I never knew I was an ambassador. Nobody told me that that was a huge part of an immigrant’s life.
A few years ago, an Indian immigrant was in the news for shooting his professor and then killing himself. As much as I was saddened and shocked by the incident, I couldn’t also help thinking, “He makes us all (Indians) look bad. This is not who we are.” In a strange twist of events, it turned out that I knew the mother of the victim. We went to the same Bible study. I don’t know why but, after I paid my condolences, I apologized to her. I told her I was sorry, on behalf of all Indians.
I am aware that I am watched and judged as an immigrant. My conduct can influence people’s opinion about Indians. So, I’m careful. I do my best to conform and not break any rules. This sense of cautiousness is something that inhabits an immigrant even if he or she is not aware of it. I do perpetuate certain stereotypes about Indians—I cook and eat spicy food, I focus on my child’s academic achievements, and I speak with a foreign accent. I am also an outlier—I am not vegetarian, I did not have an arranged marriage, and I’m not a software engineer.
Whenever I visit India, I find that my role is reversed. I become an unofficial ambassador of the American people to the Indians. This summer, I was asked why and how Americans chose Trump as a President. I tried to dodge questions on that topic! But I’m also quizzed about life in America. How is it like bringing up a child in America? How safe is America—why are there so many guns? What shows are most popular? What are schools like?
The question that stuck with me most and made an impact on me was one that was asked by a young Muslim girl, “Do Americans really not sit next to you on a train/subway if you wear a hijab?” I felt the need to defend Americans. I told her that in Los Angeles, where I lived, I had rarely been ill-treated for being brown and that the people of LA were used to diversity. I assured her that even though I couldn’t speak about the rest of the country, Americans, in general, were kind and friendly.
If only Indians did not let news channels, TV shows, and social media dictate their views on American society…If only Americans entered into the homes of immigrants and knew them as friends and neighbors…
I cannot control everybody’s actions. I can, however, take my “role” as an ambassador more seriously. I do not have to always represent the good side of India to America, of America to India. But I can try as much as possible, to highlight positive relationships and truth. In doing so, I hope that as an immigrant I can build bridges and tear down walls.