privilege & perspective: a tale of two cities

Disclaimer: These are my personal experiences — I do not wish to speak on behalf of other young Indian-born immigrants, whose stories may very well be unique unto themselves. Let us learn from each other rather than invalidate our respective feelings.

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There’s a word in Hindi for people like me, Indian-born immigrants settled abroad in America, assumed to be separate from their homeland on all counts of culture and tradition: angarez — outsider. I was ten when I understood the implications that this word carried, the attached resentment and mockery that instantaneously put my defenses up in an attempt to prove I was anything but an outsider. I visited my hometown of Bangalore every couple of years. I watched Bollywood films, listened to Hindi songs, loved the traditional meals my mother prepared — what more could I do to prove to my own people that I was one of them?

Watching the cracked pavements and sidewalks, the concrete bungalows shouldered from the sun by the mango trees in the front yard of my childhood home, the newspaper boy dutifully riding his bicycle past our street, the street carts selling bangles and colorful scarves, the new construction just down the road a mark of a booming tech industry — how could I explain, that at age seven, watching what had been my life fade away from the back window of a cab headed to the airport, hurt me like nothing else ever had? How every spare moment in windy Chicago, and later, suburban Pennsylvania, was spent in search of some deeper connection to my culture, whether it was through films or friendships with other Indian children; how every visit back felt excruciatingly short, with never enough time to experience the feeling of being surrounded by so many people, the sights and smells and sounds I could never find anywhere else. But loving what had been my life versus what had always been my country — they were two different things. 

I was raised in privilege. It became increasingly apparent to me as my connections with my Indian friends deepened, as I learned of their parents’ stories, the hardships they’d endured as immigrants, the life and the people they’d left behind. It became apparent with every visit, being three years older than I was the previous time, six years after that — the wide gap between poverty and luxury, colorism deeming the worth of an individual, the political tensions with neighboring Pakistan, the day-to-day subjection of religious persecution that Indian Muslims faced in less tolerant parts of the country. It was true — I was an angarez. My mind was polluted with idealistic visions of a home I had never gotten the chance to know in its entirety because I hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen firsthand the ramifications of technological advances, hadn’t experienced the gap between classes expand more than ever as my Bangalore grew from a scenic expanse of green to an industrialized city practically overnight, bringing with it an influx of new people.

So instead of raising my hands up in defense, I learned to keep them at my sides. To merely listen. To be spoken to, without a hint of judgment or pent-up responses on the tip of my tongue. I accepted my role as an observer in my own home country, undoubtedly American, undoubtedly Westernized, with every justification to be called out for it.

“Unlearning the myth of American innocence,” an article written by Suzy Hansen for The Guardian, is particularly worth noting here because of the dynamics of misguided sympathy and ignorance it brings in. Hansen’s experiences in Istanbul, Turkey are shaped by acknowledging the role the United States has as a major global influencer, and how this often leads to American (and inherently white) nationalism; the blind faith we put in our government and its policies, with no regard for the repercussions on a global scale; and the superiority complex that leads to sympathetic charity and attempts at being the ‘savior’ in ‘third-world countries.’

Talya Zemach-Bersin reiterates this same point in her article “American Students Abroad Can’t Be Global Citizens.” She writes, “Although the world may be increasingly interconnected, global systems of inequality, power, privilege, and difference are always present.” I was raised in a country where opportunity was handed on a platter (albeit with more reluctance because of my religious and cultural background), and where the hurdles I had to overcome were drastically incomparable to others — I was living a life that was a dream to some, an unreachable reality to many. But it wasn’t my place to feel sorry for those who did not have what I had, nor was it my job to feel the need to help or “fix” things out of guilt. My platform presented the room to listen, acknowledge, and elevate voices without deterring from their essential message and authenticity. These stories needed to be heard, felt, seen — not exploited for self-righteous gain.

After returning from a service trip to Puerto Rico this past May, I am intensely aware of the fact that the way in which I conduct myself and choose to interact with people essentially determines the way I am perceived, as well as the way in which I see myself. Humanitarian aid is my obligation as a citizen of a country that can more than afford to extend a helping hand. It is my duty, both as a privileged American and as a Muslim. It is also a lens into the lives of people I am unfamiliar with, a culture with its own customs and traditions I will always have so much to learn about. It is an opportunity to be a listener — to hear firsthand what people need, rather than assume what they want.

Humanitarian work is as much about aid where it is needed and wanted as it is about perspective — the stories we don’t hear in the mainstream media, the personal accounts deserving of accurate representation for the masses. Let us talk less. Listen a little more. Because the only way we can dismantle the systems of privilege, ignorance, and marginalization is through sincere and attentive acknowledgement of existing disparities, as well as acceptance of individual narratives.

Simra MariamComment