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January 4, 2000


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Confessions of a Cross-Carrying Immigrant

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Shoba Narayan

I am an immigrant. I straddle cultures, juggle identities, and carry labels. The INS calls me Resident-Alien, the IRS calls me Permanent Resident, Americans call me Indian, Indians call me Non-Resident Indian, surveys call me Asian-American, and job applications ask if I have a Green Card.

I got my Green Card last year. The process took two years and cost about $ 5000. I spent hours filling forms that the INS routinely sent back asking for more documents, yet another birth certificate... A local police-station took my fingerprints to check if I had a criminal record; a clinic designated by the INS gave me a complete physical, including an AIDS test and sent the results in a sealed envelope.

A grave-look immigration official in Hartford, CT, opened the envelope, asked me if I had ever been arrested, if I had worked illegally before stamping my passport. My Green Card, which, as it turned out, wasn't green, would follow.

Like most immigrants, I came to America in search of opportunity. I was tired of the India's caste prejudices and century-old traditions. My father had worked for 20 years before he could afford a car. I wanted a car, maybe even two. I wanted a home, to live the American dream. I wanted to go from rags to riches. And I didn't want to wait 20 years for all that to happen. Naturally, I came to America. The never-ending expanse of choices in this country fueled my ambitions, lifted my spirits.

Here, I could achieve anything, become anyone, except, perhaps, the President. The realization was exhilarating. What I also came to realize was that with every choice came a sacrifice. With every achievement, I was losing a little of my identity. Lifestyle choices that came so naturally to the folks back home became agonizing decisions for me. Should I stick to the Indian community in the US, or should I make American friends, knowing that I could never be one of them?

Should I wear the colorful Indian clothes that I love, or should I quit wearing them in public because I am tired of being stared at? Should I keep my hard-to-pronounce Hindu name, or should I Anglicize it, like many Chinese had done? Should I celebrate Christmas, a tradition that I didn't grow up with, or should I ask for a day off from work to celebrate Diwali, the most important Indian holiday?

Should I stay in this country, or should I go back home?

Every Indian dreams of going back home. The isolation that is part of the immigrant culture, combined with the stresses of being a foreigner makes us nostalgic for the familiar sights, smells and sounds of Home. America, however, seduces us with the promise of wealth and the "good life." Most of us succumb and stay put.

Every now and then, there are nasty incidents. Like the Dot Busters -- a gang in New Jersey that identified Hindus by the dots on their foreheads and attacked them, and then attacked anyone who looked like an Indian. Like the svelte brunette in an exclusive Manhattan soiree, who drawled that the "immigrants had spoilt California" for her. Like the stranger I encountered one snowy night.

"Go back to where you came from," he hissed. Well, I felt like telling him, if each of us said that to each other, the United States would become empty. And it could also lose its sense of balance.

What immigrants -- particularly from the East -- have given the United States is a sense of balance. They bring Yin values to a very Yang culture. They temper the swinging pendulum with spirituality, and bring it to a Buddhist Middle Path. Into a land of excess, they bring in values like contentment and letting go. To mix some metaphors, they keep the melting-pot from running over.

Another thing that immigrants offer is perspective. When people ask me about the starving children in India, I tell them about the paradoxes in this country. The media tells us that incest, rape, and other crimes against children are on the rise in the US. Yet, the very same people who abuse their children will wait politely in line for a schoolbus, to pick up children! I find that hypocritical.

Fielding questions is part of being a foreigner: Where are you from? Why are you wearing a dot on your forehead? Does your name mean anything? Do people still ride on elephants in India? Who'll be your role model? The questions drum inside my head like Paul Simon's song in the album, Graceland. Sometimes I get so fed up that I make up the answers or lie outright. But then, when I meet an "exotic" person, I find myself asking the same questions. I suppose it is part of being human to make connections and establish roots.

What many people -- including me -- forget is that a person cannot represent an entire country. For a long time, my behavior at every instance was exemplary. I was always polite because I didn't want Americans to think that Indians were an impolite race. I always delivered 120 per cent because it would help another Indian get hired.

Routine acts became deliberations. Simple choices became political dilemmas. If a white person tips poorly, then he or she is just a poor tipper. If I do the same thing, I am a poor-tipping Indian. So, never mind the bad service, never mind the lousy food. I have to leave a good tip. Otherwise, the next Indian that eats here will automatically get lousy service, because the waiter will think that all Indians are poor tippers.

I am sure every minority has gone through the guessing and second-guessing that comes with being stereotyped. After a while, it gets to you. Being an ambassador for my country became too much of a burden. I began to resent it.

These days, I try to be myself -- failings, rudeness, warts and all. It is difficult, because, at some point, I know someone is going to watch me slurping my soup, or doing something equally "rude," and think that all Indians don't know table manners.

My father -- a poet and philosopher -- once asked me why I had decided to live in the United States. I thought about it for a moment and said, "Dad, I want to be a writer. If my books sell to the American market, they will sell all over the world. Once I become a successful author here, I can move back to India and still be successful."

My dad smiled. "What if you become so successful that you forgot what you wanted to say?" he asked.

Confusion and loss are my crosses. I will have to bear them, even if I can go back home.

Shoba Narayan, a New York-based writer has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and several other major publications.

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