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May 10, 2010
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Last month, my family and I decided to go to out for dinner. As we were exiting, a five year old girl noticed my grandma and pointed, “Look Mommy, those are the red dot people!” She proceeded to walk up to my grandma (who was wearing pants, not a sari, the traditional Indian garb) and say, “May I have one?” Meaning, she wanted one of the traditional bindhis (the red “dots”) that Indian people are normally known to wear. Of course, my grandma doesn’t carry bindhis in her purse so my grandpa began asking all of our family members if we were carrying any (letting the embarrassment continue, because not all Indians carry them either, contrary to popular belief).
I on the other hand was astonished that a “naïve” little girl had noticed this; who would think that stereotypes like this kick in at such an early age? For one, the bindhis aren’t stuck on your forehead like some people assume. Though she has lived here for nearly 35 years, my grandma wears a bindhi because she’s traditional and married while others wear it to social events for style. This doesn’t mean that every Indian woman married in America will wear it, because most people adapt to cultural norms here and it isn’t mandatory. Normally, this event would probably be one to stash in the realms of Mylifeisaverage.com and forget, but it prompted me to think about all the other ways Indians are stereotyped by the unfortunate hilarities of media, society and things India brings upon itself.
Throughout my life, I have been asked the most ridiculous of questions about my culture and heritage. Because I was born and raised here, I did not always know how to answer them. My personal favorite was always, “Do you speak Indian?” Just because people from France may speak French and people from Greece may speak Greek doesn’t mean I speak Indian. There are actually 22 official languages in India, with more than 100 dialects. Ironically, India’s two main languages are English and Hindi, due to British colonization throughout the last two centuries. Sometimes people look at me in disbelief when I try to convince them about the number of languages, and some even think I’m pulling their leg.
Another downfall for Indians is Bollywood. Don’t get me wrong, Bollywood is great, the movies are epic, and it has gained recognition for prominent actors who deserve it, but not all Indians get up and dance with the start of a song at weddings or parties High School Musical style. I mean are there sane people who go out and search for secret, hidden treasure like Nicholas Cage from “National Treasure”? I think not! There are classical forms of Indian music and dance that are less recognized because they aren’t featured in movies but respected forms of art nonetheless. But with the infamous rise of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the merge of Hollywood and Bollywood in the past decade, more and more people assume that all Indians are “Jai Ho-ing” their way through functions.
Another amusing thing is the fact that Native Americans and Indians are taken as people from the same ethnicity. Once, someone came up to my aunt and asked if she was a “feather” Indian or “dot” Indian; this was moronic, not to mention incredibly rude! I get that Christopher Columbus came to what he assumed was India back in the 15th century and began calling the people he encountered Indians, but both ethnicities deserve distinct respect in today’s world.
Lastly, being Indian (or Asian, for that matter) does not make someone a super genius. In class the other day, a friend asked me why Indians study so much. I didn’t know what to say other than- I don’t know, maybe they want to get good grades just like you. I also reluctantly laughed and expressed the fact that not all Indians study a lot, and it really depends on the person. I was tempted to say why do Chinese people study so much? But of course that would just be adding more fuel to the stereotypical questions that started this conversation in the first place, and I didn’t want to stoop to that level.
Making assumptions about people’s cultures and where they come from is just something else that makes us inherently human, and will probably continue for a very long time. But I think we can all afford to be more aware of the world around us and respectful as we’re trying to understand new and unusual things. As for me, I just hope I can eat macaroni and cheese in a restaurant without being asked why I’m not eating naan and curry!

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