Culture

Sharmila Sen: "Being American is much more than acquiring the right accent"

The author of Not Quite Not White explains her idea of America

In the United States of today, writer Sharmila Sen, a first generation immigrant, weighs in on the question of belonging as she shares her hopes for tomorrow and trusts in the wisdom of time. 

From 1916 to 1918, my paternal grandfather was a prisoner in a British jail in Comilla (in present-day Bangladesh). He was branded a “terrorist” by the British for agitating against the Empire for India’s independence. In 1947, my future in-laws fled to Delhi from West Punjab. That made them refugees. In 1977, their son (my future husband), a young Punjabi Sikh boy, who had grown up in London, arrived in Youngstown, Ohio, making him an immigrant twice over. In 1982, I moved from Calcutta to Boston with my parents. That made me an immigrant.

In November 2001, a baby girl was born in New Delhi, whom we adopted a few months later and brought to the US. That made Ishani, our eldest child, an immigrant just like her parents. In the following years, I gave birth to two boys, Milan and Kabir. Born in Boston, our two sons are native-born US citizens. Whether our three children will one day choose to migrate to yet another country, I do not know. One family can contain a multitude of stories about national belonging and historical movement. Mine is no different. When I arrived in Boston, Ronald Reagan was in office and the Cold War was on. Margaret Thatcher ruled from 10 Downing Street, and Indira Gandhi from 7 Race Course Road. India’s liberalization was just around the corner, as was the fall of the Berlin Wall.


The age of the Internet and social media awaited us farther down the road. The 1980s was the decade when I first became acquainted with American culture. It was the era of Gordon Gekko. We loved our Walkmans. VHS tapes were the cool new way to watch movies. Women in shoulder-padded jackets and perms, the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis, the severe glamour of Grace Jones, the music of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Run D.M.C. and Prince marked my teenage years.

image4

When I was 16, I was besotted by jeans from Canal Jean Company in Soho, New York. And so, without telling our parents, a high-school friend and I cut class one day and went on a day-trip to New York. We bought those coveted jeans, checked out the Keith Haring Pop Shop, and then went to see the latest curiosity in the city—a blingy building which evinced a love of gold reminiscent of every Indian wedding I had ever attended. The newly-constructed Trump Tower was an architectural symbol of the decadent 1980s.

I’ve grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts since my teens, and have spent all my professional life here. “The People’s Republic of Cambridge” is known for its progressive lefty politics, its love of granola and fair-trade, organic, gluten-free everything, and its famous universities. We were “woke” avant la lettre. In high school, I was taught US history through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, an iconic left-leaning history book. My teachers taught us about the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the reality of the Civil Rights Movement (many of them took part in it during the 1960s), and they encouraged us to formulate our own opinions about the US’s military involvement in places like Korea, Vietnam and Nicaragua.

These teachers taught me that being American is much more than acquiring the right accent or swag. Thirty years later, my own children are attending the same high school. I wish for them to learn the same lessons I did in those classrooms: to never ever confuse real gratitude and loyalty with jingoism and blind deference, no matter what your politics. And thirty years later, the real estate developer who built that blingy tower in New York has become the president. To me, his election does not mean that the fundamental nature of the nation has changed. I have little in common with those who discovered that the US is racist or unequal in November 2016, when Trump took office.

This is how the US has been since before it was the US—racist, brutal, imperial. Native Americans were displaced and exterminated when Europeans first landed on this continent over five centuries ago. The labour of enslaved African Americans built this country and played a role in its economic growth. Race was used to determine who could become an American citizen and who could not, from 1790 until the 1950s. Yet, it does not make me wish to abandon my home. As the German intellectual Walter Benjamin once wrote, “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” There is no nation whose success is not built on an original sin. And neither the US nor India can claim to be an exception. In the 2020 presidential election, a new generation of Americans—all born in the 21st century—will vote for the first time. Among them will be a young girl, the daughter of immigrants, the granddaughter of refugees, the great-granddaughter of a “terrorist”, and an immigrant herself. And I look forward to seeing my eldest child cast her first vote as much as I once looked forward to buying those jeans in Soho.