Over the past week, the following video from YouTube’s Comedy Week (Co-directed by David Neptune and Ken Tanaka) made the rounds on the social networks. I thought it was brilliant as the beginning dialogue perfectly captures a conversation that I, and apparently many other Asians, have on the regular.
As Sikhs, this dialogue happens all the time without much notice. After all, as interactions with strangers go, these are not so bad. But what’s troubling about the question of “Where are you really from” is the assumption that we really can’t be Americans and that an American must look a certain way. Perpetuating the idea that we are “the other.”
Now the video portrays the male as a complete buffoon, but in reality, I don’t think it’s that easy. Let’s take a minute to think about how we answer this question of “where we are from.” For years, I’ve run a workshop called “Who Am I?” at camps and retreats for both children and adults. It consists of a role-playing exercise where I play the ignorant passerby asking the kids about who they are and what Sikhi is all about. The goal of this workshop is to come up with our own “elevator pitch” – concise yet thoughtful answers to some of the most common questions we’re asked. It never fails when I ask the question where are you from, the majority answers “India.” Some of the adults I probed further have lived in the US for 25 years and have no connection to India. Others were actually born in the UK, but still answer “India.” And when asking a group of 10-12 year olds, they in unison replied “India” and when I followed up with “How many of you have ever been to India?” no hands went up. I’m not sure if it’s something innate in us that when a non-Punjabi asks us a question, we feel compelled to give the answer they want to hear rather than well…the truth.
So as I recommend in the workshop, when someone asks you where you are from, tell them where you live or where you grew up. If they probe further asking about where your family originates from…make sure you kindly ask them the same question afterwards. As the video excellently portrays, unless you are native american, no on is really from here.
Some may think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, what’s the big deal to tell them what they want to hear, avoid the awkward interaction, and just move on. But what’s become abundantly clear to me is Sikhs are viewed as “the other” in this country. And our civil rights organizations and celebrities like Gurpreet Singh Sarin can only do so much to change that image. It takes each of us – one by one, face-to-face – to turn these interactions in to teachable moments.
Our appearance will always make us stand out, and proudly it should. But that shouldn’t make us any less American. We as Sikhs have contributed so much to this country for over 100 years…in all aspects of society…as laborers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, scientists, taxi drivers, truckers, entrepreneurs, educators, social workers, volunteers, and the list goes on and on. We’ve contributed greatly to the fabric of America and are part of what makes this country great. We’ve earned the right to be acknowledged as Americans…let’s not let anyone take that away from us.