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People Like Us

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 12/11/2002

So I'm out there on Thursday afternoon trying to dig my car out of the snow, and this old white guy is on the other side of the street, leaning on his shovel and staring at me, half-smiling. As one of only a few dark-skinned people who live in my South Baltimore neighborhood, I'm used to being stared at, especially by the folks in their 60s or 70s who probably remember--and, considering how icy some of their stares are, probably miss--the days when people like me were even rarer in these parts. But I did what I normally do and smiled, which this guy took to be an invitation to come over and talk.

He strides across the icy packed snow in the middle of the street, and the first words out of his mouth are, "What are you?" Just like that.

He wants to know if I'm Pakistani, or Indian, or Hindu. But then, before I can answer, he wants to know if Indian and Hindu are the same thing or from the same country, or what, because he's always found it very confusing. So I satisfy his curiosity and tell him I'm Indian, and explain that Indian is a nationality but Hindu is a religious affiliation. Then he says, "I was looking at you, and I just couldn't figure out what you were--Indian or black or what--because you're very dark, but your features look Pakistani or something. That was my guess."

I normally bristle at such encounters, but I wasn't getting an ornery or obnoxious vibe off this guy, just a rather clumsy curiosity and a poor grasp of basic social etiquette. In fact, the guy--Bill's his name--turned out to be a harmless nut-job who, after laying to rest his agitated questions about my ethnic origins, proceeded to shovel out my car in one-third the time it would have taken me, all the while expounding on his love of deer hunting, his past problems with alcohol, his wife of 40 miserable years, his blind grandson who can sing like Mario Lanza but blew off his scholarship to the Peabody, his lawyer who's cheating him out of his asbestos settlement, and so on and so forth. When one of his neighbors emerged from her front door, the old guy momentarily ceased his colorful complaint-fest to flirt: "Hi Nancy, I'm just helping out my new girlfriend here!" As soon as my car's tires were clear, Bill wished me luck, said, "Nice talking to you," and walked away. He didn't bother to ask my name, and I didn't bother to offer it.

Since then I've been thinking a lot about how nonchalantly I responded to Bill's blunt question: What are you? When I was younger, these kinds of (tiresomely frequent) queries from strangers shamed and upset me more than I liked to admit. (I will never forget the guy behind the counter at a pizza place in Hoboken, N.J., circa 1987, who smiled and said, "But the way you talk, you don't sound Indian!?"--to which my ballsy friend Judi shot back, "Are you also surprised that I don't sound black?!" Poor guy was struck dumb.)

Apparently I've matured, or grown a thicker skin, or lost some of my capacity for righteous indignation, or something. These days, the myriad little encounters with strangers demanding to know "what I am" amuse more than offend. Whatever the source of this new calm is, I have one major reason to be grateful for it now.

At some point in the coming year, probably, I will become the adoptive mother of a child who will not share my racial background and may look nothing like me. I'm therefore preparing myself for the inappropriate questions of strangers, which will no doubt vary in tone from simple curiosity to snooty rudeness to outright bigotry. But I know there's a certain delicacy required here. Undoubtedly, someone will stop us in the street to ask, "Is that child really yours?" or to wonder out loud, "I suppose she must take after her father . . . ?" Undoubtedly, some total stranger will think nothing of saying, within the child's earshot, "How on earth could the mother give away such an adorable child?" When these things happen, I want to be self-assured, firm, and appropriately protective--not defensive or unreasonably quick to anger. I want to be able to deflect other people's rudeness and idiocy without telegraphing fear or shame to my child. If a child sucks up that poison, it can stay in her system for ages.

I know this because I still have a definite sense-memory of my immigrant parents' profound unhappiness as they suffered the petty racist indignities of the 1960s and early 1970s. I absorbed my parents' fear and shame like a cloth soaking up red dye, and since then I've been trying to bleach myself clean of all that anguish. I wish I could go back in time and tell my young, insecure parents--with all the precocious wisdom of a child actor in a movie--the thing it took me decades to figure out, the thing I hope I'm strong enough to impart to my child. We were who we were. We were what we were. And we had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, because we weren't the ones being ignorant and rude.

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