“Where are you from?”
This is one of the most common questions hurled my way in public. My quick response is: from right here in the U.S.
For many this is not a satisfying response, so they prod further. But where are you from really?
Okay, I am from all over. Born in Washington, DC, I spent my childhood in India, went to college and graduate school in California, then moved to the East Coast.
So you are from India?
— No, my parents are, but I am American.
That’s the end of this discourse in just about all instances.
The innate urge on the part of many of my fellow Americans to somehow place me firmly in the “foreign” category is amusing and frustrating at the same time. There is no such thing as an American “look,” yet the juxtaposition of beard and turban in our contemporary times seems to mark me as the ultimate “other.”
How much can you tell about me by just looking? Not much. Most Americans misplace me in a geography more indicative of our collective programming through war engagements in the Middle East. A few who do guess my ethnic heritage might pat themselves on the back for accurately placing me, but they are not that far removed from the ignorant ones.
Then there are the multitude of labels I place upon myself. I am a cartoonist, a writer, a costume player, a software engineer, married, turbaned, bearded, American, Sikh — just to name a few. While all of these identifications are true, they don’t contain the essence of who I am. What defines me are not the identifications — be they social, cultural, national, religious, or professional — but the neverending transitions that breathe life into my existence.
These demographic labels might seem natural, useful to helping us understand the march of human history into the future, but they are often stale in their perspective. They highlight our enormous diversity, our differences, all the while hiding the transformative impulses and actions that bind us together as a species.
These perceived differences over time have contributed to the discourse of “us,” “them,” “high,” “low,” “citizen,” “alien,” etc. Violence has been inflicted in the name of these denominations. Mythologies have been constructed to feed this perpetual tale of divisions. Power has been wielded to benefit from this chauvinism. Ideologies have been canonized to solemnize these so-called unions.
So perhaps next time you see a stranger and have the impulse to ask, “Who are you?” or “Where you are from?” instead try, “What is your story?” Then you just might hear a tale of movements and journeys breathing across time and space that won’t seem foreign but rather like an intriguing tale of fiction that connects with you at a personal level. The characters might be of a different hue, but the arch of their stories might intersect with your own personal saga.
These portraits are part of an autobiographical project highlighting the author’s journey across time, diverse geographies, and changing identities.
Vishavjit Singh is the nation’s first and only turbaned/bearded editorial cartoonist. He got his spark for cartooning following the upheaval-filled days after 9/11. He is also a writer and costume player. His turbanful works can be seen at Sikhtoons.com. You can follow him on Twitter @sikhtoons.