Monday, July 07, 2008

Signs of Decay

My mother's first visit to America was soon after 9/11. That Christmas, I took to a mall near where I lived at the time. J was only a few months old and I was not able to fit into any of my pre-pregnancy clothes yet. I remember wearing to the mall a black shalwar-kameez she had brought for me from India because it was the only outfit I could fit into comfortably. My mother wore a sari as she always does. So there we were, two dark-haired, brown-skinned, petite ethnic women in clothes that looked decidedly foreign. A group of white punks hurled racially charged abuse and insults upon us while we walking inside the mall. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that in the States and I had been here for a couple of years at the time.

Needless to say, I was terrified and thought they might harm J. There had been reports of racial violence and the targeting of Sikhs because of their turbans. I could tell these teens were educationally and culturally backward enough not to know the difference between a Hindu or Sikh from India and an Arab from the Middle East. Not that being able to tell one apart from the other justified their behavior, but clearly my black shalwar-kameez had been the trigger for that outburst. Dusk was gathering and it was raining heavily outside. I was a relatively new driver at the time and was scared to drive down the hilly road that led home in that weather - especially with a new born in the car-seat. But we were too shaken to do anything else.

Having spent all our lives in India, where women have never felt safe around men in public places, we found this incident to be eerily reminiscent of the many bad experiences we have both had at different times back home. Of course, race and ethnicity have nothing to do with misbehavior there, but men will cuss out women in the most obscene manner just to terrorize them - we were both very familiar with what that felt like. That evening, a group of white kids had traumatized us in the exact same way, with their ignorance about our race and religion making it so much more dangerous given that 9/11 had happened just a few months before.

My mother has visited me in America quite a few times since then and we had no other unpleasant experiences like the one in the mall, until last evening. We were taking a walk in the neighborhood just outside our community. As luck would have it, I was wearing the same black salwar-kameez. I should note at this point that I never wear ethnic clothes unless I am going to an Indian cultural event. With my mother here, I find myself wearing clothes I haven't worn in a long time mainly because she likes to see me in them and she finds my Western clothes too monotonic.

So here we were on the sidewalk, the streets completely deserted. Mom was observing that she had never seen roads look so empty in all her trips here. Clearly $4-a-gallon gas has made non-essential driving a thing of the past. Suddenly a big white truck whizzed past us and a big white guy on the passenger side stuck his head out and screamed abuses at the two of us. He repeated the word "bitches" a few times to make sure we had heard and understood. It was so unexpected and sudden that we were left dumbfounded even as his voice reverberated. After I had recovered, I wondered how I would have reacted if I had managed to keep my wits about me and if I had been carrying my cellphone.

My mother commented that when times are hard, natives will naturally resent the presence of aliens among them - it happens in India too. In Mumbai they resent the Biharis and Bangladeshis who come into the city in train-loads to join the labor force. There are similar examples to be found all around India. She said that poverty brings out the worst in people, when the safeguards afforded by civic society can no longer be counted upon. Maybe the cops would have turned a deaf ear to my complaint even if I had called 911 and recounted what had happened. My mother speaks from the vantage point of someone who has seen just such a systematic degradation happen throughout her life. She is therefore able to see signs of decay and decline that others without such firsthand experience would miss.

She worried what turn deep-seated anger and resentment might take when fueled by ignorance and combined with the right to bear arms. As we walked back home, we could not help thinking of the worst-case scenario for ending a perfectly tranquil evening. What if that man in the truck hated us (or who he thought we represented) enough to just pick up a gun and shoot. It made me wonder if my quest to find freedom in America was a dream nearing its end.

Then there is the bigger picture of what such incidents mean to immigrants and visitors to America. There is no better deterrent to immigration and foreign tourism than such behavior. While it is not yet widespread and frequent enough to garner the attention of the mainstream media, I can't imagine that my experience is unique or exceptional in any way. However, by the time incidents like this or worse make headline news (if they do), most of the damage is already done. Maybe it is best to recognize signs of decay and act on them before the rot takes over.

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