So you think you’re Indian?

A couple days ago, I skyped a friend of mine who is currently in India. As we were catching up, she described a recent work trip she went on, where she visited several Indian monuments and heritage sites. As most people who have visited these monuments know, entrance tickets often have a foreigner price and an Indian price (with the foreigner fee usually being much more expensive). My friend, as a foreigner but also a person of color, explained that on the trip, her colleagues would try to pass her off as Indian. Most often, it wouldn’t work, leading to arguments with the ticket officials. As we were chatting about her feelings on this topic, it led me to reflect more on my own experiences with it this summer.

My first (unpleasant) encounter with this situation was early in the summer, when a group of us went to the Taj Mahal. Previously when I’ve traveled in India, it has been primarily in the south and with family, so I never had issues with being labeled a foreigner. Further, until a few years ago, I was an Indian citizen with an Indian passport, so if needed I always had ID proof of my Indian nationality. However, this summer was the first time that after buying the Indian ticket, the officials at the entrance asked me to go back and buy a foreigner ticket instead. I (honestly, pretty needlessly) argued with them, but since I had no ID proof and I was not with family, they refused and asked me to buy a foreigner ticket. The issue for me definitely wasn’t about the money—it wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the entrance fee. It was more that something for me (at first) felt deeply offensive about the fact that I had to pay a foreigner fee in what I quite often refer to as “my own country.”

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At Humayun’s Tomb on my very last day in India, when I was ecstatic about “passing” and getting an Indian national entrance ticket.

It makes absolute and complete sense why these different fees exist. Foreigners (or tourists, more accurately) who frequent these sites are visiting India on leisure and usually have the ability to afford higher prices. However, in Indian rupees, that same amount would be a much heftier price for someone earning a salary in rupees. Further, it makes sense that Indian nationals should have easy access to see the sites that make up their history and culture.

The issue for me throughout the summer, however, was that each time I bought one of these tickets, being told I was a “foreigner” felt like an added reminder that I don’t entirely belong in India. As many diaspora speak about, it felt like a reminder that I must continue to “prove” my “Indianness” to others in order to be accepted as “authentically Indian.” There is a quote by Ijeoma Umebinyou from “Diaspora Blues,” which has been pretty widely circulated, referring to this theme:

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Similarly, I remember one instance early this summer when I planned on wearing a saree to a field visit. As I was talking with one of my colleagues my age, she was confused as to why I would ever want to wear a saree. I’ve been wearing sarees for the past two or so years, ever since I started college, not only to cultural events but also at times to conferences. My colleague, who grew up in India, had worn sarees very few times in her life (that too only to weddings) and didn’t know how to put one on. She found it ironic that I wore them decently often, and that I wanted to wear one to work. In the summer of 2015, when I had been working in Hyderabad, I wore sarees on field visits and found that the women living in those villages were more comfortable and free around me when I dressed like them—it often took the “American edge” off my interactions in the field. I also personally enjoy wearing them, and had never thought of it as odd. However, it is obvious that clothes come with political connotations that are deeply tied to identity. For me, wearing sarees always came with the connotation that I could perform certain aspects of Indian femininity. Especially given that so much of “Indian womanhood” is essentialized into dress, wearing sarees was a badge of “I too, belong here.” Funnily enough, as the summer progressed, I found myself needing to wear sarees less, which will perhaps change once again when I am back in the states.

Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociologist and South Asian American studies scholar, speaks about these themes in “Politics of Cultural Authenticity.” She theorizes that immigrant Indians aspire to become more culturally “authentic” via dress, language, religion, and so on in their new country (America). The quest to find this authentic ethnic self begins because “as immigrants, [we] are cast out of both there and here, cultural exiles in both India and the United States” (Rudrappa 138). Thus, embracing cultural identity becomes a way to reclaim identity in a white American world, where Indian migrants are minoritized upon arrival. Through this process of ethnicization, Rudrappa explains, we actually find ways to become more American—by finding an acceptable, “authentic” cultured space, a place to belong to, within mainstream America.

As I was leaving India, I was talking with a friend and joked that when I return to the states, I might notice I’ve become “even more Indian” than before, so much so that I won’t even know what to do with myself. As I notice my English being peppered by certain Indian phrases and find myself missing mundane things about my time there this summer, it is easier to gain clarity and apply what Rudrappa says to my own experiences. Why did it, in fact, bother me so much that I had to pay the foreigner fee at monuments? Why did I feel so flustered when I would rush to speak to vendors or auto drivers in Hindi, and sometimes they would respond in English? Or one morning, when I put my saree on with some things off here and there, why did I feel so upset?

In India, I am reminded quite often (and rightfully so) that I hold, with my American passport, accent, and American university education, immense amounts of privilege. Encounters with ticket officials or saree mistakes can easily feel like profound questions of my “Indianness.” And in America, I will never be a part of mainstream white American identity (nor do I aspire to). As a brown woman, I am constantly reminded that I am a “forever foreigner,” be it through institutional racism and sexism or simple catcalls on the street telling me to “go back to your country” and “hey there, chocolate.” As Rudrappa writes, it is evident that in many ways I (and many of my Indian American friends) have always embraced Indian culture as a way to make space for our “hyphenated” identities that are not easily welcomed otherwise.

Spending more time in India has undoubtedly helped me feel more secure in feeling that India is a part of my narrative. Balancing that fine line and remaining critical will always be a continuous challenge—I will always be “too desi” for some and not enough for others. Yet, with this summer has come better clarity in how to navigate Indian-Americaness and reject pressures to enact a certain Indian-American gendered role, while still allowing myself to unabashedly embrace, learn, and grow from my roots.

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About Meghana Nallajerla-Yellapragada

I am a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, working in Bengaluru, India through CASI (Center for Advanced Study of India) this summer! Looking forward to being back in my motherland and learning, growing, and hopefully contributing respectfully to my workplace.