I moved to the United States from India, four years ago. I was prepared that moving to a whole different country, away from my family, friends and everything I knew and loved would be a massive change. What I wasn’t prepared for was the misconceptions and biases that I might encounter, and how I would change them.
There is a question that follows me, and several other Indians like me, everywhere we go. It comes with an expression that can only be described as half confusion, half amazement: “But…How is your English so good?!?”
When I first heard the question, 4 years ago, on my second day in Chapel Hill, I didn’t understand it. To me, the fact that my English is good, was my normal. I grew up speaking and writing in English, just like most people asking me this question. So why is it not as normal to them as it is to me? Not knowing how to respond, I heard my naïve self say: “I don’t know, this is how I have spoken all my life…”
A part of me was upset every time the question was asked. It made me feel like the people asking me this question had an opinion on my culture and my background, which just wasn’t true. It made me feel small in comparison to them. It made me realize that just by virtue of where I come from, people will immediately think less of me unless I prove myself.
As time passed, and after having been asked the question about 22 times, I began to understand. I understood that this is part of an implicit bias that people have about India and Indians. Implicit bias is the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly. The bias, in my case, stems from a stereotype, largely perpetuated by Western media, that Indians do not speak English well, or speak it in an accent that is hard to understand. Think: Appu from “The Simpsons”. The problem with this stereotype, like all other stereotypes is that when applied to a population, it can be offensive, and will be proved untrue.
Now let me set the record straight – we all have biases! Biases are formed based on the way the world has appeared to us so far, or the way we have perceived it so far. The keyword here being, so far. We all have the ability to change these biases when presented with a situation that enables us to recognize them. The question here is – how open and willing are we to change them?
As I had this realization, I began trying to not be upset by the question. The bias, is after all, unintentional and absolutely involuntary! I think that people are largely well-meaning and that by explaining to them kindly, I might make them more receptive to altering their bias. I started to take the question as an opportunity to educate people kindly, about me, my culture and my background.
Now, when I am asked this question, I typically give them more context. Something to the tune of: “English is actually my first language. It was the medium of education throughout my school life and is the language I mostly use to converse with my family and friends. There are many more Indians like me who speak English, just as well, and maybe even better than I do.” This response is usually followed by an expression of “oh, I didn’t know that” and more questions about my educational background and my life in India. And I walk away from those conversations knowing that I changed at least one person’s perception of my culture today – and that maybe, just maybe, this person will be open and willing to alter their bias 🙂