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Random Reflections on A B C Ds and F O Bs

July 2007
Random Reflections on A B C Ds and F O Bs

The first time I ever heard the term "ABCD," I was sixteen and in Athens, Ga., with my family. We were visiting a cousin from India who was doing graduate work at the university. He smiled and talked about the Indian girls he had met on campus, spelling out the acronym, placing emphasis on the word "confused," which I remember wincing at. It wasn't so much that I cared about being labeled as such at this young age. It was the fact that he (an FOB, technically) was doing the labeling. I should also add that I was primarily excited about being in Athens because it was the hometown of my then favorite rock band, REM. Three years later, while sitting with relatives in a restaurant in Bangalore, I heard REM come on the radio. I was astounded: what are they doing listening to REM over here, I thought with some irritation.

While I grew up knowing what the term "FOB" meant (fresh off the boat/plane), I did not expect the contexts of its meanings to change so rapidly in my short life. When I was coming up, "FOB" had a definite negative connotation, the "fresh" implying a sort of country mouse lack of cosmopolitanism. To my peers, to be "a fob" meant to have a laughable accent, to wear Western clothes that were somehow still unfashionable (the wrong color denim or the wrong fit, etc.), to have funny hair, to not appreciate rock music—to be unplugged from all of the outlets of cool. We ABCDs used to be so self-assured of our profoundly inimitable difference from FOBs. It was inconceivable to us that anyone, for example, could affect an American accent. I used to take pride in the fact that there was nothing I could do in India to hide the fact that I was an NRI. I could be in a disguise of salwar kameez wear a yellow gold necklace and a bindi, but somehow the public, while it lolled, sat, and stared from dusty compound walls on hot Bombay afternoons, could tell the difference—perhaps by some unrestrained quality to my walk, or the confidence (or annoyance) with which I stared back.

Though it feels a bit shameful now to have participated in such petty identity schematization in my youth, in reality it may have all been a defense mechanism on our parts. Many of us ABCDs have felt that one of the only things we could truly feel confident about was being more American, more rooted to the West, than anyone in India. It's not that this attribute demands pride, it's simply that this identification made us feel like we belonged to something exclusive when so many of us have been sensitive about the fact that we don't seem to belong anywhere at all. And yet now, due to globalization, ABCDs comprise a minority culture in their own land. The IT workforce, for example, is predominantly immigrant, so much so that most strangers assume my ABCD husband is an FOB. I look at my classrooms of students at the beginning of each semester at Georgia Tech and am at a loss to determine which Indians are student immigrants and which ones are American born. Pop cultural references do not divide them up either; everyone listens to the same music and sees the same films. Now, American rock bands tour all over Asia. Indian MTV hosts are just as hip and ‘holier than thou' as their American counterparts. The interesting reversal that is taking place today may simply be global karmic retribution for the superiority complex enjoyed by the West for centuries. We ABCDs know—and it seems the rest of the world is learning as well—there is no sense in crowing over simply being American anymore. Yet, this blurring of distinctions leaves me somewhat unsure of my place, and to be potentially knocked off guard by people from the motherland is even more discomfiting. I am glad that I am just old enough not to have to have worried about competing to get into American colleges with my cousins from India. I'm glad I can remember a time when not all Indians knew how to say the word "Nike" properly. Immature as it may sound, it gives me a sense of history—a sense of self.

When young and in India, I can remember playing up the ‘crazy American cousin' card. I ran and screamed and in general created as much wholesome foolery as I could just to provide counterpoint to my unfathomably well-behaved cousins. Now, with wackiness and free spiritedness not exclusively associable with America anymore, I may have to keep reinventing myself to be able even to recognize myself in the future. Reinvention, after all, is the most American trope of them all. I hope my ABCD peers will join me in fighting to remain distinctive, if only for the sake of pluralistic identity and the expression of diversity. I hope we all maintain the confident nature of our strides.

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