So what if I am an Indian girl who burns rice?

This morning I read the script for a feature a good friend of mine wants to shoot in the (near!) future. One scene in particular gave me pause: the protagonist – who happens to be Indian – is ogled by an Indian delivery boy. To add insult to injury the delivery boy then chastises her for speaking to him in English instead of Hindi, claiming it is a betrayal to her “people.” The scene is very well written in my opinion, simply because it made me react strongly – with outrage.

I am an American of Indian descent, and I am proud of my heritage. I am proud of India’s history, its culture, and its people, and I am not ashamed to correct people when they incorrectly identify me as anything other than what I am. And so, like the protagonist in the script, I cannot help feeling angry when someone has the audacity to accuse me of “betraying my people” so to speak. To me it implies that I owe something, that I have an obligation to Indians everywhere to do…something.

What is that something? I have no idea. Am I supposed to wear a sign that announces my lineage? Am I supposed to protest the fact that there is often no “Indian Subcontinent” option on ethnicity surveys? Am I supposed to bat my eyelashes and swoon every time a “Hindu brother” stares at me like a wolf in a meadow of baby sheep? And more importantly – does NOT doing any of these things somehow make me less of an Indian? I think not. What follows are my reactions (in no particular order) to many complete strangers’ accusations – I wish that I would have replied like this in person, but allow me to set the record straight now, if only for myself to appreciate.

-I do not believe I need to go to temple every week – or at all – to call myself an Indian.
-I do not think being an Indian means I should always dress with chastity and reservation and subsequently always act chaste and reserved.
-I do not feel like less of an Indian because I can’t eat spicy foods.
-I do not feel like a failure because I consistently burn rice.
-I do not think it is appropriate for anyone – specifically men – to approach me when I’m holding my boyfriend’s hand and leeringly state that I will “come to my senses soon”; aside from it being a blatantly racist remark (my boyfriend happens to be white), who are you to tell me who I should and should not choose to spend my time with?
-Honking your horn at me as I cross the street is not a great way to get my attention. Neither is making a crude comment as I walk by. (This reply is directed at but not limited to Indian men)
-I love beef. It tastes delicious.
-Just because I am brown and you are brown does not mean I am your “daughter,” and I would really appreciate it if you would refrain from a) calling me your daughter and b) touching my cheek as you do so. There are two people who are allowed to do both of those things: my mom and dad. Because they made me. And I have no clue who you are.
-Did you know that there are over 500 dialects in India? Did you also know that each one may as well be its own language? Again, just because I’m brown and Indian, please do not automatically assume that I speak whatever language you speak…and then don’t get huffy when I reply in English.

I write this now because as an actress I am constantly shapeshifting: I force my being through sieves, and whatever pieces of myself remain become the foundation for a new being soon to be created. But it only works if I know who I am entirely; if I know me, then I also know which parts of me live in this new being as well. Sometimes it’s hard to keep me entirely in focus – like during encounters with these strangers – because after “knowing” me for a few seconds, they feel entitled to question the me I have lived with my whole life.

I am – you are – we are all individuals. What I am is in my blood, my bones, my heart. And that is something that cannot and will not change.

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