my position and identity as a South Asian woman in the diaspora.
This process reminds me of what a TA once told me: “with great discomfort comes great growth.” With the discomfort that comes with examining one’s own privilege, I hope to find growth and more ways in which I can learn and check my privilege. Though this will be a continual lifelong process, I look forward to starting it in these nine weeks and learning from those around me—English speaking or not.