Sunday, April 01, 2012

I'm a total fake

Probably I should say up front that this is a post about identity, not personality. (Which, for the record, is authentic. What you see is what you get-- I'm generally happy and low blood pressure. Born this way.) I'm talking about identifying as a real American and real Californian. And others not believing it.

I have a face that so completely identifies me in a certain way. There are aspects to my face that I know I don't understand. Because I've had Indian people come up to me and say, "You're from India?" And I give my standard response, "My parents are from India. I was the first in my family born here. They're from the south, from Kerala and Tamil Nadu." And many of them respond, "Yes, you look like you're from Kerala."

Keep in mind, India is pretty small geographically but with a billion people. And yet people can identify the state my parents are from just by looking at my face.

And if they hear my last name, they know with even more certainty where I'm from. I have a Christian last name, and there are maybe eleven Christians in all of India. They all know each other and are very proud of their very long and persecuted existence. We are a minority in India and just confusing in the United States. I'm a neither-dot-nor-feather Indian. (It's confusing to be a racial minority but in the religious majority.)

And to make it even worse, I can't speak either of my parents' two languages. My mother wanted to teach me, my father thought it'd impede my English acquisition. This means that on the occasions I get together with my parents' family, they are careful to speak English. Unless they want to tell secrets. So that sucks.

It also means that growing up, I've been extra sensitive to how I sound and how people react to my voice and accent. I grew up having to translate my parents' English for people, the way you might translate your toddlers' words for your adult friends. I use that analogy purposefully; I know it was frustrating, especially for my mom, to not be understood and to be treated like a child. So I guarantee if you heard me on the phone but couldn't see me, you might be able to guess I'm from California but would not be able to guess my race. Unless I decided to tone down my California accent and turn up something else. (Yes, Californians, we have an accent!)

I could put on a sari and look the part of an Indian woman perfectly until I opened my mouth. And I could get on the phone and sound the part of a (possibly white) American woman perfectly until someone saw me. When I've traveled abroad, people have laughed when I said I'm from California and then asked where I'm really from. But I feel Californian more than anything else. I am Californian. Though I can sometimes fake it, I don't really know how to be anything else.

I do have a lifetime of learning to make people feel comfortable by fading into what's familiar to them. Like an octopus or cuttlefish. (I really just wanted to work the word "cuttlefish" and this video into my blog.)

That's how we survive, those of us who don't look like everyone else. We use clever techniques to make you comfortable. We fake it a bit.

But now that I've survived this long, I'm less likely to fake it. I'm less likely to labor so hard and so carefully to make others comfortable. I'm more likely to simply be comfortable without apology (but with, as you can see, explanation). This means many things, but among them, it means knowing that what my face says isn't everything there is to know about me. I am American; I'm grateful I was born here and grateful for everything my parents did and gave up so I could be. I am American and I am Californian and I'm identified by many things including but also beyond place, race and appearance. I'm so many things.

And so, I'm not a fake at all.