From Barack to Mohana, Why America Still Has Difficulty with Foreigners

I’ve been blogging for a few years: I’ve been Indian my whole life. Most of the early part of this life, (as you’ll learn from reading parts of FROM DUNES TO DIOR, my latest release), was spent in America.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 28:  Fireworks streak b...
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 28: Fireworks streak by the Statue of Liberty in celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty on October 28, 2011 in New York City. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

On most days, I dress and sound like an American. “I’d think you were white if I couldn’t see you,” a friend joked last week over dinner.

I forget that the Internet doesn’t know all this. The Internet, the oft touted vehicle of democracy, has another side. Only this one makes it easy for people to jump to divisive conclusions.

My avatar is of a smiling brown faced woman. Put that together with the name,  either Mohana Phongsavan (married) or Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar (maiden) and this is what you get from someone who only knows me through my online presence:  oh i just realized from her name that English may not be her native language.

This was in an email, about, but clearly not intended, for me. The email gremlins (jinns in the Middle East) made sure it didn’t reach the person for whom it was intended.

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled. Especially since the piece of writing she was judging me for was better than most of the other people who had posted on a certain topic.

I slept on the email because I didn’t want fatigue to taint my fury. The next morning, I was no longer angry. But I didn’t want to be pushed around. For the last year I’ve been standing up for myself in various ways and I added my reply to her onto my list of assertive moments.

Here’s my reply:

Sorry, what exactly was reflective of a non native speaker of English in that preview?

By the way, I am a US citizen, lived there since I was 5, and have a Phd from the University of Florida. None of which apparently didn’t train me enough for your high giveaway standards.

Are you always so charming or is it just people with foreign names who experience your best?

She wrote back, swiftly, and apologetically, in the style of most politicians:

I owe you a huge apology….. This email was meant for someone else and I had just harangued her for her bad grammar and spelling so when i saw the errors in that paragraph I couldnt resist pointing them out to her, so it was meant in more of a joking way, nevertheless, I do not know who wrote the intro to that post and I apologize making the assumption that it was you. Trust me we do not have high standards for our giveaways, (as is apparent in the intro post) and we are continually making errors. I take full responsibility for this email and hope it will not reflect poorly on XXXX.

Was she really apologizing or was she more concerned about reflecting badly on her business partner?

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve no idea. But in either case, I shouldn’t complain. What else can you expect in a country where people still disparage a sitting president for everything from his nation of origin to his father’s religion? For a nation started by those fleeing religious persecution, and then built by immigrants from all walks of life, from all over the world, life in the famed ‘melting pot’ proves less than cordial.

“Jen” (no, I’m not making that up, that’s her name, as bland as vanilla) reminded me we still have a lot to work on.


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Reader Comments

  1. jenn

    This is The Bland Vanilla Jenn, I find this whole thing just a little funny(sorry, dont mean to discredit your feelings here) but, Jenn (Jennifer) is my Jewish name and I was married to a Palestinian for many years. Israel is “home” to me. The e-mail was never intended to be judgemental and Perhaps if you knew the context you could better understand. I was simply trying to point out that there are others that have problems with punctuation and grammar… I am truly sorry it has affected you although I must say you have produced a great post. Thumbs up and my full support of what you have written. Just a side note cuz I cant resist; your e-mail reply did include a double negative which is frowned upon in the English language. I am also a college grad, but of Jewish origin so what would I know.

    • Mohana

      Bland Vanilla Jenn, I’m so glad you stopped in to say hello. You’ve further illustrated the main point of this entry which was to highlight the limitations of how we present ourselves online. It’s fascinating that based on your name (as it appears in email) I could not have known your complex history. Rather Jenn, like so many of the other Jenns I grew up with, suggests having a nickname in order to distinguish yourself from the others. I once knew a Jacksonville-Jenn, Allan’s Jen, and first floor Jen all at the same time. The same happens for Mohammeds or Maryams now in most of my classes. Names tell us so much and yet so little.

      I’m not sure why you feel that being of Jewish origin discredits your opinion at all. Growing up in North Florida, my best friends were a Jewish family with whom we still have very close ties. Perhaps you feel that as someone living in the Middle East this limits my perspective? The contrary: Living here underscores for me the urgency with which all people in the contested area deserve the right to raise their children in peace.

      As to the double negative in my reply, using “cuz”, non-capitals for some words (i), and capitalizing others (“Perhaps”) are not exactly gleaming examples of standard language usage. But that wasn’t my main point of inquiry. Anyone is welcome to criticize my writing. But it’s on the terms that I’m a bad writer. Not because I’m a foreigner or a non-native speaker of English.

  2. jaya

    “Anyone is welcome to criticize my writing. But it’s on the terms that I’m a bad writer. Not because I’m a foreigner or a non-native speaker of English.”

    well said moha!

  3. Kenya G. Johnson

    This is a powerful post regarding making assumptions based on “names” and grammar usage. I don’t usually read following comments but I’m glad I did. Thank you for linking up again with Marketing Monday Mohana. I look forward to getting to know you.

  4. jenn

    When I originally picked on the bad grammar it was not based on your name or anything else, just before I sent the e-mail is when I noticed your name and gave the allowance. As for capitalization and my usage of slang words, I can only say (and admit) that technology has gotten to me and as much as I am against the newest generation of kids never having to learn punctuation rules, spelling and grammar, I find myself conceding to the unspoken rules of text and email. For so long I was harassed about my need to spell out every word and use punctuation in my texts and not knowing what LOL and BTW etc meant but now I am finding it just as hard, as a new blogger to get back in the habit of the rules of the English language and even having the feeling I have forgotten them. It is a great pleasure to have this conversation with you and it brings up many points of discussion that are of interest to me. Sometimes I wish my name would give way to my nationality just as a source of pride for me. Have a wonderful afternoon and you are welcome to visit Terri and I at Terri’s Little Haven

  5. Laxmi (@laxmi)

    Hi Mohana,
    had a similar experience. The first time someone referred to me as an ‘ethnic minority’ in the UK, had me doing a double take. Me? A minority? And ethnic? But realised very quickly that I was more broadminded and mainstream than most:) And with a much wider English language vocabulary (which is my first language!) Good to meet you.

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