Thin Slicing my Name and Physical Appearance

I’m still working on Part Two of my story about my growing love for India. In the meantime, I want to share another interesting consequence of my adoption, having brown skin, but a western name.

The background: Early Spring 2001, I was a junior in college at the University of Delaware. I had attended a campus fair which has showcased a myriad of student groups. I spent a few hours walking around checking out both the booths of the student groups and the girls manning them. After visiting the display for the Indian Student Association (ISA), I was interested in attending a meeting. Having just returned from my trip to India with my entire family a few weeks earlier, I was eager to begin connecting more with my birth culture. A few days later I received a call quite late in the evening on my campus phone. This was before the proliferation of the cell and I still had a land-line.

My roommate handed me the phone and said a Pushpa was looking for me. I didn’t know a Pushpa, but I took the call anyway. I introduced myself and she replied that she was calling from the Indian Student Association. She was calling because I gave my contact information as I was interested in attending an ISA meeting. She wanted to inform me that the ISA was made up primarily of Indian students, and did not want me to feel out of place in the group because I was not Indian. I calmly replied, “Oh, but I am Indian, I just don’t have a typical Indian name.”

She didn’t know what to say, I think she was deeply embarrassed. The conversation ended shortly afterward, because it was awkward to continue. To my credit, I had reacted to her assumption without being snarky. It wasn’t her fault. Adam Bryant, does not like an Indian guy’s name. I understood her confusion. But this is a typical response to having a “white” name, but being brown skinned. A lot of my adopted friends have experienced similar situations and confusions over their names.

When people read my name on a list, without meeting me face to face, they sometimes assume that I’m Caucasian. Occasionally after meeting for the first time as I introduce myself, I can see they are surprised. I get it. We all make immediate judgments based on prejudices, likes/dislikes, and stereotypes. It’s a fact of human nature. Every one of us does what Malcom Gladwell calls in his book Blink, “thin-slicing.” We all make split second decisions, based on what we perceive and historically what we know.

Pushpa thought I wasn’t Indian because of my name, and Indians assume I am culturally Indian because of my skin. The following scenario occurs ever once in a while. I will be sitting somewhere, alone, reading a book or just thinking to myself, and an Indian guy or guys will sit down next to me. I’ll acknowledge their presence with eye contact briefly followed by a second or two of silence.

All of a sudden, it begins. They start jabbering away at me in Hindi, or some other Indian language. It overwhelms my ears, this onslaught of a language I don’t know a single word in. They pause. I haven’t responded. This is when I meekly reply that I don’t know any Hindi or any other language they might be speaking. They look at me, not quite comprehending what I just said. I ask if they will repeat what they just spoke, but in English this time.

I see the disappointment arise on their faces. They thought they would be able to communicate in their native language with someone who understood them, and I couldn’t do that. They wanted a quick connection, in a language they assumed we shared. I couldn’t give them that. In fact my response gave them the opposite, making us both feel like foreigners. Obviously I’m being more dramatic than neccessary, but you get the idea.

Another time I was in an Indian grocery store. I needed to buy paneer, the common type of Indian cheese. I walked back to the refrigerator and was confronted with a dizzying array of paneer choices. There must have been at least 15 different brands. Some were packaged in blocks, others already cut into bit sized pieces. All of them had markings in a language other than English. As far as I could tell, they were all the same basic flavor.

In my confusion I called over the owner of the store and told him I wanted paneer, could he give me some recommendations and explain their differences. He looked at me with a look of surprise, and said “aren’t you Indian?” Implying, am I not “Indian enough to know about paneer.” I tried to explain, “Well I wasn’t sure which to buy, and I don’t usually buy paneer.” But the damage was done, I wasn’t enough Indian for him and his subsequent attitude towards me become one of indifference. Needless to say I never went in that store again.

There are plenty of non –adopted people who go through similar experiences. But our names are so much a part of our identity; it’s fascinating to watch the extent to which people associate names with ethnicities. As an adopted person with a western, non- Indian name I wonder what it would be like if I had brown skin and the Indian name to go with it.

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