Photo: John H. White. Courtesy of the National Archives at College Park. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
You know why they call them Indians? Because Columbus thought he was in India. They’re called Indians because some white guy got lost.
—Herb Stempel, Quiz Show
You know why they call them Indians? Because Columbus thought he was in India. They’re called Indians because some white guy got lost.
—Herb Stempel, Quiz Show
We called them American bhua and American phupher, the middle of my father’s three older sisters and her husband. As the vanguard of my family’s transplants to the U.S., they’d been assigned these honorifics by their nieces and nephews living then in England. American phupher arrived in Chicago for a temporary stay in the late fifties, then returned permanently with bhua in 1971. Together they raised three children while she labored in an electronics assembly plant, and he worked first as a diesel engineer for the Chicago Transit Authority and later in its managerial ranks. In their earliest years here, they would occasionally receive a phone call from a stranger who had just arrived at O’Hare on British Airways or Air India. The callers didn’t speak much English, and they had no friends or family in the city; they’d simply found a pay phone in the terminal, opened the directory, and dialed the number next to any name that sounded like it came from their part of the world. When these calls came in, my uncle would drive from the family’s apartment in Logan Square to the airport and collect the newcomers, whether they were Punjabi, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, whether they were Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, and he and my aunt would host them, sometimes for months, until they had secured employment and apartment leases.
This is a kind of generosity that has been practiced by generations of immigrants to and from every part of the world. Among South Asians, such ethnic esprit de corps is captured most succinctly by the term desi, which Vijay Prashad defines to include those of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese descent. It isn’t his invention. It’s commonplace enough among my family that I know it to mean one of us in a manner akin to the Italian paisan. Derived from Sanskrit, desi refers to umber skin and curried English, but—like paisan again—its application isn’t entirely seamless. Where outsiders might see homogeneity, immense internecine tensions permeate the histories of the desi peoples. Even among Indians arrived in the West from what is ostensibly a single country, there are chasms of cultural, linguistic, and religious difference that make India more like the fitful cohesion of Europe’s constituent nations than anything resembling the U.S. Uniting all our tongues, gods, cultures, and bodies under a single desi banner is tribalism elevated to a continental scale, and it doesn’t quite work.
Yet desi isn’t a wrong category for us to embrace. When you live in a place that doesn’t recognize differences between you and anyone who looks vaguely like you, you come to accept, even welcome, certain conflations. Partition isn’t much remembered. Who assassinated whose head of state and for what reason doesn’t seem to matter any longer. The cold war over Kashmir, the occupation of Amritsar, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the centuries-long history of persecution and conflict across South Asia—these are hardly known, much less understood, in the West. Here, survival matters. Wellness matters. It matters that we have each other. Growing up in Chicago in the eighties and nineties, it seemed to me that I really might be related to anyone with brown skin and a Bollywood accent. My “uncles” and “aunties” were Gujarati and Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim, Jatt Sikh and Saini. They were shopkeepers and cab drivers, laborers and tailors, professors and physicians. If it takes a village, I lived in a flourishing and richly populated one.
Still, in that village, I have long felt like a freeloader. Though I understand and speak Punjabi and can muddle through a modicum of Urdu and Hindi, though I wore kurta pajamas as a kid and can cook a few sabzis, I know little of the vastness and diversity of the desi nations. From my one visit to India, when I was four, I remember nothing but a sensation here, an image there: a water well between stalks of what might have been sugar cane, saag and corn flour roti cooking under an open sky at night, bathing in the reservoir surrounding the Golden Temple, smoke and the lingering smell of burning hanging over farm fields. This is the entirety of my firsthand reporting on a nation of more than a billion people and its sixty-five thousand years of history. Like every other child of immigrants here, first-generation or fifth-, my distance, my detachment, and my ignorance make me an American.
The wide slab of the hi-fi system in my cousins’ suburban living room—different aunt and uncle, different era—sat at the center of a wooden wall unit like an idol upon an altar. In a wire rack to its left stood their collection of Hindi and Punjabi records; in an identical rack to its right was their American collection, which read like Billboard’s Top 100 for the eighties: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, the Police, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, David Bowie. An only child, I must have spent half my childhood sleeping over at that house, where my two teenage cousins would ask their younger sister and me to vote on what to play next. Those records became the soundtrack to our hiding and seeking, our bedsheet tents and board games, our chattering and reading and drifting off to sleep.
The voice that suited me best was Bruce Springsteen’s. I liked the gravel and strain in his singing, his grinning persona and cultivated relatability. I liked the stories his songs told and the stories he told in rambling introductions to live versions of them. They reminded me of our family. Only eight or ten years old, I knew almost nothing of New Jersey or the Rust Belt or the heartland, of Vietnam or recessions or the blue-collar whiteness his lyrics so often embrace, but our money was tight, too. We lived in regular homes in working-class neighborhoods. Our parents and aunts and uncles drove aging Oldsmobiles and Fords to their jobs in factories and other unglamorous places, and no matter the long hours they put in, they never seemed to get all they deserved. Just like the people in Bruce’s songs. Also like Bruce, we seemed to be having a good time anyway, and anyway I was born in the U.S.A., and all of this together meant his music was my music. Knowing a little more about Springsteen’s politics now, I imagine he’d be fine with my overeager empathies. Knowing a lot more about America, I’m not sure the people he sings about would.
The people he sings about are generally counted among the nebulous “white working class” whose political whims have alternately obsessed and held hostage the news media since the election of our current president in 2016. People who fit that description are corralled into televised focus groups and town halls, scrutinized and analyzed in print and in film and on podcasts, polled and pandered to by politicians of every persuasion—and what materializes is a portrait of a mostly decent but anxious people who fervently believe their own legends. They’re devoted to this land they believe is their land: a place discovered, settled, tamed, and civilized by ancestors who carved their pale faces into the indifferent mountains, who settled the “wild” West and built the railroad, who won the wars and spiked their banner into the oblivious moon. They’re proud of their folklore, and their pride makes them certain they deserve more than they’ve already taken. It allows some of them to imagine this country as an ethno-theocracy built by and for the white imagination, delivered unto them by a white god and a white messiah.
In this version of events, I have long felt like an interloper, my family and I counted among the invasive, inundating the American homeland, diluting its religious and ethnic culture, swallowing up its jobs and resources—and we’re only one breaker among several, arriving endlessly from so many “shithole countries” to deluge these shores. To celebrate the relentless advance of European-born settlers as evidence of a pioneer spirit while denigrating the progress of brown migrants here as an invasion is a bald hypocrisy, but the colonizer’s view of American history put the supremacy in whiteness long ago. That history—impressed even upon liberal lions like Springsteen—reflexively casts one people as prototypical, authentic, and heroic while dismissing the rest of us as outsiders to the “real” America: that of the focus group, the media narrative, the rock anthem and grammar school pageant. And so, like every other child born of brown immigrants, first-generation or fifth-, my difference keeps me detached and at a distance. My skin makes me an Indian.
Dots, not feathers, the other kids cracked in school, even though in my family’s part of the old country you see mostly turbans and chunis, not bindis. That a single word can conflate the descendants of one continent’s achingly ancient civilizations with those of another, half a planet away, is evidence of colonialism’s continued hold on the American imagination. Desis, of course, have little in common with North American “Indians” beyond the depth of our histories and the diversity among our peoples. But politicians, folk historians, and Americans who proudly recast exploitative expansionism as noble and civilizing have no need for any such distinctions. Our textbooks celebrate Columbus, Daniel Boone, Lewis, Clark, and every manifestly destined land-grabber who followed as trailblazers boldly claiming uncharted lands. In this telling, America is a nation of humble pioneers confronting brutal savages, a nation of industrious homesteaders terrorized by interloping raiders, a nation of—yes—cowboys versus Indians.
I remember these lessons from grammar school, their uninterrogated heroism. They are what we mean when we say Americana, and they bear no responsibility for the genocides committed here. They offer no reparations for slavery. They deliver no correction to the existential threats all our technology and growth and bellicosity have wrought on the planet. They only allow the heirs of colonial power to continue laying claim to this country’s historical successes while placing the blame for its failings elsewhere. And so those heirs become a burden for the rest of us. Their self-importance is our burden. Their oblivion is our burden. Their fear and anger over any challenge to their preferred narrative are our burden. Sooner or later, the question confronting the desi arrived in the U.S. is whether or not we will accept their version of history, whether we will cast our lot with the cowboys or with the Indians.
My family gathers in December 2012 for a birthday party at a cousin’s house—different cousin, different era—bringing together three generations of auto mechanics and physicians, laborers and homemakers, middle managers and entrepreneurs, professors and retirees. Observant Sikhs, casual Sikhs, and those of us who claim no religion at all. In an election year, it’s unsurprising that our conversation turns to politics, but in the familiarity of this space I’m startled to hear some of my elder relatives expressing so much anger about the state of the nation and directing their vitriol at President Obama. Some who barely speak English complain that Black people and Latinos are coming for their jobs. Some complain that other minorities, even those arriving from the desi homelands, are guilty of exploiting the same social safety net from which they themselves benefit. Too many, they claim, are coming here and straining our resources, and they lay all of this at the feet of our first Black president.
I’m less startled, at another gathering four years later, to learn that these same relatives are unified in their support of candidate Trump. They, too, want to see America made great again, in spite of the fact that they themselves, several of them bearded and turbaned, have had their homes in well-off suburbs and exurbs hatefully vandalized or riddled by xenophobic bullets. They support Trump’s every regressive diatribe in spite of the fact that they’ve benefited from affirmative action and unemployment, from social security protections they now believe are too economically burdensome, from the very immigration policies they now support ending. They align themselves with the same bigoted, jingoist inclinations that would have them barred or deported from here. They speak their allegiance in Punjabi. When other members of the family challenge them, not one is willing to admit the hypocrisy or absurdity in all of this. They have another version of history in mind.
It isn’t that any of them are daft enough to mistake themselves for white. It’s that an exclusionary and supremacist mindset doesn’t belong to the white imagination alone. It is possible for even the brown immigrant to begin to believe in his own triumphal legend: that he set out as a noble explorer and made his way, made a home for himself, that he owes nobody anything for his achievement, and that anyone arriving after him poses a threat to his own hold on resources and opportunity. Decent and devoted to this nation as he might be, he, too, can grow fearful and eager to blame anyone else for his misfortunes. He, too, can believe he deserves more than he’s already taken. He doesn’t have to mistake himself for a European in order to wish to be identified with white America rather than Black or brown or native America. He, too, can simply want to be on the side of power. He, too, can mistake the aggressor for the hero and adopt the aggressor’s values as his own. He, too, can betray the marginalized and the subjugated who need him most. This is how the turbaned desi comes to ally himself with white supremacists, how he becomes for someone else the very burden he wishes to escape.
This is the Indian taking the side of the cowboys, and that this is even possible ought to demonstrate how utterly invented race is, how incidental the white in white supremacy. The supremacist imagination is bigger than race. It merely invents race, over and over, as a means of claiming and clinging to power. Racism is not ignorant or oblivious: racism is willful. Where it is practiced, every manner of revisionism and contradiction required to preserve supremacy, every hypocrisy and absurdity, will follow. This is how the self-proclaimed greatest nation on Earth can also clamor to be made great again, how the leader of the free world can imprison children at our borders, how a nation of immigrants can turn away those tired refugees yearning to breathe free.
When my American phupher died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1997, hundreds gathered in mourning at his funeral. Just as many paid their respects after my American bhua’s passing in 2018. If their example in this country is instructive of anything, it’s that there’s an answer to America above and beyond exclusionary thinking. Had they turned their backs on those arriving after them, had they kept for themselves alone whatever progress they made, they may well have thrived here, but they would have done so in isolation, forever afraid that someone would come along to take whatever they were hungrily protecting. They didn’t do that. They chose generosity. They chose solidarity. They showed—and the desi experience writ large shows—that allegiance and community are possible even among those who would be strangers or enemies elsewhere.
So many of us have gotten it wrong in arriving here, whether by birth or by migration. Too many have sought to claim this country for themselves alone. We all want to believe we have earned it, but believing such a thing requires us to lie to ourselves, to create myths that demand we antagonize, wall off, deport, or eradicate anyone who would challenge them. To confront those myths is to surrender some power, but in surrender there can be a greater strength. The history of native America, of Black and Latin America, of broke and brown and immigrant America, is as epic and heroic as any invented legend. Those stories deserve to be a part of our Americana, too. Embracing them—and offering humility, conciliation, and reparation where they reveal injustice—is necessary to tell the larger story of a better nation. That’s the country I’d like to call home, the identity I’d like to claim, the song I’d like sung of myself and everyone else.
Jaswinder Bolina is an American poet and essayist. His latest book of poems, The 44th of July, was published by Omnidawn Publishing in April 2019. His previous collections include Phantom Camera, Carrier Wave, and the digital chapbook The Tallest Building in America. His essays can be found at The Poetry Foundation, McSweeney’s, Himal Southasian, The Writer, and other magazines. He teaches on the faculty of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Miami.
“American, Indian” is used by permission from Of Color (McSweeney’s, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jaswinder Bolina.
Last / Next Article