This was article was submitted by Roudri Bandyopadhyay.
My first real-life exposure to the West happened when I moved to the U.S. in 2018 for my higher studies. Prior to that, I only knew the U.S. as Hollywood portrayed it through a glossy lens—tall buildings, shiny roads, decorated apartments and so on. Most movies that I often came across, thanks to the English movie channels, starred all white casts with token diversity characters such as the Asian computer expert, the Black receptionist or the Indian math teacher. It was after moving to the U.S., living here in flesh and bones, and interacting with the culture, that I realized the deep-rooted problem in all these portrayals. I could no longer ignore the mandatory yellow filter for India and Mexico, the string-based instrument used for background music for all Eastern countries, the heavy and quite unrealistic Indian accents, and exoticization of Indian culture and religion.
Upon arriving at Norfolk, VA, I noticed that amongst the various posters displayed at the walls of the airport, there was one with Indian representation—young girls, dressed in lehenga with red and orange hues, standing in front of what looked like a desert, and smiling heartily at the camera. Though the picture was beautifully clicked, I later realized multiple nuances wrong with that image. The American kids in other posters were dressed in crisp new clothes and were either headed to school or having fun with friends and family. These Indian girls, dressed in worn-out lehengas, while smiling, were holding earthen pots that rested on their waist—no family around and definitely not headed to school.
That poster was not the only place where I saw India being represented in a stereotypical light. But what bothered me the most was that each of these representations, if one is to call it that, India was used as a mere exotic factor that helped reduce the overall mundanity. Elements quite significant to my culture and religion are used over and over again to expand business or for aesthetics, while the news channels flood with the news of hate crime against Asian Americans and Indian Americans, and the comment sections flood with hate comments.
While reports have stated that in 2020, Indian and Asian representation saw a massive increase in Hollywood, other reports also indicate that in 2020, there was a 150% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans amidst the global pandemic. Vandalizing Hindu temples, harassing Indian or Indian-looking people, Islamophobia, families dragged to the police for feeding Indian food to their kids are in the news almost daily.
In 2020, I received a frantic call from my friend living in Texas who said that he received mail from an unknown sender, who accused him of stealing jobs and threatened him to leave the region.
Then in early 2021, the shooting of Asian women made news headlines.
Repeatedly, it’s been made clear that this land does not welcome the brown-skinned, exotic immigrants, but their culture is assumed open for stealing.
There are numerous yoga centers spread across the U.S. Quite ironically, most of these places are run by people who cannot even pronounce the word yoga or any of the Asana names. Bhujangasana has become the Cobra pose for them, and Padmasana has become the lotus position. Each of these names have a history and fact attached to it. As an Indian person, born and raised in India, I always knew Yoga is a form of exercise practiced to keep the mind and body healthy. In the U.S., I witnessed yoga treated as a mystical cure.
While directly translating asana names is still acceptable, the over-exoticization and misuse of the word Namaste pokes me like a thorn.
My ears might bleed the next time I hear someone say, “Na-Mas-Taye.”
It’s Namaste, pronounced “Nuh-Muh-S-Te.” The word “Namaste” comes from Sanskrit and is a combination of two words: Namah, meaning salutation, and Te, which is a second-person dative pronoun. The word means, “Salutation to you.” Many South Asians, when they meet each other, fold their palms in Anjali Mudra and greet each other, “Namaste.” Hello.
Namaste does not mean anything that the lady said it means in an exotic Yoga class. It does not mean saluting the inner godliness in you, nor does it mean being one with the divinity, and it definitely doesn’t mean the divinity in you bowing to the divinity in someone else. It’s a simple, respectful hello.
Namaste is how I greet my people.
* * *
I was once stopped by the U.S. immigration at New York when I was coming back from India after spending two months of summer holidays in 2019. After examining my passport and I-20, I was asked the same questions as always: Where am I coming from? Where am I heading and why? This lady, the security officer, asked me about the contents of my suitcase. She stressed each word carefully, as if she were speaking to a toddler. She reminded me of a lady I knew in Norfolk who kept praising my English each time we spoke.
“Your English is very good for a person whose second language is English,” she said every time as if it were meant to be words of praise.
I didn’t say anything for the first few times, but then I had to remind her that India was colonized by the British for 250 years. It’s not surprising that I learned my colonizer’s tongue. Also, English is, in fact, my third language. I told the security officer everything she wanted to know, then she informed me that my bag requires checking. “We have to check for seeds and pickles,” she said. She took me to another separate room.
This room had four security officers right in the middle of the room with a huge elliptical table around them. There was an automatic belt attached to this table, similar to a conveyor belt, and suitcases came in every five minutes. The person who owned the suitcase was summoned and, in their presence, the entire suitcase was checked. My immigration officer asked me to take a seat in the corner and wait for my turn. I was coming back from home, and my suitcase was stuffed with clothes and spices. I could buy the spices from the Indian store, but they are unnecessarily expensive and never enough in quantity. I don’t want to pay $10 for a small packet of cardamom.
I noticed my friend, who was traveling with me, standing outside the room and anxiously looking in. For some reason, only I was the suspect. After waiting for nearly 15 minutes, I finally saw my suitcase come in. I noticed the security officer trying to read my name. He called out, “Roo-dree?” I walked up to him. Then he started autopsying my entire bag. It took me three days to properly arrange this 23kg (50lbs) suitcase, and all my hard work went down the drain in five minutes. He pulled out a box of bangles and two books from my suitcase.
“Is this yours?” he asked.
I stared at him for a minute and said in a monotone, “Yes.”
“What’s in this?”
I heard him mutter, “So many bangles,” as he then picked one of the two books and read the name out loud, “The Twentieth Wife?”
“Yes. It’s a book about a Mughal empress who once ruled India.”
“Mughal. They ruled India before the British colonized us.”
“Oh okay,” he said and continued the search. After five more minutes, he found a packet of cumin seeds. “Are these yours?” he asked suspiciously.
If it’s in my bag, it’s mine. “Yes,” I said politely.
“What are these?”
It says the name right there, are you illiterate? My temper was slowly rising and so was my anxiety. I had a connecting flight to catch. “Cumin seeds,” I replied.
“You cannot take them.”
“I am going to throw this away.”
He then put everything back in the bag and sent it away for check-in.
I stood there in front of him, staring at him in disbelief. “Is that it?” I asked.
“Yeah.” he said as if he did not put me through a roller-coaster ride for a stupid packet of cumin seeds.
I tried to keep my calm as I walked out of the room. So much anxiety, so much stress over a small packet of cumin seeds which is expensive in the U.S. and important for my curry.
I walked out of the room to anxious Samia. She almost sprinted towards me and asked, “What happened? What did they do?”
“Nothing. Apparently carrying seeds is not allowed.”
“Really?” She was surprised.
“Yeah. Weird right? They took my cumin seeds out. You have yours, right?”
“Yes,” she said as we walked towards catching our next flight.
The sheer random checking and being treated like a suspect never made sense to me. But I guess, this is a price I am required to pay for possessing an undesirable skin color with an unpronounceable name.
* * *
I once saw a commercial on YouTube where a packet of French fries sang together in unison, “Om.” Apparently, that French fry is all one needs in life to be happy. Om is a sacred sound and a spiritual chant for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Om or Omkar cannot be a sound for advertising animated French fries. It cannot and should not be used just for aesthetics. A sound, a symbol, and an icon on which a large population across the globe have invested their faith in shouldn’t be appropriated by those who cannot even pronounce Omkar right on their first attempt.
While Omkar is misused to sell a packet of French fries, and Namaste is appropriated in a sense that Indians, who speak the language, cannot even fathom, Hindu temples across the U.S. are repeatedly vandalized. Their walls are spray painted, flags are burnt, and Hindu gods and deities—not being the vandal’s true god—desecrated over and over again. In an incident that took place in Kentucky, a Hindu temple’s walls were spray painted with black paint with the words, “Jesus is Almighty,” even though no one really asked for their opinion. In another case in Washington State, the walls were painted with the words, “Get Out.”
Every time I come across such cases and hateful words, I cannot help but wonder how it was never the Doctrine of Hinduism (which does not exist in reality) or any other old and indigenous religion that led to colonization of half the globe, and how the indigenous people never spray painted, “Get out” when settler colonialism stole their houses and genocide killed their tribes. Irony at its best.
And to all misdeeds, the reply I hear most often is, “Karma is a bitch.”
Karma, pronounced as “Kur-m,” is not a bitch. It’s a complex philosophy, relating to causality and working closely with the theory of rebirth.
Hindus worship 33 different kinds of Gods—33 and not 33 crores—and each of them stand as a representation of a crucial element. As a religion that comes from one of the ancient civilizations, some of these gods, over the period of time, were given a more societal attribute. This means, while we have deities for the river or thunder or rain, we also have deities for prosperity, knowledge, and so on. This feature is common to most old and indigenous religions. Even in Native American culture, nature is worshipped and regarded highly because nature is what keeps us alive. Straying too far from nature leads to the apocalypse that we are currently living in.
These deities, who act as an idol of faith, cannot be a purple pendant worn on a bare body with lavender themed lingerie just to add mysticism and exotic factor to the product, nor should it be caricatured as a Halloween costume. Goddesses across religion often dress elaborately, and it is fine if someone gets inspired by that style. It can be flattering if done gracefully. What I am referring to is painting your body and face a certain color, wearing far-from-reality costumes, and making weird faces in the name of dressing up as an angry goddess. Kali is not a costume. She is the Mother Goddess.
They who exotify my culture work their hardest to discard the people who follow it. After every major unfortunate event, from 9/11 to the COVID crisis, my people were targeted. My people were even targeted for landing jobs they earned after working hard. The rising cases of hate crimes against Asians is alarming. And even more alarming is the absolute disregard of the people, while shamelessly appropriating their culture.
Maybe we are living in a free world, but in full honesty, I sometimes feel I am constantly surrounded by hypocritical Winston Churchills who still view my people as “beastly people with beastly religion,” while at the same time, using the beasts to add flavor to their bland taste.
Roudri Bandyopadhyay is a Creative Writing graduate from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, who self identifies as a food lover, storyteller, and over thinker. She currently teaches at Norfolk State University and writes from her experience as a woman in India and as a woman of color in the US, with ancient Indian mythology often her muse. | Follow Roudri on Twitter and Instagram.
This article was submitted by a contributor outside of our company. Content of this variety may not reflect the direct views of The SunDaze Journey, LLC.