ABC After School Special:  Xenophobic Village People

As a child  I found my parents to be old-fashioned, traditional, fresh off the boat, passé, outdated, third-world, simple and unworldly, retarded village people. Please don’t misunderstand. I loved them deeply. This was one of the contradictory facts of my American being. I was born in America. My parents and sisters were born in Pakistan and India. The contradiction of America is its schizophrenia that mythologizes immigration while generating xenophobia. It must have been in the water I drank as an infant because I often rejoiced in calling members of my family by their official classification of 'Alien' as in ‘Resident Alien’, or ‘Alien Non-National.’ Mostly I liked the simplicity and outer-space connotations of the word ‘Alien’ when applied to my older sisters. Eventually all the members of my family, except my mother, joined the privileged ranks of citizenship forcing me to retire my arsenal of foreigner jokes.

 

My sisters’ pledges of American allegiance produced a flowering similar to my own, except mine had a slightly older vintage with more body and complexity. But my sisters were quick studies. Together, we would alternately beg and harass our mother to change her clothes before we went into public together. Fear of our humiliation and ridicule would quickly turn into anger directed at my bewildered and besieged mother. You might be asking what could she have been wearing that could cause such deep emotional responses. No, our mother’s clothes didn’t smell bad, at worst a light mixture of sweat and masala. Her clothes weren’t torn rags she’d put on. She hadn’t exposed her midriff or thighs. No tank top or miniskirt. No vulgar display of cleavage inappropriate to an aspiring to be middle class, mother of three. No, it was far worse than any of that. What our mother wore to work didn’t phase us: corduroy pants, steel toe boots, a western style shirt and a hard hat. The offenses were committed in her spare time when she liked to put on her poly-cotton, multi-colored, ornately patterned, Punjabi-style Indian suits. I think they made her feel like herself again after a long day at the factory.

Unconcerned with the needs of our mother, we had our own feelings to think of. In absolute desperation, we tried every strategy and argument we could think of. “Do you see Japanese women wearing Kimonos at the grocery store?” We felt this was one of our winning arguments. Who could argue with that? No, in fact no one ever saw a Japanese American wearing a Kimono at Safeway. So why should anyone see an Indian woman wearing a Punjabi suit? Come on. Let’s be realistic. We were not living in an ABC After-School Special about tolerance and diversity. We were living in Pinole - a town covered in racist graffiti, the occasional confederate flag draped inside an old truck, and overrun with unimaginative and conformist white children. Our childhood instincts of self-preservation forced us to mercilessly attack our mother’s appearance, her self-esteem and her sanity. We were brutal aggressors, but luckily, unsuccessful ones. My mother kept wearing her Indian suits to Kmart and we kept enduring the stares, both curious and hostile, of our provincial neighbors.