No one mistakes me for being white. Although, I am half-white on my father’s side and I carry his surname. To look at him or his forbears, you clearly see his Euro-American bloodlines. I am also the son of an Upper Skagit, Nooksack, and Hawaiian woman. It must be the Polynesian blood in my mother’s tree that makes her also ambiguous looking as well with many people mistake her for being Filipina. If you mix all these bloodlines together, you get me.
The point is, I seem to blend into any brown community that I’m in and India has proven no different. A week ago, I was asked by four different people where I was from. They always begin the question in Hindi, which is an indicator about where they think I’m from. I apologize in English for my lack of Hindi and they take another run at the question in English. I respond that I’m an American. Yes, they understand that, but where in India is my family from? Are they from North or Northwest India? Apparently, I can pass for Kashmiri, Punjabi, or even parts that aren’t even India anymore such as Afghanistan.
I tell them that I’m a different kind of Indian and they look surprised, clearly off guard. Even though it wouldn’t fly in the US, most Indians refer to Native Americans as “Red Indians.” I go with what they know and use that term to describe myself. Their eyes grow even bigger since they have never seen an Indigenous person from the US.
It has led to some interesting conversations as I make my way around the city. I’m likely the first and last Upper Skagit they will ever meet. Quite likely, the only US Native they will ever encounter as well. The burden weighs heavy on me to make sure I make a nice impression and patiently answer their questions as time allows. I knew my Fulbright experience would be spent carrying this particular flag as a cultural ambassador of the United States—an Indigenous person.
When the conversation is over, I slip back into anonymity and silence. When I’m silent, no one knows what I am. They just assume I’m one of them. I slide onto public transit and head off to my next destination as the ambiguously brown person.
Ryan Booth – Fulbright to India 2019