Cleveland Indian of a Different Sort

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Indian frozen meal
Image Credit: N Engineer

I was doing the food-shopping recently, and saw a few things that made me feel welcome. Basmati rice, chai, ghee, and Indian frozen meals are readily available, so I am not forced to trek out to the nearest Indian market if I want to make “my” food. But assimilation is more than just stocking your local grocery store, as I can recognize and appreciate.

bengal spice tea
Image Credit: N Engineer

When I moved to Cleveland as a kid, I was a rarity. Despite the fact that the city’s team names seemed to be all about me (I am, after all, both brown and Indian), I was, at best, a novelty. In fact, my elementary school had two Indian kids: me and my brother.  I dreaded the day each quarter when my Junior High School posted the names of all the kids on the Honor and Merit Rolls (those with 3.0 averages and higher) and I would be asked repeatedly how to pronounce my full name (Nivedita). Looking back, I’m sure most people who asked were honestly curious, but I was weary.

Butter Ghee
Image Credit: N Engineer

You see, in sixth grade, I had the following conversation with a classmate:
Girl: Are you black or white?
Me: Neither.
Girl: No, you have to be one or the other.
Me: Well…I was born in England.
Girl: Then you’re white. Good, because we don’t like blacks.

I never did become friends with her. But I sincerely hope she doesn’t still feel this way. There is already too much hate in this world, stemming from fear of the unknown or fear of losing ground, I don’t know exactly.

Today, that town has two Indian restaurants, Priyanka Chopra is the star of a network television show (Quantico, for the uninformed), and Coldplay/Beyoncé recently released the song ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ with a video filmed in India. Despite the controversy related to its cultural appropriation, I am rather pleased to witness the mainstreaming of India.

In fact, later this month, I get to watch a staged reading of a play I wrote about an Indian family growing up in Cleveland. That the actors will not be Indian does not concern me at all, because 1) our efforts to locate Indian actors in Cleveland have proven fruitless, and 2) though the characters are Indian and certain situations are culturally-specific, the relationships and struggles are universal. The actors are concerned about seeming insensitive, and that fact moves me.

basmati rice
Image Credit: N Engineer

Certainly there is reason for these actors to be concerned, as race relations aren’t optimal in Cleveland. But sharing my story with the world is more important. In an earlier post, I railed against the misrepresentation of second-generation Indians in Bollywood. Well, the only way to remedy a bad narrative is by offering an alternate one.

Non-Indian actors willing to play Indian roles to tell an Indian story still results in the story being told. This can lead to understanding–seeing as families everywhere have their own flavors of dysfunction–and will hopefully forge the very connections that we all desperately need to make.

So now I welcome the curiosity, and smile every time I walk through the grocery store and see a sign that others recognize that life isn’t so black and white.