Lost in Translation: Post 9/11 and the Indian Story

By Dhruv Pathak

I was born in India. Came over to the U.S. when I was about one and a half years old and I didn't return until I was 23. The trip back I took in December of 2016 profoundly impacted my sense of identity.

For most people, travel seems to prompt deep self-reflection. Traveling far distances is one of the few times where my schedule is out of my control. Where I go and who I talk to is determined by directions that are given to me. I get on when the plane is boarding, I get off when the plane lands. Between the rides to the airplane, going through security, waiting for the plane to board, flying to your destination, all you have left to do is keep yourself occupied, and when you don't have anything to keep you occupied, you think. On the way to India I was nervous about not knowing if I would be able to communicate. If I would live up to the expectations of this lush, historical place. Are the kids smarter than us in the U.S.? Do kids truly respect their parents as much my parents brag about?

The moment I stepped outside the airport, I saw hundreds of Indian people lined up to pick up their family, immediately smelled the smog in the air, and remembered that my uncle told me never to touch the stray dogs in India. After traveling for over thirty-six hours, we finally arrived, and I remember being so dazed by this new place. One moment I'm on a plane, playing games on my phone, completely distracted. Then the reality that I am in India finally settles in. I thought about the fact that this is where I am from, where my people came from, and that the history of this country runs through my veins every day. Yet I know nothing about what it means to be an “Indian."

I grew up in Charlotte, and like every other Indian I went to a “mandir." We went to the Hindu center, while others went to BAPS and to the Gurudwara. Indians are no different than the rest of the world's population, we too are religious, and places of worship are integral to how we stay united as a community here in the United States. Hindi also isn't a commonly spoken language here in America.

I know Gujarati, but my primary language of communication is English. All the pujas, bhajans and other rituals were done either in Sanskrit or often in Hindi. Instead of sitting through the religious ceremony, I played outside. This is where I feel my disconnection to the culture began. However mandirs in the U.S. are just remnants of our culture brought back from our motherland. In India most of the country is united around Hinduism, in the U.S. we are just a minority group—assimilating into American society. Therefore, the connection we have based on a shared religious belief is exacerbated by being in the U.S. This connection for me became weaker, for me, after September 11, 2001.

Everything about my relational perspective to be Indian changed after 9/11. I was born in 1993; in 2001 I was 8 years old. September 11 changed my life forever. I remember being in day care after school and my dad picked me up early. I didn't know why. We went to a Wendy's to grab food; the restaurant was playing CNN on their TV. I saw the scene of the plane crashing into a building in New York, me being eight I didn't think anything of it. As far as I remember, we didn't have any discussion about it. In my mind, I thought this happened all the time. The next day, I get to school. The ambiance is somber, everything seemed gray. The cheer of kids running around, teacher scolding kids to get in line or the random screams that are common in elementary schools were absent. The day seemed eerily quiet.

At the age of eight, I wasn't thinking too deeply about the way the world viewed me. But as I got older, the clear differences in who I was as an Indian kid—versus the other kids became apparent. All people look different based on the color of their skin, hair color, etc. but the difference that caused a cleavage between the other kids and I was due to a new political environment.

Most people who work everyday of their lives aren't thinking politically with nuance, they are thinking about the task at hand and how to feed themselves, their families and pay their bills. Most working people resort to generalized conceptions of people without nuance. Therefore, without a highly politicized populace you can easily see the attack on the twin towers as an attack by Muslims on the “free world"—so therefore all people who looked like the portrayed versions of these terrorists, by and large, are now terrorists themselves. We must also remember that after 9/11 an abstract “war on terror" was declared. This must also be analyzed with nuance because the concept of terror differs starkly to an Iraqi and an American. Especially when the terror we are “fighting" ends up becoming the terror they see daily. Without nuance couldn't we say all white Christians are Ku Klux Klan members? Of course, not. However, when it comes to people of color a small section of wrongdoers can be generalized to the whole for our communities.

I really wasn't around too many kids who looked like me. We, my brother and I, went to racially diverse schools but were usually the only South Asian kids in our grade. From 3rd grade on I began being referred to as terrorist daily. That hurts a child's confidence. This forced me to think that I must shed being Indian. At age nine, I had no idea that I couldn't just “stop being Indian." Therefore, what I dropped was my desire to be Indian, religiously and culturally. I wanted to just be like the rest of the kids. I didn't want to get mad about being called a terrorist or, by the time I was in high school, just laugh it off. Unconsciously growing up post-9/11 meant distancing myself from the rich tradition my people come from. From the ages of 8 to 22, I had little desire to be Indian—because unknowingly I was hurt by what I perceived to be the pain of being Indian, when in reality it was hyper-nationalism, the insecurity America faced globally, which turned inward on me and my people.

Now I am faced with a challenge, I am seeking to reconnect with my roots, but I am far behind. This challenge is multiplied by the fact that I am not in India, so the connection was already becoming spotty by the nature of being a first-generation immigrant and my insecurity with who I was that began in my formative years is hard to break past.

In the Trump era, the pains of being Muslim (or being read as such) have resurfaced but this time my view is clearer: we can't be unborn and hide who we are; instead we must embrace it firmly. Because assimilation without cultural awareness spells the death of a people who would only be “Indian" by pigmentation alone, if that were the case. Indian isn't alone about the color of our skin or the texture of our hair, being Indian is about struggles our ancestors carried through, the cultures they built, the history they made and the paths they paved for us, to forget that is to forget being Indian.

Dhruv Pathak works in digital media and marketing for Saathee. Conctact him at Dhruv@Saathee.com.