Will I Ever Be An American?
I was in my den typing away feverishly, just wanted to complete the rough draft of a short story. Not that I had any deadline, not that any magazine editor was begging for my story. But I wanted to finish it off, move on to the next project. Our housekeeper and her helper were turning the house upside down, removing rugs, vacuuming carpets, cleaning kitchen counters etc. And then the doorbell rang. I had half a mind not to open the door. But when I saw through the peep hole a well-dressed, attractive woman, my curiosity got the better of me. She was tallish, with a round face, and a broad smile. Her companion was an older gentleman with rimless spectacles and a stoop. I asked them politely, “What can I do for you?”
She smiled again. “We are here to talk about the bible.”
Having lived in the bible belt for many years, I was used to this kind of spiel. Frankly, I don’t care for any religion. Although I hail from a religious family—my parents were God-fearing, temple-going, staunch Hindus. Somehow all that religiosity didn’t rub off on me.
I told the lady. “I’m afraid I’m not much into religion.”
The gentleman raised his eyebrows, “Really, what nationality are you?”
This really got my goat. “I am American, just like you. I have brown skin and you have white skin.”
The gentleman said. “Well, you do have an accent…”
I had enough. “Thank you for coming.” And they walked back to their car.
Rani and I were on our morning walk, said hello to our new neighbor who was puttering in his yard.
He was a slim, good-looking man, smiled at us and we got talking. He said his name is Brad.
I said. “I wonder where the previous owners went. I didn’t know them well, but they had three cute kids.”
Brad said. “I got the impression they skipped town. Seems like they got into some money troubles. The cops came one day, asking for the lady, what’s her name, I think it’s Cathy. Anyway, my wife had a tough time convincing the cops she is not Cathy, ha, ha, ha.”
Rani said. “They used to have real loud parties by their pool.”
Brad asked. “Come, lets’ go to the backyard, you can see the pool.” He whipped out his cell phone. “Hey, are you dressed? Our neighbors are here, come say hello.”
Presently an elegantly dressed woman, much younger than Brad, came out. “Hi, I’m Barbara. Glad to meet you. I see y’all walking every morning.”
Brad led us to the backyard pool with its blue water. “This pool has all kinds gizmos, self-cleaning, soft water, good for your skin, and heated y’all. Even in the middle of the winter, when it’s cold outside, this pool feels great.”
He looked at me. “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m retired. I used to work at the university.”
Then he asked Rani. “Do you work?”
Rani said. “Yeah, I’m a doctor.”
Barb said. “That’s great, what kind of doctor?”
Rani replied, “I’m a hospice doctor.”
Brad laughed. “You are pull-the-plug on grandma kind of doc, ha?”
Rani got a lot of this, particularly from older people who thought that all the hospice doctor ever did was to give a shot of morphine and let the patient drift away to heaven or hell, or wherever. She was immune, didn’t react, simply smiled.
I wanted to explain the hospice philosophy, but Rani had that look, telling me to keep quiet.
We talked about this and that, about the neighborhood, the forthcoming 4th party.
Brad said, “You guys have been in this country long?”
I said. “Yeah, thirty years.”
He asked. “So, eventually you plan to return to your country?”
Rani and I have been living in Wilmington, North Carolina for the past few years. Every summer, we drive to the other end of the state to Ashville, to enjoy the salubrious mountain weather. The first evening, we had a good dinner at an authentic French restaurant owned by a jovial, authentic French man; I’m sure he has been in this country a long time, although, like many first generation immigrants, he still has a bit of a French accent. Enjoying the crisp evening, we walked back to our hotel, and stopped at the bar for a nightcap. Since all the seats were taken, we waited our turn and stood at a distance. Rani whispered to me to look at a woman at the end of the bar. As usual, I looked at the wrong end and saw an elderly lady and her companion. I asked Rani what’s so interesting about the pair.
Rani hissed, “Not there, look towards your left.”
When my gaze finally turned towards the intended person, all I saw was a young woman covering herself with a shawl. Rani shrugged her shoulders. “You missed it! Thought you’d get a kick out of seeing those shapely boobs pouring out of her very, very low cut blouse.”
While we joked around, a young bearded white guy, sitting near the bar looked at us and said in a booming voice. “India, bang, I know I’m right!” He held out his hand. “Welcome to America! My great country!”
A couple left and two seats were vacant, and my wife approached the bartender to order our drinks. I was still a little behind, trying to figure out this weird guy who looked like he was drunk; but his speech, albeit with a strong North Carolina accent, wasn’t slurred. In all these years in this country, I never, never, not even once, come across this type of behavior. Sure enough, there were people who asked me where I am from, and when I said I am from India, the next question was when I am going back to my country. I went through this rigmarole many times. But those people were polite and just curious, maybe because of my strong Indian accent or my skin color. I don’t take offence at such questions, and answer them politely, saying that I am a naturalized American citizen and when I go to India, it would be only to visit.
But this young fellow at the bar got under my skin. I don’t know if it was the way he said it, or his tone of voice, or the way he looked at us. But, I wasn’t happy to be accosted in such a rude manner. I thought I’d put this young upstart in his place.
I said. “Young man, I’ve been in this country longer than you. How old are you?”
“I am thirty two. What’s it to you?”
I asked. “Where are you from?”
He yelled. “You can’t talk like that to me! You are in the South, man!”
I said. “Really?”
He got off his bar stool and came up to me. “Do you know the meaning of arrogance?” I’m more than double his age, and most Southerners are taught to address their elders, as Sir or Ma’am. Apparently this guy must have left his manners in the gutter where he was born. I ignored him.
By this time, the bartender, a petite middle-aged lady noticed this altercation, and told the guy, “Sir, you need to step back!”
At about the same time, another lady, probably a hotel employee, appeared out of nowhere, and said something to this guy, and he quickly hightailed it. A gentleman sitting near the bar commented. “That’s one rabid redneck!”
I grabbed our drinks, signed the check and we went up to the privacy of our room. And the phone rang. It was the hotel manager apologizing for the unpleasant incident.
When I look back at those unpleasant incidents, the anger I felt at that particular moment is now replaced by profound sadness. Why is it that some white people still cling to the mistaken notion that they are the sole owners of this country, that they are the only legitimate citizens of this vast, beautiful land, built by waves of immigrants from various parts of the world. I wonder what goes through their minds when they see a brown-skinned man or woman. Is it superiority, intolerance, or plain disgust at having to deal with a person who looks different, speaks with an accent? I don’t know. I have no answers.
But, Rani and I do have many friends who happen to be white. They know us, don’t care about our antecedents nor our accent. It’s a simple human interaction, totally color-blind. We learn from each other, about our cultures, traditions etc. We discuss every conceivable topic under the earth. While we do not always agree on everything, we agree to disagree. But that’s another story.