“So, you’re Indian?”
“But you were born in Kuwait?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering if my passport had magically altered itself.
“I see,” the customs official responded, not seeing at all.
It was two weeks since 9/11 and while “swarthy” skinned folk expect the allegedly indiscriminate scrutiny they attract, I knew it would now be exponential.
“Returning from the U.K., huh? That where the accent’s from?”
“Oh... I went to an Anglo-Indian school –”
“And you’re a U.S. resident now?” The official asked, cutting me off. “You look...” He stopped himself, likely about to say “black.” “And you have a... What is it? A Spanish name?”
“Portuguese.” I so desperately wanted to point out the irony of this interrogation given that the official was East Asian American, but I knew that my seemingly muddled identity was dangerously close to having me tossed in a secret detention centre. Not how I wanted to end this holiday.
The man finally handed me back my passport, but with one last question: “Why?”
“It’s called colonization,” I said, and hurried away.
The Inscrutable Goan
In 2003, Berna Cruz fared far worse. Returning from seeing family in India, she transited in Chicago where her Canadian passport was declared a fake because it was thought inconceivable that someone of Indian origin could have a “Spanish” name. Denied contact with Canadian authorities, the distraught traveller was deported to India on a Kuwait Airways flight. Fortunately, she was assisted by the Canadian consulate in the Gulf.
It would seem as if diasporic Goans, travelling for the most mundane reasons, are international people of mystery - our displacements and colonial history not easily lending themselves to nationalist projects of categorization. But why should they?
|U.S. War Department Pocket Guide to China (1942)|
Borders are pierced every day, as painfully proven ten years ago by those hijacked planes. The United States descended into a perilous spiral when the terror was brought to its own soil. Attempting to make itself whole again, the nation’s ire was directed externally against Afghanistan and Iraq through vigilante foreign policy. Internally, xenophobic attacks erupted nationwide against those that were or bore any resemblance to “Muslims” or “Arabs” – South Asians, Jews, and even Latinos. These events only further demonstrated that terror comes in supremely white hues too, as also seen in the July Norway bombings. Rather than critique the chauvinism responsible for post-9/11 attacks against their communities, the understandably assimilatory impetus of the aggrieved was to instead reiterate their own Americanness: We are not like “those” terrorists. But who exactly “those” people are has never been a stable qualification. The other always changes in marking the difference against which a nation can define itself. Even as multiculturalism is celebrated, it is not a wholehearted embrace of difference. Rather, it is the re-characterising of difference as being suitably Nationalist.
If colonial projects were about managing difference – for example: extending Portuguese monikers to Catholic but not Hindu Goans; then neo-colonial ones are about successfully deploying difference. When a neo-imperialist war continues in Iraq, does it make much difference that the U.S. President is a black man? The world changed after 9/11, but some things continue unaltered. Not least, a decade on, the importance of acknowledging difference and allowing it to be exactly what it is – a challenge to the status quo.
A version of this article appears in print and here.