“I Certainly Didn’t Think of Myself as Asian”

The Indian American author of a new memoir on her particular immigrant experience.

Different pieces of different faces
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reinaldo Kevin on Unsplash, Dan Chung on Unsplash, Gabriel De Paz on Unsplash, Luiza Sayfullina on Unsplash, and Alex Sorto on Unsplash.

In hew new memoir, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America, Sharmila Sen recounts emigrating to America in 1982 at the age of 11 from the Indian state of West Bengal.* The book is about growing up in America—in the Boston area, specifically—in the 1980s and her conception of her own race and identity during that time. While trying to blend into the majority-white culture, Sen also feels distinct from it—as well as from black Americans and other Asian Americans. The book recounts her upbringing, as well as her reflections on one particular immigrant experience, and how it fits into the larger strands of Indian and American history.

I recently spoke by phone with Sen, who is also the executive editor at large at Harvard University Press. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why it’s so hard to define the dominant culture, the changing idea of what it means to be Asian American, and why Americans started referring to people from the subcontinent as “South Asian.”

Isaac Chotiner: How did you define your ethnic and racial self-conception when you arrived in America?

Sharmila Sen: I was aware that a lot of people around me physically looked different from me, or they had a lighter complexion, but it’s really not something I understood or talked about in English. For a lot of people like me, we are not just coming to the United States and emigrating into the United States from other countries, but we’re also actually emigrating from other languages into English.

There were other words we used for white people or for Europeans in my mother tongue, which is Bengali, but none of those words had the exact same meaning to what the word white means when we’re speaking in English today. It took me 35 years to actually think about it. I wasn’t able to think about it or understand it immediately, not just because I was exceptionally obtuse but because I think there’s a kind of an unspoken code in the United States—at least the part of the United States that I know—of not talking about it. The culture around me was making it something that is silenced or is made invisible.

What specifically was being silenced, and why?

It’s silenced because it’s the norm. In the same way when we say somebody is … a lady doctor or a lady author. When we mention gender, it’s often to mark out that which is unusual. No one says so-and-so is a gentleman doctor, right? Because all doctors are supposed to be men, and therefore if you’re a woman, you’re an aberration. We don’t say, this is white music or a white church, but we’ll say this is black music or a black church, right? Or we will have other kinds of ethnicities we’ll attach. White is a color too, so that is why certain people or cultures or foods or music require what I think is an extraordinary armature of adjectives and others don’t.

This is the way in which the normative is made invisible. When we say it, then something weird happens. This is something I also discovered early on: that I could say, “Oh look. Right across the street, there is the Asian American man waiting by the bus stop.” You’d probably think, OK, that’s a normal way for me to point out somebody. But if I said, “Oh look, here’s the white man,” suddenly, especially if someone who’s not white points out whiteness, there’s a kind of electric charge I feel in the room in America.

One of the tensions in the book is that while you feel like you can’t define this thing, you also want to become part of it.

I came to the United States before the internet era, before cellphones, before social media. I think it’s probably not possible for people to emigrate in the same way or to come to the United States or to go to any country in that way anymore. In many ways, we’ve lost that newness because we can Google the hell out of anything these days. We can learn a lot about a place.

When I came, there were some limitations. I had watched American movies, listened to American music. I had read American fiction—whatever was appropriate obviously for a young child of that age. We didn’t really have much more than that. A little bit of Life magazine, Time magazine, Reader’s Digest. That’s all we got.

Very early on, I was focused on speaking American. I wanted to get an American accent. This is largely because I didn’t want to stand out as a foreign kid. It’s not fun being the foreign kid in an American public school. I had even thought, maybe if I had arrived older and I went to an elite college and I was an international student, there’d be some kind of cool exotic factor to me sounding different, but there was none of that when I came.

I was trying to figure out how to speak American and I watched a lot of television. I was trying to pick up the way people speak on TV. The way adults my parents brought home, who would often be maybe their boss or somebody—I was trying to sound like that. I felt like if I could appreciate certain kinds of American tastes, then I’m going to really sort of, you know, make it. I’m going to blend in. I was mimicking certain kinds of, let’s say, white-collar professionals. White cultural practices.

Obviously, Asia’s a gigantic continent that encompasses everything from India to Japan. How much did you perceive your journey as that of becoming an Asian American?

I was born in the continent of Asia. I certainly didn’t think of myself as Asian, no more than I think a kid who’s born in New York thinks of themselves as North American. It’s such a large, abstract identity, right? I wouldn’t have called myself Asian when I lived in Asia. Nobody comes to a kid in Calcutta and says, “Hey, are you Asian?” When I came to the U.S. in 1982, and then when I started hearing the word Asian being used in a particular way, I knew enough English to know what Asian means. But I wasn’t American enough in the first few months to understand that in the United States, it means something very specific. Back in the early ’80s, it really meant East Asian or Chinese American or maybe Japanese American. In fact, very few people in the early ’80s would have seen me as Asian, let alone me identifying easily as Asian. Even for somebody coming from India at that point, East Asian equaled, or was in some way a code word for, Chinese American. It wasn’t an easy room to get into because, of course, you know India had fought these two wars with China in the ’60s, right? My parents’ generation had kind of inherited certain kinds of anti-Chinese [prejudices].

How did this change or not change as you got older?

By the time I got to college—I became an undergrad in 1988—that’s around when the South Asian clubs were being formed in the U.S. South Asian itself, by the way, it’s an American term. It has Cold War origins. It’s a term of strategy, and I’ve always jokingly said that South Asians in the subcontinent were the last to know they were South Asian. We felt American when we said, “Oh, this is South Asia.” I think the term has gotten more traction now and people use it. I didn’t know I was Asian. Then I figured, OK, maybe I’m South Asian. Even that was kind of an American invention, which put together the whole subcontinent.

I think the concept of Asian in America has shifted with the younger generation. I think there’s much more of an open discussion about ways in which that term is useful and when it’s not very useful or even ways in which, you know, there can be other kinds of Asian American issues that are left out. Like, when you’re talking about college admissions and all of that. There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about affirmative action and lawsuits by certain groups. There are Southeast Asians who are speaking out and saying, hey, you know when we talk about Chinese and Indian students getting into fancy schools, that’s just one part of the Asian diaspora in the United States. What about the kids from Laos and Cambodia and, I can actually say, even from Bangladesh?

Does it feel to you, broadly speaking, that many white Americans look on Asian immigrants differently from immigrants from other places?

Obviously there are different Asian immigrants, right? By different I don’t just mean they’re from different nations or ethnicities, but they can also be from different immigration generations. Someone who is Japanese American whose ancestors might have come at the beginning of the 20th century is living in a different diaspora than, say, a Pakistani American who came in the ’90s when the H-1B visas started being used a lot.

I think what we’re not talking about here is that in the U.S., race is really kind of mapped on …there’s this sort of line, and on one side of it is white and the other side is black. It’s sort of where you fit, which side you’re closer to. This is where things get a little complicated, particularly for certain immigrants. Because we have our own anti-black bias, which is also something I’ve written about in the book.

Often what one is sort of being seen as is, oh, you’re not this. Not that you are white, but that you’re not black. That not whiteness is not necessarily blackness, which is something that a lot of Asian Americans have to deal with, without giving in to their anti-black bias. We can’t just say that just because I’m not white, I’m black, because that’s a very specific experience too. That has its own politics and its own history and its own aesthetic, and I don’t think that should be kind of collapsed into this kind of one thing.

India and American are often now referred to as the two largest democracies in the world. I was wondering if you see any kind of similarities between the two countries in the way they deal with issues of race and skin color and ethnic and religious minorities. Right now, their political tracks are on similar lines in that they’ve both elected demagogues who rose to power by demonizing the biggest minority group in the country, blacks and Muslims respectively.

India is famous for people of my generation—now it’s a bit of a cliché—that unity in diversity was our big thing. It was something we took great pride in. Obviously, it’s come under a lot of pressure these days. I think both countries have incredibly exposed labor forces and workforces. They’re very fascinating because they actually help us ask one of the most important questions. They are both democracies and have quite vigorous political cultures, but they also have deep inequality within the citizenry. So the question is: Does democracy bring about greater equality?

But I’m asking us to think about more of a qualitative democracy. Not democracy by just kind of looking at electoral politics. Both of these countries take such pride in advertising themselves as the largest democracy in the world or home of the free, these brand-name exercises, if you will, but what is the quality of the democracy that these countries engage in? It’s much easier if we were going to look at a tiny country where everybody spoke the same language and worshipped in the same church. These two countries have very diverse populations and have these kind of long, entrenched inequality problems, yet are flourishing democracies too by some standards.

Correction, Sept. 19, 2018: This post originally misstated the name of the Indian state that Sharmila Sen is from.