I am taking a kayaking class. The instructor is getting to know his students. We are each to say our names and announce where we are from. When it’s my turn, I say "Ajit Sanzgiri. I am from India."
The instructor looks pained.
I help him out. "I live in California."
He looks relieved.
8:30 am on 85 North just after the 280 interchange. Cars are bumper to bumper as far as the eye can reach. (Okay, we are talking 1999 now.) I realize I have forgotten to change the cassette tape and Kishore Kumar is going to start singing "Mere Naina Sawan Bhado.." for the bazillionth time any minute now. As I reach into the backseat for the new Yesu Das tape, my foot slips off the brake and … ohh, the memory is too painful even after all these years …the car lurches forward and I rear end the pickup truck in front of me.
Okay, to cut a long and incredibly painful - the car was less than a year old at the time, y’understand - story short, I find myself at a body shop within the hour looking to get much of the front end fixed up. And I run into a car mechanic of desi appearance and an unmistakable accent from the banks of the Chenab. He fills out the paperwork and after saying the magic words "doan tory. No praw-blum", he pops the question.
"Where you come from?"
I have been asked this question many times in this country and the safest answer is either ‘Cupertino’ or ‘California’ depending on how many miles I am from home and the company I am in. By ‘safest’ I mean, least likely to cause embarrassment all round. Most often, the question requires no more descriptive answer than to the all-purpose "How’s it going?" - a question I took in the early days of my life on an American university campus to express a surprising level of curiosity about my well-being and answered at some length, only to discover the listener had started shifting uneasily. Later, I learned that "Pretty good" and a smile was an adequate response.
So I play it cool and say "Cupertino" and smile.
He is not having any of this. "No, where do you come from orijnally?" He demands.
"India" I say, smiling brightly, "I am from India".
He shakes his head. "Array bhai, I know already you are from Indya. But Indya where?"
"Bombay. I was born and raised in Bombay."
His smile threatens to split his face in half. For a minute, the crazy thought crosses my mind that he is about to tell me the body job is on the house. But not quite. He just wants to tell me he is from Fiji, and that my name led him to think I may be from Punjab (yeah, I get that a lot, despite my name). He is fresh off the boat and hungry for conversation with a desi dude.
"Nice car" he says in parting, "Indians here drive nice cars."
The Internet Engineering Task Force’s 59th meet in Seoul, South Korea. I have arrived a day early. On Sunday there is registration and a talk on network security by a well-known internet personality. I have the morning to myself and on an impulse, decide to check out sightseeing tours. It turns out they have a city tour that will bring me back just in time for registration.
In the tour party there is an elderly couple - clearly Russian from their accents and two young Asian women besides yours truly. Our guide is a young Korean girl whose appearance and manner have more than a touch of country. It turns out later that she has moved to Seoul only recently from the countryside.
During the introduction, she wants to know where I am from. "I am from India. But I live in the US" I say, covering my bases.
The giggly Asian girl is a Japanese student studying computer animation in Seoul and her friend is Korean.
"Ah, Manga", I say, trying to show off my knowledge of Japanese commercial art. She turns away and hides a smile politely behind her hand.
The Russian man announces he is from Chicago. Our guide stares at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Mr. Chicagovich stares back defiantly. As the tour proceeds, a palace here, a museum there, the Russians grow increasingly displeased and at one point decide to leave the party. They have been misled, the wife says, about the tour, and, as their time in Seoul is limited, would much prefer to do the sightseeing by themselves. The guide assures them that if they stop over at the tour office, they can get a full refund.
Their departure puts everyone in a good mood. After the last museum exhibit has been seen and all the shopping’s done and the open air market’s been checked out our van is on its way back to the hotel.
"You from Indeeya, yes?" the guide says.
"Yep, that’s me." I agree.
"What you do in Korea?" she asks.
"Internet conference" I begin to explain. "Meeting. About the internet. You know about the internet?"
But of course she does. South Korea is the world’s most networked country in terms of per capita internet connections.
"Oh internet. Many Indians in internet. I know" she says delighted.
Our reputations precede us, sadly. How I wish we could trade reputations with Italian or French men.
A summery Sunday morning by the sea. I am eating lunch with some friends. One of those present is a well-known writer. She was born in Pakistan although I am not sure - and it would be indelicate to ask - if this was pre or post 1947.
At some point in the conversation, she turns to me and asks if I think of her as an Indian. I am a bit taken aback. Does she mean ‘Indian’ as opposed to ‘American’? Or ‘Indian’ as opposed to ‘Pakistani’? Should I say ‘yes’ and risk being labeled presumptuous or say ‘no’ and be thought stand-offish?
I hedge my bets and say I have no preconceived notions about her identity and will accept her choice of what she would like to be called.
I feel like a fake the rest of the meal.
Ajit Sanzgiri lives near San Francisco. Although he works at a boring tech job every day, at heart he writes Urdu poetry and wishes he were known as "Ajit 'Bindaas' SanFransisuckvi". It even sounds like a poet, he insists, at least in Sanskrit and Hindi.
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