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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For Babies and Puppies — not Grown Ups

In an age where diversity is defined as relations between the races and women’s struggles are thought of being long over, I raise a hand in dispute. I constantly have to draw my own boundaries and define myself – not allowing others the permission to apply other words, particularly a word so ineffective as cuteness. The fact of the matter is, cute is not an innocent word.  Hold on, you’re saying. Hold on. I like cute things. Okay – let’s play this game, then. Describe the cute things you like.

Kittens you say. Kittens are cute. And puppies. I just adore puppies. Yes, I agree. Kittens, as well as puppies and babies are cute – adorable even.

But women are not. At least not those who want to be taken seriously.

Language, it is a powerful force; it is the ability to name and describe someone. Words are as central to our ability to communicate as humans and distinguish us from all other types of animals. When words like cute are applied to grown women or even little girls, they cease to be innocent. Name the last time a tall broad shoulder man, dressed in an Armani suit, silk tie, and was described as cute. A red carpet fashionistas would never describe Daniel Craig as adorable. We don’t use cute to describe serious male actors, or anything masculine because, rationale sputters, they aren’t cute. Right. Men aren’t cute – that’s reserved for small animals, children, and women.

It’s troubling that an adult human can fall into the same category as two other beings with little agency or self-sufficiency and in constant need of attention.  The essence of cuteness is that it defines our understanding of gender roles and how they function in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Cuteness will never allow a female student to achieve her full potential in a classroom or any other arena. After all, she has her achievement. She’s cute.

As a working woman from the age of twenty one, and holding a full time position while finishing a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature, cute was perhaps one of the most dismissive words to reduce my work and me, to rubble. Being young often added to this dimension of being a non-adult; the entire first year of my doctoral program I constantly found older students asking me if I was starting my Masters or even worse, a first year student. Celebrate your youth, you say: you may wish you looked this young.

Cuteness doesn’t only function as a limiting gendered term. Cuteness also covers ethnocentrism and a failure to understand products and people of other cultures.  The politics of cuteness negotiates our reaction to things, people, and places that are outside our normal frame of reference.  Since the normal frame of reference is usually a Eurocentric model, this means cuteness defines those things that are non-western by infusing them with an inability to be taken seriously.

Being a woman of a stature that in most cultures is considered small, (I stand at 5” 1’) little often directly translates into belittle. During the course of office repartee, my forays are noted by other staff members as coming from, “the smallest person in the department,” changed my conception of cuteness. It was a category that continuously defined me, constantly changing to shadow my scholarly work, my professional profile. This was a not-so-subtle form of discrimination dodging my steps.

Maybe my sensitivity is derived from a lifetime of being near a 4’ 11” woman: my mother. I laughingly describe myself as the fat giant of the family – I tower over my mother and sister, neither weighing over 100 pounds. People’s reactions to my mother illustrate the inherent problems with this language.

“Mohana,” they say. There’s a glimmer in the eye. “Mohana, you’re mother is so little.”

This is often said in an almost whisper as if it’s a secret. I nod and try to smile, a plastic tightening of my lips. Then a triumphant, “I’m taller than her!” as if this is a considerable achievement rather than an accident of nature. Then, almost without fail, as if on cue from some invisible script: men, women, even teenagers.

“She’s so cute!”

It often bursts out, head shaking in amazement, as if it never occurred to people that a body that small could birth three children.

It was no secret my mother has felt the pressure of cuteness her whole life; it would boil over in every family fight we had.

“You’re not listening to me because I’m small!”

There the accusation would hang and at about eight, I sighed and gave up trying to explain that it in fact was not because she was small. It was because she was our mother. But for her, the cuteness that pervaded her life diminished her in the world’s eyes. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and learned expressive words such as performativity and subjectivity that I understood what was happening to my mother – and why I resisted the word cute when it applied to me. As a result of her height, people ascribed cuteness to my mother, which resulted in a one dimensional construction of her identity both as a person and as a woman.  My mother’s understanding of herself and her status as person, her subjectivity, was informed by this primary idea that she was different from other people, and that her cuteness led to not being taken as seriously as others.

Yet while resenting it, she performs this identity of cuteness in her interactions with other people. She answers the phone in a shy girlish voice, whenever she laughs it’s really a tiny giggle but she covers her mouth, she lets my father dominate social situations even though she loves meeting new people.  Cuteness constructs and defines my mother’s understanding of who she is and who other people expect her to be.

We undermine the meaning of women, and strip the meaning from beings when we place non-descriptive and unempowering adjectives like ‘cute’ onto them. Other words that fit into this category include ‘sweet’, ‘nice’ and I think we covered ‘adorable.’ To battle against this insidious form of discrimination, awareness, time and introspection are the keys to reprogramming these often visceral responses.

Now I pause when describing people and consider the adjectives used and think on them. Perhaps a question to ask yourself: would I feel empowered if this were used to describe me? And a follow up: the next time you do use one of those adjectives, ask yourself, what was it about that person/thing/place that I was glossing over? What didn’t I want to understand/appreciate/think about? Rather than label something in an effort to give it value, however well intentioned, ask a question instead. “Wow, that’s beautiful. Does that pattern have significance?” goes a lot further toward building bridges than, “I just love that fabric! It’s so nice.”

I am now in my thirties, a young mother, and happily married woman who refuses to let anyone dismiss me because of my age or appearance. In order to be taken seriously, I take others seriously and also work really hard. It doesn’t take long before people find out that I am someone they can rely on, trust, and confide in. Any one of those qualities they would take over someone who is known for being aesthetically cute.


Someone Else 2

A few years ago I wrote about how my craving for chocolate munchkins at Dunkin’ Donuts helped get through a very lonely period. Every time I went to the DD in our neighborhood and there were none of my tasty delights left on the shelf, I wondered if someone else also loved the taste of the cake and glaze, the perfect balance between sugar and sweet, as much as I did. That blog entry was playful but expressed profound issues. It is also one of the few pieces my husband – ever confessed as my faithful, non-reading fan-remembers and has actually read in entirety.  I’ve borrowed it for all these reasons and also because something else happened in the neighborhood recently that may be a watershed event.

This month I’ve been confronted by another shared experience – this time much uglier than the crime of selfishly taking all of one type of doughnut at the store.

It’s indifference.

The ugly head of looking away is rearing everywhere so much so we are running out of excuses of why we don’t get involved. Whether on the international scale as the UN Security Council looks away at the slaughter of peaceful protestors in Bahrain or the pursuit of antigovernment people in Libya, or the personal of avoiding the truths that simmer only a few doors down from where we call home.

The international community may be caught showing impotent they are while distant parts of the world burn in fury at decades of abuse.

I sit in judgment of global leaders, whole countries, and then realize the lesson comes home to my door step – as various themes have been doing since the start of the Egyptian revolution.

Someone in my neighborhood needed help a few weeks ago and I was too busy coming and going, to work, to play, to church, to the store not to notice it. She was caught in the unfortunate circumstance that so many women find themselves: at the mercy of her employer who decided she couldn’t transfer her sponsorship to someone else and without explanation sent her home.

Turns out that many people around me knew this was happening and a few tried to do their part to persuade the employer to do the right thing. They wouldn’t budge and the end result was the same: the devastated young woman was sent away without regard for her family, her future, her livelihood.

Admittedly I don’t know all the sides of the story but the basic principle is the same: someone in the neighborhood needed help and I wasn’t there.

Idealistically you think you’ll be there for someone if they needed you. This is what good people do. We step forward when we’re called. But what if our day to day is so hectic, frenetic, and manic, that we can’t hear those pleas?

I confronted a friend whom this young woman had asked for help and who had been turned away.

“I didn’t have room to keep her stuff,” my friend told me.

This is the case, the summary, of what’s wrong. We don’t have room because our lives, our minds, our days are so cluttered with things of no consequence that things that truly matter to us can’t get access to our hearts.

“When someone asks us for help, we have to help them,” I said to my friend. She didn’t feel she could have risked herself for this person.

And I don’t know what I could have done. Maybe I would have been even more ineffectual than the people who did try to get them to see reason. Maybe not. Perhaps my getting involved would have made a tense situation irreparably awkward for future exchanges. Perhaps not.  The truth is we’ll never know. Because while I smiled at this person, waved, and even stopped to ask how she was once or twice, I wasn’t there when she really needed someone.

The pontificating around Gaddafi, certifiably a corrupt, embezzling, bloodthirsty dictator, whose latest international broadcasts have proven his hold on reality is tenuous at best, seems to have moved towards action. The UK has agreed to freeze his assets. Germany and others-including the unlikely Peru-have called for Gaddafi to step down and the regime to stop killing its citizens.

But will it be too little too late? Are we in fact sliding towards civil war as the world keeps going to work, eating lunch, and putting our children to sleep, safe in their middle class beds, in the stable countries of the world?

I don’t know. But I do know that much in the way that my mini-revolution started, it hasn’t stopped, only grown strength as people around the Middle East stand up and speak for themselves.

The irony is that this is the democracy that the west could not have engineered. And now that is has happened organically, spontaneously, unpredictably, world leaders don’t know what to do with it.

The people have spoken, are speaking, will speak.

And I will try to do the same for those around me who need someone to be their advocate. In the hopes that when my time comes, someone in the neighborhood will be there to speak for me.