My first ever date was with a Vietnamese-American from the same summer program at Brown University during high school. She came up to me at the end of the first day of class, me, frozen, I watching in slow motion. Petite, baby faced, wearing a tight fitting yellow tank-top, with a big smile on her face.
“Hey, you’re in both my classes, aren’t you? Isn’t that crazy!”
Right behind her, I could see, in the hall, five others also in both classes.
The date was a disaster. Part of it was my nervousness, trying too hard to fit what I thought was the standard of how a date “should go.” But the rest was something else. At dinner – in a cafe on campus, she asked me about Bollywood movies, but, I had actually never seen one. She wanted to know about Diwali, but, my family didn’t celebrate it so I didn’t know anything. She was thrilled at the idea of going to an Indian wedding, talking about the colors and the festive dancing, but the one I had been to didn’t have any dancing and was, in fact, quite boring. When I tried to turn the conversation in another direction – travel, college majors, or politics – it faltered.
Within a week, she was dating someone else. The other Indian-American in the program. It suddenly clicked. Why she approached me, why she asked those questions. She was into me only because I was Indian, and the date went badly because, I didn’t fit her image of what an “Indian” should be like.
That was 10 years ago, but to this day, anyone attracted to me because of my parents nationality is in for a disappointment. I am unable to fit into the narrow stereotype of an “Indian,” one among many that affects Asian-Americans. Sadly, as Bollywood movies and Indian pop music become more well-known globally, Indian stereotypes are not only becoming more widespread, but more constraining.
The next year, I moved to California for College and saw, all around me, couples based on stereotypes. Walk around the campus of UCI or UCLA and you’ll see many white males in arms with an Asian girl, and none the other way around. Then, even more perplexing, Asian-Americans, including Indians, who only date within their own race, preferring someone of the same culture, but then refusing to befriend or date international students directly from Asia.
I don’t fit in anywhere, caught in the middle. Proud of my South Indian, non-Bollywood/Diwali heritage and my family, but also a globalist seeking friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Nor did I find at all attractive, anyone who fit into preconceived societal stereotypes.
As an anomaly, you become defined by what you are not. Terms get thrown around like “Banana”, “Oreo”, based not on reality but on the stereotypes, which then get reinforced and self-fulfilling. Am I a “coconut” (an Indian “banana”) because I don’t watch Bollywood Films? But what about the fact that I know about the history of the Maurya and Chola empires, and am studying South Indian poetry? In many ways, I’m more “Indian” (whatever that means) than them, just not in the “image” we expect.
So when anyone tells me, “I really love Indian culture,” I get turned off. It’s not me they’re interested in, but that image of an Indian in their mind. The other day, at a networking event, a girl, when she heard I freelance, immediately responded, “IT right?” I didn’t respond. Because all I’ll ever be to her, or to the Vietnamese girl from Brown, is an exception to a stereotype, an anomaly, defined not by who I am, but what I should be and how I am not that.
Stereotypes dominate dating, especially among Asians and minorities in general. People tell me to avoid entire nationalities (“never date a Korean girl”) and it makes me wonder, how many don’t date me because of the stereotypes they have of Indian guys?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to continue being who I am, and surrounding myself with friends who don’t judge by race, who don’t assume that others will treat them a certain way because of how they look, and embrace the opportunity to learn from our differences. That was my dream when I first moved to California a decade ago, and it, eventually, after many trials and failures, came true.
Today, if a girl is attracted to me again solely because of my skin color? Not worth it. Because multicultural dating can, and should be, enlightening. There’s no better way to peel through the layers and discover the intricacies of culture, cuisines, history, through the eyes of someone who is, at their core, a unique individual. There are challenges, of course – misunderstandings, taboos, and always, prejudice, whether it comes from family, or the outside world. Stereotypes only blind you to the true richness of culture, in all its depth and varieties. India is more than Bollywood. China is more than Tai Chi. Japan is more than Anime. Culture can’t be defined, but it can be experienced.
Moreover, much of who we are as individuals is more than our ethnicity. What about my global travels, the fact I speak French, am learning Indonesian, and currently work in Southeast Asia for an anti-slavery NGO? What about the fact that my first book was just published? That is who I am, and it is all beyond my identity as a South Indian-America.
Take a step back and break away from your prejudices, and then, perhaps, we can all discover the richness of diversity in our globalized world.