I never know the right answer to certain questions. There is one question which follows me much like my shadow follows my body. Takes only four words to ask it. Perhaps I should back up a little. It is not the actual question I hate. Sometimes it is a valid question. It is the way it is asked, the assumptions that it so blatantly reeks of.
Where are you from?
Four words. Innocent enough on paper. I can always feel it lurking beneath the murky surface of small talk. It is a question much like an overripe guava, ready to stain my impression of the poor soul who lets those four words meander their way out into the open air. It’s part of the Guess-the-Ethnicity game some are so fond of. A way of indulging in, but never understanding, difference.
When you have been asked this at least once a day because you physically look different—because your father resides in the shape of your eyes and your mother resides in the contours of your cheekbones and the dark coffee with a hint of milk in your grandmother’s skin tone resides in your own—from the dominating demographic of a place, you start to wonder if this is really the most important thing about yourself.
At least twice a week I am mistaken for an international student. I have been asked to explain why my English is so fluent, whether or not I’m a local, as well as my thoughts on a particular country’s position on birth control.
I get it. I understand. I support curiosity, questions and the bridging of ideas and cultures, of difference and sameness. Maybe I am overreacting. Maybe I am hypersensitive. Maybe I am just insane. But I’ve also been told that I, in fact, do not even know where I come from. That I am Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern (the people who say this face the even graver problem of generalizing a whole region of diverse people), Lebanese, Bangladeshi.
What pisses me off is not the question, really. It is the assumption behind it. The assumption that I interpret those four words the same way the person asking it does: as a question about how I choose to identify in terms of race and ethnicity.
When I am asked where I am from, I answer truthfully. Queens. What follows is always a wildcard. Usually I am rebuked.
“No. I mean where are you from,” the emphasis always on the word ‘from’.
“Queens,” I respond with annoyance.
“I mean are you from India?”
In a perfect world I walk away from conversations such as these. Or at least that is the lie I tell myself. Instead, I stutter and give convoluted explanations of being a first generation American born into an imaginary known as the double diaspora. Born into a twice displaced…people. But when I think of my “people”, I think of the people living in the city I most identify with, New York.
This blog will attempt to explore displacement in all of its shifting forms as it weaves in and out of my life, rearing its head in my travels, my memories, and my studies.
(New York Public Library, New York, December 2014)
Living within a diaspora is like looking out of a window–you’re grounded physically in one world and peering through windows to other worlds you’re tied to in a more abstract sense, conscious of the barrier between where you physically stand and where you mentally wonder, connected by threads you can feel, but cannot see.