An Indian by any other name is still American

WE remember exceptions. Out of hundreds of BART rides, I remember the two ugly ones. A bit of unexpected praise can carry me for three weeks, as Twain said. And, even though almost no non-Indians do wince-worthy or laughable things when learning my name or ethnicity, there are the few.

Some anecdotes, then, to amuse and warn you.

Second grade: A classmate and I are putting together a highly educational jigsaw puzzle of a map of our United States. Each piece is a state. She places Indiana correctly, points to it and says, "That's where you're from!"

A few years later: My mother sits in the waiting room of an auto body shop. A stranger, seeing the traditional bindi (red dot) on her forehead, accuses her of worshipping the devil and loudly berates her.

Twice a year my entire life: Someone asks whether I "speak Indian." I then explain that I can barely speak Kannada, and do not speak Hindi or any of the 12 other major languages of India. I have not yet gathered the courage to ask in return, "Do you speak American?" because I fear the reply: "Well, that's what we're talkin' right now!"

Ninth grade: Unlike any teachers before or since, my P.E. teachers give up on pronouncing my name. (Note: the FIRST name.) One calls me "Sue." Another mangles it and jokes about giving me a Native American name.

Senior year of college: I am tutoring another student. He notes, with amazement, "You don't have an accent."

I refrain from pointing out that we all have accents, compared to someone else, and simply mention that I was born in the States.

"But you're Indian."


"Didn't you ever think accents were innate?"

I should mention that I was tutoring this young man in logic.

A year later: While working at Cody's Books in Berkeley, I have the privilege of meeting Harlan Ellison, a famous and talented fantasy writer and a notoriously abrasive personality. He pronounces my full name correctly, which surprises and delights me. Then he asks me how well I can cook Indian food, and jokes about divorcing his English wife (who is standing next to him) so he can marry someone who cooks well. I leave feeling glad that he didn't curse at me. (That's the advantage of having that reputation. You end up making people feel grateful when you're only incomprehensible and possibly rude.)

Two years ago: I started working in customer service at a Web site. I answer e-mails and phone calls to help subscribers log in and so on. Most customers who speak to me on the phone do ask where I am, but a few actually ask whether I'm in India at a call center.

One customer, upon learning my name, says, "My sister has a Sri Lankan maid with that name!" Other customers, who hear or read my native-fluency English, assume that I'm a white girl with hippie parents, or that I have fallen under the spell of a touring maharishi.

Yet other customers, upon learning that I am Indian, decide to make a personal connection by informing me that yoga, the film "Monsoon Wedding" or one of the aforementioned maharishis have enhanced their lives.

And now I reach the most puzzling, grating question: "What does your name mean?" I have answered this question several times a year for my entire life. There is no good reason for me to find this question annoying. People just want to know whether my name is a word in some Indian language, and maybe get me to repeat my name so they know how to pronounce it. But it wouldn't happen if my name were Alyson or Claudia or Guadalupe.

Sure, Indians are a tiny minority in the U.S., and I know that when I think about it. When people make inappropriate jokes or reveal terrible ignorance about India, I can laugh. But when someone asks what my name means, because she's never met a Sumana before, it reminds me that I will always be The Other to most of the people in America, my home. People will keep asking me about my name, and the bindi, and they will ask me to recommend good Indian restaurants, and without meaning to, they will remind me that I am "exotic."

I am lucky. No one has ever told me to go back to India, although one street harrasser asked whether I was Iraqi, as though that was an insult. No one has ever accused me of worshipping the devil or of being an illegal immigrant.

But I wince a lot.

Sumana Harihareswara's column runs in Bay Area Living on Thursdays. You can e-mail her at