Ethnicity, Indianness, and "Where Are You From?" in Sicily
by Sejal A. Shah
When I visited my friend Ann in Bologna after we graduated from college six years ago, I fell in love with Italy and with how I felt there. During my second visit to Bologna, we spent a couple of days at the weekend house of friends of hers, whose parents were welcoming and generous. We sat around the fire after a several-course meal, drank wine, quaffed espresso, talked and laughed.
They had heard that I was Indian. As Ann translated, I learned their disappointment to find that I was not an American Indian, but an American of South Asian descent. They’d looked forward to meeting a Native American--a "real Indian." It was an interesting variation on the kind of conversation that I got used to, growing up with brown skin, long black hair and looking recognizably "other" in a predominantly white suburb of Rochester, N.Y.
The question "Where are you from?" has followed me my whole life. There are times when I’ve been more gracious than others in answering. Sometimes, the attention has been flattering. Many other times, it has grated on me. In Sicily, when I traveled with others, it took on new meaning.
On my first trip to Ann’s, I taught an English conversation class for her, walked around the piazza maggiore of Bologna, clutching my first gelato in one hand and the shiny receipt you seem to need for every purchase of food in the other. I felt I could breathe: Italy held no overtones of colonialism the way England had when I visited, nor produced any feelings of the identity confusion and guilt I felt after my first visit to India. Italy tripped and flowed around me easily.
A few weeks before leaving for Sicily, I met a young man in Northampton, Mass., who asked me what my nationality was. I told him I was American, although I knew what he was really asking. He smiled, had the grace to look a little embarrassed, then asked where I was from originally. I said that my parents were Indian (my father was born in India; my mother grew up in British East Africa). I asked him what he was: he told me that he was from a small town in Massachusetts. After some prompting he said he was a quarter Sicilian--Sicilian, not Italian or Italian American. It was a pre-trip clue to Sicily’s cultural melange and Sicilians’ distinct sense of themselves.
Sicilians are darker than Northern Italians, their ancestry reflecting a mixed heritage of peoples passing through the island. The Greeks, the Moors, the Normans and the Romans were among these peoples whose presence helped to create what we now think of as Sicilian culture. This culture includes a long history of conquerors, travelers, and the inevitable cross-pollination of race and ethnicities that such a history produces. More recently, as a result of its falling birth rate since World War II, Italy has begun to allow more immigrants into the country.
In the seaside village of Porticello, I walked slower than some of the others in our group, perhaps because I noticed several dark-skinned individuals lined up along the boardwalk, standing behind their tables of wares, creating a kind of flea market. As I walked past the various vendors, I found myself stopping at one of the tables, for the fact that the man behind it seemed recognizably Indian.
Behind the table was a woman holding a little girl--his wife and daughter. The woman had a bright red bindi on her forehead and wore a deep purple salwaar kameez, the outfit of long, loose flowing shirt worn over matching pants native to North India. I recognized the color from many of my mother’s saris: it looked prototypically "Indian," and I could imagine that the color would bleed--definitely a hand-wash garment. The woman also wore a nose ring, a stud of the bright yellow-gold out of which much Indian jewelry is fashioned. I immediately read her as Indian in this Sicilian landscape.
As I stood at the table talking to the man and his wife, he began to speak comfortably and rapidly in Italian. I must have looked confused or frustrated, because he stopped.
"Indian?" I asked.
"Oh, Indian, si, si!" He nodded and smiled.
At that point, it seemed like he understood that I, too, am Indian.
"Parle Italiano?" he asked?
No, I replied sadly. "Parle un po’."
"Parle Gujarati?" I asked, referring to the Indian language that I grew up speaking, but now only barely retain.
No, he shook his head.
"Hindi?" he asked. I understand a few words, but not enough to carry a conversation or even fully understand.
In between all of this, I smiled at their little girl, who looked about two, attempting to engage her. Although I wasn’t completely comfortable with my fancy, borrowed camera, I decided that it would be great to get a picture of this family, of these Indians outside India. At about this time, we also discovered the language we had most in common was English. Since English is one of the official languages of India, this was not surprising. I lifted my camera and asked if I could take a picture of their little girl. Yes, yes, he said.
Then he conferred with his wife, who turned around to their car and fished out a thermos.
"You like milk?" he asked. I guessed that they were probably going to offer me some Indian tea, or chai, as its name is known in the vernacular, thanks to Starbucks’ heavy marketing.
"Umm, yes. Thank you, " I said. I was surprised then, to see his wife pouring what looked like a slightly yellow-ish milk from the thermos into a plastic cup for me. He held it out to me, and at this point, I felt obligated to at least try it, even though I have always hated warm milk unless it’s flavored with chocolate or Ovaltine.
The couple looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, nervously. Well, I had gotten myself into this mess.
I took a small sip. Couldn’t tell anything. I took another and swallowed. It was surprisingly good. I had been afraid it was goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, but it tasted like milk sweetened with cardamom and a little sprinkling of saffron, something like what my mom makes. Overjoyed and relieved to find out that I could be both polite and enjoy a hot drink, I smiled. The couple smiled back and offered me a biscuit as well.
The man, named Sokhi, and I continued to talk in English. He told me had lived and worked in Dubai for several years. After I finished my snack, I asked if I could have a picture of the three of them together. They were happy to oblige. When he asked if I would send him a copy, I promised. He wrote down his name and address. I saw that they lived in Palermo.
It seemed like a long time had passed and I felt ready to keep walking, fortified by the hot, sweet milk, and by this couple’s kindness. There was a fish market and fishing boats in one direction and a small outdoor carnival area in the other. Before I left, Sokhi came back with a silver bracelet and said, "For you." No, no, I said, I can’t. Or, let me pay for it, and I gestured to take out my money, but I knew that they wouldn’t accept it. It seemed like a very Indian gesture: to give a gift to a stranger. I put on the bracelet and thanked them, before continuing my walk. I felt truly touched by their generosity: they had not even known me. Was it because I had looked lost? Or because we had shared a conversation through many fragments of language? Or because we recognized a common past, history?
Before the end of my week in Sicily, many kindnesses shown to me and my traveling companions by near strangers revised my opinion. Perhaps this gift-giving--of smiles, oranges, a chocolate sweet, a silver bracelet, an old key--is Sicilian as much as it is Indian.
In Catania, near the outdoor market, some men who looked like they might be Indian sat down at the base of a fountain and seemed to be looking at me. Feeling protected by my travel companions, I talked to one man who said he was from Bangladesh. We talked about where we were from, what we were doing in Italy. Another student took our picture. I smiled good-bye and headed off toward the market.
While Ellen, a photographer and traveling companion, and I walked through the market, the Bangladeshi man came up to us twice--once to give me his address and to ask me to send him a picture. He asked for my address--I said I'd write first and then he'd have it. The second time, he tapped me on the shoulder to present me a gift: a bag of oranges from the market. At first I refused, but he insisted and I thanked him. They were a wonderful present--one I shared with others on the trip. Ellen teased me about him liking me, but I had taken the gesture as yet another remarkable kindness of the many I had seen throughout the trip.
Why was it OK to ask and be asked, "Where are you from?" during this trip when in the US, I found it offensive at worst and presumptuous at best? It is ironic that I only recognized the South Asians I did through how they look--and they recognized me from how I look and perhaps from how I looked at them. How many other "Indians" did I miss?
After suffering through twelve rolls of Sicily photos and the declaration that I wanted to keep my clutch of shiny receipts as a reminder of these happy times, my mother smiled, shook her head, and said, "You must have some previous connection to Italy." It is not possible to change how others’ read us--certainly not on the basis of race--but perhaps we can choose what we love. Someone would have to have a longer discussion with me than "Where are you from?" to learn about my travels to Italy and connection to Italian culture.
In pondering my original question: is it OK to ask where someone is from, I think that most of us do ask it, in some way. How one is asked the question or how one asks it matters. Perhaps we answer where we come from in how we speak, how we dress, how we act, what music we listen to, what books we read. Race, class, gender are somewhat more fixed categories--harder to opt out of. Perhaps it’s not entirely possible to answer the question of where you come from.
It didn’t occur to me that I would feel as comfortable as I have in Italy until I went there. I didn’t know that I would feel drawn to other South Asians, that we might mutually wonder about each other’s stories of emigration or immigration, and any link we might have beyond a shared sense of having left some place.
When I was younger, walking with my parents in a park or the mall, they would often comment out loud to each other if they saw someone who looked Indian. "Do you think he’s Indian?" they asked in Gujarati. And usually, the two families, the other family and my family, would exchange a nod, and a look of recognition might pass between us. It is an old look. We might even stop to talk and say hello. I used to be embarrassed by these exchanges, but now I find myself participating in them, even waiting to see whether or not there will be such a moment, even initiating them. A week in Sicily showed me this again and again, and it was not a lesson I had been expecting to learn.