‘But I Am From Brooklyn’

A few days ago, I reported–on Facebook, where else–a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:

Her: Papa, where’s India?
Me: It’s a country in Asia, sweetie, on the other side of the world.
Her: We can drive there?
Me: No, we have to fly. I was born there, you know. I’m from India.
Her: But I’m from Brooklyn.

Predictably, this evoked amused and approving reactions from my friends: my daughter’s precocity of expression stood revealed. (The slight sass in her response had something to do with it, I’m sure.) My daughter’s “but,” expressed with some incredulity, is the kicker. If I am ‘from India,’ then shouldn’t she be ‘from’ there too? But she isn’t. At least one part of the supposed parental transmission of identity from me to her that was supposed to take place hasn’t. She is brown, she looks like me, we are of the same nationality as far as travel documents go, but she is not ‘from’ where I am ‘from.’  She was born in Brooklyn, she lives here; she returns to Brooklyn when she travels; she is ‘from’ here.

This conversation reminded me of one I had with my brother regarding a pair of friends of his, the children of a philosophy professor who, after working at Michigan State University for several years, had returned to India to take up an academic position in New Delhi. One day, during dinner, my brother referred to them as ‘American.’ This caused me some bewilderment; the boys were clearly ‘Indian,’ for they looked like us. They did, however, speak English with an American accent, but that did not seem to change the fact that their names sounded very Indian, they lived in India, and their parents were Indian. Why were they American? My brother said it was because they had American passports; they were American citizens. But, I persisted, that just meant they used American passports to travel. They were still Indian, surely. My brother, with some brusqueness, terminated the conversation with a quick “No, they are American; that is their nationality.”

We were offering contesting visions of an aspect of personal identity. My brother took identity to be a matter of citizenship, and the passport you carried; I took it to be derived, through some organic, biological process, from one’s parents. You had an Indian name, you had Indian parents, you had Indian features; you were Indian.  My brother had noticed that his friends, though ‘Indian’ in those respects, spoke English differently; they spoke nostalgically of their lives in Michigan; they drank cold milk straight out of a bottle. (No one did that in India; you drank your milk heated over.)

My daughter will be seen as Indian by some, and American by yet others. She might come to see her identity as a curious amalgamation of the two; her name will remind her, often, that her father came ‘from’ elsewhere. Her negotiations between these two aspects of her identity might be tortuous or not. No matter; I hope to be able to observe, and if at possible, inform them as best as I can.

The Cruelest Cut Of All: Punjabis Are Not White

In 1921, a certain John Mohammed Ali became a naturalized citizen of the US. In 1925, this grant of citizenship was contested (United States v. Ali 7 F.2d 728 (1925) by Martin J. Kilsdonk, a United States naturalization examiner. His affidavit:

[A]lleges in substance that said defendant was born in Karpurthala, in the province of Punjab, India, on January 10, 1875, arrived in the United States on June 2, 1900, and has resided in the state of Michigan, in this district, since April 1, 1911; that when the said certificate was issued to him he was not a free white person nor a person of African nativity or descent; that such certificate was illegally procured, within the meaning of section 15 of the Naturalization Act, as decided by the United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 S. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616, on February 19, 1923; and that, therefore, good and sufficient grounds exist for the cancellation of said certificate.

In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind the Supreme Court had ruled that Thind, an Indian asking for naturalization on the grounds he was a Caucasian, and therefore eligible, was instead ineligible on the grounds he was not ‘white.’ The Supreme Court rejected the ‘scientific’ classifications of ‘race’ that ran together ‘White’ and ‘Caucasian’ and instead relied on the ‘common knowledge’ that Asian Indians, ‘Hindoos’, were not ‘Whites.’

Ali, for his part, had attempted to circumvent the impact of this ruling by claiming that he was of Arabian descent and therefore not Indian, not-not-White:

[H]e is not a “Hindu” of full Indian blood, but is an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries have also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with “the native stock of India,” and have “kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.”

The court rejected this line of reasoning:

I am unable to follow the argument thus sought to be made. No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia, where they had been called Arabians, renders the defendant a white person. His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark, like that of the other members of his race.

The court ruled for the plaintiff, and stripped Ali of his citizenship, concluding:

He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, supra, not to be a white person. Clearly, all of the conclusions of the Supreme Court in that case, as well as the reasons on which they are based, are equally applicable to this defendant.

The court also noted:

He admits that his ancestry, like that of other races residing in India, originally sprang from Caspian Mediterranean stock. It would seem that the most that could be claimed by him, by reason of Arabian ancestry, would be membership in the Caucasian race.

And so we have it folks, the official holding: Punjabis (whether Hindu or Arabian) are not White. We just can’t seem to catch a break.

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.’

Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

Amartya Sen introduces us to his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny with the following rather well-known little story:

Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at my home address on the immigration form, he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection, I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

The petty harassment and humiliation at this story’s core–caused by the failure of imagination on the the immigration officer’s part–is here artfully pressed into service as prologue for a philosophical discussion of the problem of identity; Sen does not dwell on it any longer.

Sen’s story does however remind us that passports, markers of citizenship, serve as guarantors of convenience and bulwarks against all kinds of threats, including the psychic ones that Sen was subjected to above. When I became an American citizen in December 2000, and began traveling with an American passport (my first journey with it was to New Zealand in March 2001), I suddenly became aware of how significantly the anxiety I associated with overseas travel had been attenuated: my pre-travel preparations became shorter; I did not have to deal with queues at consulates and embassies; I did not have to decipher bureaucratic documents to figure out visa requirements; I did not have to subject myself to inane questioning from immigration officers; and so on.

The world suddenly appeared a much more tractable space. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell, had changed: I professed the same political and religious beliefs; my physical composition–give or take a few pounds–was the same; but I was now a much more desirable person, no longer a possible societal threat, a possible burden on the exchequer of those nations who had sought extensive bank guarantees before granting me even a tourist visa.

Shortly after I became an American citizen, a friend of mine caustically suggested I had been lazy and insufficiently “loyal” to my former nation. I was stung at first, but then forgave him. He did, after all, travel with a European Union passport.

Note: Ironically, since obtaining US citizenship, the one country I did have to get a visa for was my country of former citizenship, India. My trials and travails with the processes that entailed have been described before on this blog.









Losing and Gaining Citizenships

I became an American citizen more than fourteen years ago. Ironically, my decision to do so was prompted by my leaving the US–for what was supposed to be a two-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. I was then a permanent resident of the US, equipped with the famed ‘green card.’ Subject to certain restrictions, I could travel in and out of the US but not wanting to deal with the INS hassling me during my extended stay overseas, I decided to apply for naturalization.

In taking on American citizenship, I lost my Indian one. From then on, I would need a visa to travel to India. My feelings about this state of affairs, as can be imagined, were mixed. (As a post from last year indicates, I’ve paid a certain price for this decision.) On one hand, I had not lived in India for over thirteen years and seemed unlikely to return to take up residence any time soon, if ever. My academic career often required me to travel–for conferences, for instance–and possessing a passport that meant fewer trips to consular offices was always going to be a blessing. More to the point, I had spent those same thirteen years in the US and was enmeshed in its life and politics (and tax regimes). On the other, losing my Indian citizenship felt like a significant distancing from a shared past and culture and history, from family and home. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a betrayal of any kind–though some unkind friends of mine did urge this interpretation on me. I did however feel I had self-consciously turned my back on an older me.

But at the time, I don’t think I gave the loss much thought at all. I had been thirteen years gone from India; notions of ‘home’ had grown more confused in my mind. I did not find myself in the grip of an existential question of any sort, but rather, considered myself to be dealing with a far more mundane concern: which travel document would work better for me? Because I had become stranded in a voluntary exile of sorts, because my identity had become a more confused entity, questions of citizenship did not feel as infected with nationalist or nativist urgency as they might have.

As I was sworn in on that cold December morning in 2000, I realized it was the first time I had deliberately chosen the citizenship of a nation. My Indian one had come to me by birth; my passport had been mine to ask for; a set of allegiances lay waiting for me to take on. Here, I had inserted myself into the process of gaining a nationality; previously, I had been born into the role. My older passport had been the culmination of a long series of experiences that had reinforced my nationality; my newer one was the first indication of my newer one, the first contributor to the building of a new edifice of identity.