‘DON’T WANNA BE AN AMERICAN IDIOT!’ A bullish boy chants loud in my face. I am older than him, but we are at that age when boys, overnight, grow taller than girls. His thick cheeks spread into a smirk. I try to ignore him but he can tell I am fazed.
I am one of the few American kids in an international school in south India. The majority of students are Indian, but there are Koreans too, plenty of Australians and New Zealanders, a few Ethiopians and Nigerians, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, people from Thailand and Japan, even a boy from Qatar. I must not forget Brazil, Nepal, Bangladesh, Germany, and the Philippines. Since the school was founded by a group of English missionaries, there is an ample number of Brits too. The boy keeps singing, belting out Green Day’s lyrics to a tune of his own.
‘I’m not even American!’ I say in my American accent and stomp away to join a game of British Bulldogs convening on the flat school roof.
But I am American. My passport tells me so. I was born in Georgia, Peachtree City. I am told that my parents planted a peach tree in the garden behind the house to commemorate my birth. I do not remember the house or the garden or the tree –my family moved to India when I was three years old. Every so often, I wonder if the tree grew tall and strong and blossomed green and orange with fruit, or if it withered when we left, without anyone to tend it. Or perhaps it neither flourished nor failed, but managed to eke out an unlikely existence, developing into an odd shrub or merging with the foliage around it, becoming something else entirely. Unrecognizable.
A friend and I hunker down into our seats at the back of the history classroom. She is half-half, as we used to say. Her father is an Indian man from Andhra Pradesh, and her mother, a full-blooded American. My friend, caramel-eyed and chocolate-skinned, murmurs low into my ear, ‘I’d say it happens to me at least once a day.’
‘Same here,’ I say.
We are whispering about how often we are made fun of for being American. The teacher reprimands us for talking and we turn our attention towards the blackboard and begin taking notes on the Industrial Revolution in England.
I learn about European history, and I learn about the World Wars, and Gandhi and Indian independence. But I am taught very little about America—I am in an English pioneered school in India after all, and what country is concerned with history that is not its own? I know little about the country that people shame me for belonging to.
Small hands, small upturned faces, we are small vessels to be filled. My siblings and I smother our grandmother with hugs. We adore her and cannot wait until she shows us what she has brought from the land across the sea. America is packed into her suitcase, and we do not taste America very often. We settle in the living room, kneeling around her floral hard-case like miniature devotees. The suitcase is unzipped and sweets are piled out. M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces, chocolate chips and marshmallows. We eat them slowly, over the next couple of months, savoring every piece, letting the chocolate melt on our tongues. We hide them from our mother who has an insatiable sweet tooth. We act like the sweet things are sacred.
When I am young, America is a mythic land of milk and honey. We leave India to visit relatives every other summer. Stepping off the airplane feels like stepping into another world. The electricity stays on all day and all night. Clean drinking water gushes from every faucet in a house. People follow traffic rules and the roads are clean and smooth. No one honks their horns unless they are very angry. I look for stray dogs and cows and goats, but there are none roaming the streets like there are in India. The supermarkets are most wonderful of all with their endless aisles of food. A land of plenty. Sane. Clean. Put together.
I am seasoned to India’s chaos, the caterwauling horns, the maddening smells that make me scrunch my face against a waft of sewage one moment and fill my lungs with tandoori chicken the next. I am used to waking up at night when the electricity fails and draping damp towels on my hot skin to cool off. I am used to potholes, stray mongrels, and open-air markets where whole carcasses of animals hang dripping in the sun. I am used to eating with my hands rather than a knife and fork.
I live in India for fifteen years. Wherever I go, locals ask if I am enjoying my visit. I always say that I like India very much, but I live here, I’m not a visitor. Few white people make their home in India, unless they work for the army, the consulate, or as missionaries—like my parents. Indian culture and society are knit together so closely that there is little room for outsiders to fill. In the markets, in the streets, in the movie theatre and the shops, I am always referred to as ‘ferengi’: foreigner.
After I graduate high school I leave to go to college in America. No one stares anymore, there are white people everywhere. But I seem to have little in common with them save the color of my skin. People eat M&M’s here with abandon. Though every candy I once desired is but a dollar or two away, I realize sugar is sinister despite its sweetness. The burgeoning girths of Americans mark an overindulgence that is wildly out of place in my conception of the world. The sweet tooth of my youth vanishes. I remember watching an old woman scrape rice off the platform of a train station in India, her gnarled fingers placing the grimed kernels in her mouth. I watch American students fill up their plates with food in the university dining hall, eat a bite and throw the rest away. Wasting food in India is forbidden. I feel like a ferengi more than ever.
I become a theatre major because I am good at being other people. I am good at accents, especially Indian ones. I am drawn to the art of becoming someone I am not. Surely, this is the way to thrive: to have the skill set to adopt whatever persona is most appropriate or beneficial to any given scenario. After six months of college life in America, I begin to feel an emptiness and a craving for India and the person I was before I left. Now I don’t know who I am or what I want because I am so many things and therefore, so few.
Rehearsing for a show one day, a friend on the set says she would do anything for a Twinkie.
‘What’s a Twinkie?’ I ask.
Her eyes widen and her mouth opens. She has a sort of feline beauty about her, with slanting eyes, and full lips laminated red with lipstick. She wears a fur coat that collars her neck in its softness and her hair is dark and piled high on her head. I think of her as a poster child for the Roaring Twenties, she has the flaunting air of a flapper in the way she moves. Her face is the painted mask of astonishment that so many people wear before and after her when I let my ignorance show. She laughs and I laugh along with her, half-hearted.
‘Everyone knows what a Twinkie is! It’s made out of…well, I don’t know, but it’s gotta be the most iconic American treat ever,’ she looks around the room, and others nod their agreement.
‘It’s sort of spongy, and it has cream inside,’ someone pipes up.
‘You still have a lot to learn about America, huh?’ she asks me, knowing a little about my background. My shoulders lift into a shrug and I smile, but not with my eyes.
I visit my grandparents for a weekend and I make Indian food all day. I let the cumin seeds pop and sizzle with crushed garlic. I add garam masala, a mixture of coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and chili. Turmeric stains my fingertips bright yellow. The heat of the spices catches the back of my throat making me close my eyes and cough. For a moment, the aroma takes me back home.
Back to the hullabaloo of India. Back to the afternoons my mother and I spent wandering through the marketplace, pressing mangoes and guavas between our fingers to feel for soft spots. After filling our bags with fresh fruit and vegetables we would venture forth to the meat aisles, holding our breath when we passed the fish stalls steaming putrid in the sun. Sometimes our grocery bags became so heavy that my mother decided we needed a break before ferrying our burdens back to the car. We would make our way along the muddy walkways until we found the coconut wallah. He would hack open a swollen coconut with his machete and hand us a straw. Taking turns, we would drain the cool, clear liquid.
While the chicken curry bubbles fragrant on the stove, I ask my grandmother if she has any methi. a pungent spice used in many Indian dishes. She raises an eyebrow, “what’s methi?”
‘I only know the Hindi word,’ I say.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines foreigner as a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own. I was born in America, a country not my own, and I come from India, a country other than my own. Outsider, alien, stranger, outlander.
Ferengi. Though it is a slightly derogatory word, its utterance moves my mouth into a smile. I burn sweet-smelling incense that loops lotus and jasmine into the air, while I listen to my favorite American artists sing songs with their lilting voices. Emmylou Harris, Tracy Chapman, and Patty Griffin never felt far away, even when oceans swelled between us. The shelves in my kitchen are lined with Indian spices and a vibrancy of non-Indian ones too. Call me ferengi, it is my name.
Rachael Bates was born in America but grew up in India. She recently graduated from Berea College with a degree in English Literature. She currently lives in Exeter, England with her husband. Her work has been published by Glass Mountain, Stove Leg Media, and The Preservation Foundation.