Monday, April 21, 2008

Cultural Xenophobia: The New Racism

In my travels in North America, quite often I'd enter into conversation with a fellow traveller, especially if the journey afforded us the luxury of time and neither of us had much else to do. I met all kinds of men and women from different walks of American life - some young, some old, of different ethnic origins, with varying socio-economic backgrounds, residing in various parts of North America, and with different political inclinations. There were just three things common in the people I met, the first two being the more obvious ones - the fact that they were on a journey with me, and the fact that they were Americans. The third common element is what I am about to describe in this post.

At some point in the conversation, my travel companion's attention would turn to me and there would be carefully worded casual expressions of curiosity and interest in where I was headed, who I was, what I did for a living, etc. Quite often people assumed that the destination city of that journey was where I lived and when the conversations were shorter I would let them stay with that impression. When I did finally reveal that I was from Mumbai, I'd get a range of responses. Some did not know where exactly that was, and some others thought I was a Pakistani and on being corrected couldn't stop the "yeah whatever" response, though few were rude enough to be verbal. Even for those who did know their South Asian geography, the assumption would be that I was from there originally but had settled somewhere in the US more recently and was basically an American (invariably, the next question was "Oh and when did you move here?") I would then point out that Mumbai was home for me even now - I lived and worked there, had a family there, and that's where I would be returning to, after completing my business visit to America. This was when I would notice the subtle but distinctly palpable shift in my companion's expression and tone. Usually it was one of surprise - as in "Are you really an Indian from India?" This was the moment of truth. An Indian from India (not an Indian-American) who spoke your language fluently (without a heavy accent like the guy in the Simpsons), who grew up reading Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett and listening to CCR and Bob Dylan, who enjoyed Hollywood movies, loved modern Jazz and who, for all intents and purposes, sounded like a free-spirited, egalitarian and secular individual with a nuclear family (including a spouse with a career), familiar with all the aspects of modern life in the Western world.

How could this be? Surely, I was educated in the US? or Canada? or the UK? or perhaps lived in an English-speaking western country over a period of time in my formative years? I would watch with amusement the increasingly bewildered expressions of amazement when all my responses were in the negative. What they did not ask about, though I was keen on revealing, was that I had also grown up reading Dostoyevsky, Hesse and Sartre, listening to Jethro Tull and old Hindi film songs, loved Mozart and Rachmaninoff and had an interest in Greek philosophy. In other words, they did not see or were not interested in the part of me that was shaped by other cultures; did not notice that I had a more global, rather than an American outlook. While some were intrigued and curious to know how I had come to resemble what to their minds appeared like an American clone, others became suspicious and closed up. The more open-minded ones would immediately want to know more about India, and I would proceed to give them an overview of Indian history, geography, culture, current affairs, etc. But what they really wanted to know was how come a widget like me got manufactured in that factory to American specifications and whether my other compatriots were also like this.

As the conversation progressed, my companion's disposition towards me would vary from a benignly patronising concern ("So - are we treating you well here?") to mild wariness, to, at times (though rare) open suspicion (was I one of those fundamentalists?) Common theme: alienation - I was not one of "us". It would not matter to them where I was from originally, as long as I was one of "us" now. In other words, foreigners are welcome as long as they learn to become Americans. I found it strange that while they love it when you come from outside and adopt their culture, they would not do the same when they travel to your part of the world. Of course, there are exceptions to this (I know a few myself) and I'm sure that if I were to meet more people, I'd find more Americans who were different. But for most of them, 'American' is the de-facto standard culture that everyone must adopt as their core identity, to be considered one of "us" and therefore, an equal. Anything else is either not sophisticated or cool enough (euphemisms for backward or obsolete) or, even if not that, altogether too complex and in any case needing too much effort to get into and understand, leave alone appreciate or respect. Sadly, such people don't realise that such an attitude can only invite mockery (e.g., Borat), or worse still, hostility (needs no examples).

I came away from these chance encouters with a sense of disappointment - that such a great people, forged by the amalgamation of several hundreds (if not thousands) of diverse cultures, have, in more recent times, developed a non-inclusive attitude on the grounds of, for want of a better word, nationality (though its not really about the passport you hold). On the positive side, I must mention that I never encountered even a single instance of discrimination on the basis of my skin colour (paradoxically, I have experienced more racial discrimination here in India from other Indians, when visiting a restaurant, say, accompanied by colleagues or friends from overseas). So clearly, its not about skin colour. Its about being American (or not) and being assimilated (or not) into the mainstream American culture - be it East Coast or West Coast or Mid-west or wherever (even Canadian!) Being a non-American set me apart in America, to Americans. I was prepared for some racial discrimination, but this I had not expected.

On one of my long journeys back home, I spent some time thinking about cultural diversity and the emerging global order. In my job as a globalization consultant, this also formed part of my professional sphere of interest. I concluded then that 'tolerance' was just the beginning, and that there's so much more that all of us need to learn. Most of the world seems to be struggling with just the idea of tolerance - so much so that we appreciate tolerance when we see it. Sadly, we need to go way beyond that to make this a planet with less conflict - we have to evolve beyond 'tolerating' to 'respecting' to 'embracing' and finally, 'celebrating' diversity. It takes a lot of effort but its a journey worth every bit of the effort we put into it. And perhaps the only journey that could lead us away from the path of self-destruction through hatred and intolerance.