I was born in West Virginia and grew up in the Ohio Valley. Not many Indians can claim that. (And if you know another Indian from West Virginia, chances are I know her too.)
By Kindergarten, I got used to being the only non-white kid in my grade. On more than one occasion, I had to tell my peers that I didn’t live in a teepee and had never hunted a buffalo. I often needed to explain that I wasn’t Chinese, black, or Mexican. And there were times when I had to argue that a good scrub in the tub would not make my skin any lighter. (I became pretty good at all these tasks by my 7th birthday.)
Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians, it was easy to identify as Indian because I felt like was constantly confronted by the fact that I was different. I was confronted by the fact that I was brown.
I only found out how American I am when I started living, studying, and working in India as a college student and again as young adult. I craved French fries and bacon whenever I was served sambar and rice. I listened to Garth Brooks’ hit song “Friends in Low Places” on repeat whenever I was bored or lonely. And during the three different occasions that I lived in Madurai prior to this AIF fellowship, I managed to lock myself out of various apartments, fall out of a slowly moving bus, and even confuse the Tamil words for mosquito and fart – kosu and kusu respectively – in public settings.
It became apparent pretty quickly that I wasn’t as Indian (or, more specifically, as Tamil) as I thought I was.
I’ve used my Americanness as a bit of a crutch in India. If my Tamil communication skills weren’t perfect, it was because I wasn’t born in India and rarely spoke the language growing up. If I chose to wear socks in someone’s house (rather than going barefoot), it was because my sensitive American feet weren’t used to mosquitoes biting them. And if I chose to go out and buy an overpriced pizza (which often tasted a little too ketchupy) rather than eating in, it was because I missed the fatty, preservative-filled food that many Americans have grown up on.
But after coming on this fellowship, I’ve noticed some changes. I feel like I’m slowly becoming more local. I’m becoming a pakkaa Tamilkaran. In order to confirm this suspicion, I tried making a list of my “quintessentially South Indian” skills, behaviors, and attributes. The list may not necessarily prove that I am more Tamil than other expats, but it certainly doesn’t hurt…
1. I put ghee in everything. Making some dhal? I’ll add some ghee. Making a stir-fry? I’ll add more ghee. Plain white rice? It could use some ghee. Eating a fruit salad? Well… maybe there is a point that even I won’t cross.
2. I’m pushy in lines. Lines (or the lack thereof) in this part of the world are no joke. They are war. When someone tries to weasel his or her way in front of me, my shoulders broaden and my elbows flare at ninety-degree angles. I don’t care if you are old or young, short or tall, skinny or fat. My position in this “line” will not be breached.
3. I dance Karagattam. That’s right. I’ve studied and performed one of Tamil Nadu’s most famous folk dances since 2003. The key feature of this dance is that the performer is required to balance a brass pot on his or her head throughout the routine. Then he or she dances to Kollywood music and performs circus-like stunts. If that’s not a display of Tamilness, then I don’t know what is.
4. If I see a piece of hair in my food, I take it out and keep eating. Being high maintenance won’t get you far in these parts.
5. I ask people over the age of 25 when they will get married. This has actually backfired on me, an unmarried 29-year-old man.
6. I can’t drink cold water. Before living in India I enjoyed ice-cold beverages. And you’d think that the intense heat of Madurai would make me crave a chilly glass of H20 even more. But, being the true Tamilian that I am, my throat constricts and I start to cough if I ever drink anything too cold.
7. I will not mix foods that were never meant to be mixed. I say this because my co-fellow, Brian, has a tendency to mix rasam and sambar together. There is no biological reason why he cannot do this. In fact, Sambar and Rasam have a few similarities (i.e. a fair amount of tamarind and garlic)… which would lead many to believe that they are perfectly mixable. But whenever I see my friend dump these two soupy items together on the same lump of rice (often with a dollop of yogurt), I react like he had just mixed ammonia and bleach. It’s culturally toxic.
Looking at this list, I can’t help but pat myself on the back a little. But at the same time it makes me question if there even is such a thing as the “quintessential Tamil man.” The man who sells me masala vadai at the local tea stall hardly resembles the lawyers with whom I work at People’s Watch. My lawyer coworkers are, in many ways, vastly different from the orderlies at the hospital near to our office. And there is a good chance that any one of these Tamil men would drink ice-cold water, refrain from pushing in lines, or even mix rasam, sambar, and yogurt on occasion. (However, I’m not convinced that any of them would reject an extra serving of ghee.)
So I may not be able to claim “average Tamil guy” status. But seeing that that status is, in many ways, undefinable, I’ll bask in the glory of finally fitting in.