Relativity and the Immigrant

As a postscript to an essay explicating the theory of special relativity–written at the request of the The Times (London), Albert Einstein wrote:

Here is yet another application of the principle of relativity…today I am described in Germany as a “German savant” and in England as a “Swiss Jew.” Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a “Swiss Jew” for the Germans and a “German savant” for the English. [originally published November 28, 1919; reproduced in Ideas and Opinions, Souvenir Press, London, 1973.]

A year or so ago, after returning from an academic trip to the University of Luxembourg, I wrote a blog post on some thoughts sparked by my trip. It began with me quoting a short note I had posted on my Facebook wall:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

When I travel in India, I am frequently taken to task for–among other things–American foreign policy; one good gentleman told me, back in 1998, after the US had announced sanctions on India for its nuclear tests: “You go tell Bill Clinton to go to hell!” (I am also subjected to the usual rants about the decadence of American culture and morals.) At that moment, I am ‘American’. And of course, in the US, I’m often treated as an expert on all things Indian, and expected to listen patiently to ample hectoring critique of that nation’s many faults.  Then, I’m ‘Indian.’

This is straightforward. The converse treatment–of sorts–is far more interesting. When my American political activist friends seek to enlist my support for a favored political cause, my national origin is of little interest; at those moments, I’m straightforwardly an American liberal.  When my Indian friends and family seek similar subscriptions, my citizenship and residence is of little interest to them; then, I’m Indian all over again.

I’ve done little for either of these two demographics to brag about so I cannot provide an exact analogy to the examples Einstein provides. Winning a Nobel Prize or two might help; then perhaps both nations could proudly claim me as their own. And no doubt, were I to become an axe-murderer, I would be rapidly disowned by by both nations; America would cluck over my unredeemed origin and India would point to my corruption by the US–those damn decadent morals all over again. Sports fanhood is another interesting domain: I’m often drafted in as an American fan during the time of soccer’s World Cup, and of course, when it comes to cricket, I’m treated as Indian.

My identity is a matter of much perplexity and fascination to me; it remains an ongoing of project of both discovery and invention. It is made as interestingly complicated as it is by these sorts of external understandings of it (and I’m sure, by my bilinguality); I fulfill roles and serve as target or ‘person of interest’ for a wide variety of interests, each driven by its own ends. My attributes receive selective attention depending on these interests and ends; then, one is highlighted at the expense of others and made central, essential, distinctive.

Note: I had always thought of Einstein under several different headings: ‘American academic’, ‘German physicist’, and ‘Jewish’. When I first read this justifiably famous quote of Einstein’s I was struck by how despite the prominence of Bern and Zurich in his biography, I had never regarded him a ‘Swiss Jew.’

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