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Friday May 24, 2024
My Turn:
Where Am I From?
Vol: 1 Num: 3    Summer 2006
Travails of an Indian American require more thought than meets the eye!

How many times have we run into situations where we are faced with the question “Where are you from?” How do most of us respond to this question? In my own case, the first reaction is usually a hasty concoction of emotions broken up, in equal parts, annoyance, uncertainty, and defiance. When annoyance rules, my usual response, if I am coherent, is to say one of the following:

  1. None of your ****** business!
  2. I’ll spill my beans if you’ll spill yours!
  3. United States of America

When uncertainty dominates, I respond by picking one of the following responses:

  1. Excuse me, but could you repeat that in Swahili?
  2. I have no idea, could you help me out, slowly?
  3. Do you mean, where do I live?

And when I feel defiant, my response varies according to mood, as one of the following:

  1. Mars not Uranus (no pun intended) or the Midwest
  2. Where do you think I am from?
  3. Possibly a little further away than where you are from!

Sometimes I have also responded with a stunned or stony silence, not wanting to answer. However, I have pondered over it a lot and now feel that the best way to handle such a query is to use one’s intellect and not one’s emotions.

The Bhagavad Gita says that there are three ways to deal with any situation, the saatvik, the raajsik, and the taamsik. The emotional response would qualify as taamsik, which is not worthy of a human being aspiring to get to a higher form of existence than the brute. A more appropriate response would be to leave the emotions behind and use the intellect, the raajsik response. The highest type would be to incorporate spiritual, cosmic or philosophical concepts into it, irrespective of the identity of the questioner, and move on to a higher or saatvik plane.

What, then, would be an effective intellectual approach to this question? One scenario is to make a judgment as to where the questioner is “coming from,” to put it figuratively. Statistically, this is called, establishing the priors, as in Bayesian analysis. Arriving at a satisfactory response becomes much more technically manageable once this is done. For example, the questioner may simply be trying to strike up a conversation with me. If I may misconstrue it then my response may halt further communication if I answer in a tone the other person did not expect.

I have experienced this many times. You know how it goes, the person has had a trip to India or knows a neighbor from the subcontinent or has a girl-friend of South Asian origin. He simply wants to talk about himself or his experiences and uses the question to provide a convenient segue into an interesting discussion. When I sense that this might be the case, I simply answer India and the floodgates open. Within five minutes I am regaled with stories of the Dashaashvamedha Ghats in Varanasi or the Konarak temples or the lovely sunset at Kanyakumari.

Once, a lady not aware that the days of cowboys and the Wild West are long gone wondered if I was an Indian and she meant American Indian. I saw the innocence in her eyes, and responded that I am an Indian, but did not bring my feathers with me to prove it! We talked for a half hour, and struck pay dirt. The conversation was lot of fun. Another time, in a mall, I thought the person was trying to be cheeky. I knew I hit the Bayesian bulls eye when I said, “Lady, if I am not from here then you can not be from here either because the only people who are from here are the descendants of the Mongoloid race and they used the land bridge to cross the Bering Straits, and it doesn’t look like you or your ancestors did that!” I won’t tell what happened next, but it was very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange.

Many other intellectual scenarios are possible, of course, but the ones that I mentioned have a high chance of hitting a global, not local, maximum.

What about a more exalted or saatvik response? As I indicated before, this makes no assumptions about the questioner, in fact, it involves ignoring the questioner altogether, instead, focusing on what this question is all about. This is in the genre of questions faced by Siddhartha, ‘What is life? Why is there suffering?’, which led to his long penance and ultimate salvation as the Buddha.

Under saatvik approach, the question can be broken down into many related questions – using the age-old analytical technique of “Divide and Conquer” – Who am I? Where did it all begin? Where am I going? Am I asking the right question? Help, Brian Greene! Radhakrishnan? YES!!

Professor Radhakrishnan of Oxford and former President of India provides a lovely excerpt from the Rig Veda to lead us into the quagmire of self-discovery:

“Non-being then existed not nor being.
There was no air, nor sky that is beyond it.
What was concealed? Wherein? In whose protection?
And was there deep unfathomable water?”

So my suggestion is that in order to respond to the query, “Where are you from?” forget the illusory satisfaction of a Pyrrhic victory, instead say, in Sanskrit, Greek or Latin, if possible: “I am sorry, but I truly do not know.”

Nishkam Agarwal is an economist based in Columbia, Maryland.


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