Jindal stresses how he avoided telling his parents of his new faith and how disappointed they were when they found out. He said he read the Bible by flashlight to prevent being discovered by his folks, and compared his clandestine study to the early Christians “hiding from government persecution.” Jindal’s process of finding his true religion also involved participating in an exorcism of a college girlfriend.
There is a lot of Jindal that I don’t agree with. But this I got to give the man.
It’s better to be thrown in front of lions or be crucified upside down than to have to go through the ordeal of being a second-generation Indian immigrant growing up in US in the 80s. How do I know? I was one (for a while).
My parents were kind. They didn’t, for instance, make me dress like Anil Kapoor in “Suit boot main aaya kanhaiyya” as Jindal’s parents did. They also left for India after some time, which is why I perhaps never exorcised my college girl-friend. Of course for desi parents, there is nothing even remotely distressing about conducting an exorcism on your girl-friend, it’s not like you had sex with her.
Most immigrants, or to use the politically incorrect term FOBs, settle down in middle-class neighborhoods (this was particularly true in the 70s and 80s), and can only afford to send their children to county-assigned public schools. Here the stars are the football quarterbacks, and the cheerleaders, and the Jindals of the world, slight of frame and not the most natural of athletes, find themselves ignored by the “cool kids” or worse mercilessly picked on. American schools are extremely stratified, kind of like Twitter, at least far more than Indian ones, and dorks (the picture above is an accurate representation of the condition) would have to resign themselves of a life-time of being having “Kick me” sheets taped to their backs, of being pushed around by the jocks, and of being laughed at by the girls.
If life is bad for black geeks and white geeks in America, it’s worse for the brown. There exists a culture of casual racism in many of its institutions, and nowhere perhaps do you see it as nakedly as you do in schools. School kids are cruel to each other, and that’s all over the world, but being a geek and being brown, well that’s just doubled your attack surface. Unlike blacks, whose culture of sports and music is deeply part of Americana, and Hispanics, who are are slowly integrating themselves in the same way, South-Asian-Brown is always foreign, always a butt end of racial humor, and no matter how much a Piyush with a green shirt and a white tie, may try to be American, he can be picked out and picked on from quarter-of-mile-away.
Then there is the accent. While you may have a perfect American accent (kids pick up accents very fast), your parents will always speak like characters in the Simpsons and you will be left, being ribbed for it, of having to silently apologize for the strangeness of your father and mother. Here is Jay Leno, a talking penis, who many Americans find insanely funny, making fun of Jindal’s father’s hypothetical accent, *after* he became a governor of a major American state, and also note, Jindal’s squirming-in-seat reaction.
Now here was Bobby Jindal on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the glad-handing Mayor of America. “Tell us about your background,” Leno said. “First-generation American, correct?”
“Born and raised in Baton Rouge,” Jindal said with a distinct drawl. He launched into the story of his parents’ journey to LSU. “[My dad] walked uphill going to school… and coming back from school,” Jindal joked.
“So your parents have an accent?” Leno asked.
The young governor winced, like a bookish kid who’s just realized he’s wandered into the wrong area of the playground. He looked down into his spidery hands, arranged at the moment as if they were holding an invisible bowl. He searched inside the bowl for the answer to Leno’s question.
“My dad more than my mom,” Jindal said of the accent. “But my dad, you know… none of his brothers or sisters got past the fifth grade… He went all the way to college. That’s pretty amazing.”
“When you were born… did he say — ” Leno bobbled his large head, playing to the studio audience. He put on a corny, over-the-top, Apu-from-The-Simpsons accent: “We will name him Bobby!“
The crowd roared.
“Nooooo,” Jindal protested, faint though distinct, his chin drooping to his chest, clearly mortified. His hands knit together protectively and fell into his lap.
Here is a little exercise. Do you think that Jay Talking Penis Leno would ever make fun of say Senator from Illinois Obama’s father’s African accent? No, not unless he wanted to lose his sponsors. or worse his liberal credentials. But for Indians, and also Chinese immigrants, accent-shaming is considered to be clean fun and you can thank the Simpsons for its mainstreaming. Now take Jay Leno, shrink him down to a five-year-old version of himself (closer to the intellectual age of Leno), multiply him by thirty, take away the comforting environs of a late night show and replace it by a baseball diamond, and you may understand why Bobby Jindal at the age of four, (as he claims) started asking children at school to call him Bobby, instead of Piyush.
Which brings me to something that is very important in understanding Bobby Jindal. Religion.
But before that a little story. Once many years ago, a true-blue American had said, “Oh I had forgotten, in India you drive down the wrong side of the road”, to which I had replied, “Not the wrong side. Just the other side.” Fed on a corn-beef diet of exceptionalism, a concept that can be explained simply as “The rules we expect of others do not apply to us because we are special”, anything that is not American is wrong, either to be bombed flat or to be laughed at.
Hinduism, being very different from the traditional Abrahamic One-God-and-one-Prophet underpinning assumption of religion, is considered to be the strangest of all.
Haha, you worship a monkey? Oh my God, is that a fat elephant? Do you really drink cow piss like for breakfast? Will your mother be burnt alive if your father dies? Some of these questions stem from genuine curiosity, the kind that children have, and some from malice, which children also possess in good measure. At least in my case, this was taught in school, the elephant-God as a representative of Hindiusm, and I remember everyone laughing at how silly my religion was, and I was the only one in class whose religion was laughed at.
It wasn’t a nice feeling, I can tell you that.
Parents are not much help. They want you to win the Spelling Bee or get into Harvard or Johns Hopkins and tell you of the time they came to the country with only eight dollars in their pocket, which translates to “shut up and stop whining”. And so after some time you just don’t want to tell them about the stuff you have to go through school. Instead you blame them for just being what they are. Pushy-uncle and overbearing-aunty from India come visiting and uproot you from your bedroom (this only looks good in Metlife Insurance commercial where the son very happily makes the bed for the visitors), and then they criticize your parents for your accented Bengali or Tamil, and then your parents force you to learn Carnatic or Rabindrasangeet on Sundays, when you would be hanging around the mall, trying to make small talk with Meagan.
Your faith is not of much help.
Parents take you along to the temple right after the weekly Patel Brothers trip for samosas and dhaniya powder, spend an hour offering Puja or doing aarati, and then come back and pop an old Hindi movie into the VHS and have stale samosas. There is no Imam or Pastor at the temple to eloquently define a notion of “us” and “them”, no congregation where you can connect with others your age going through the same experiences, there is no personal engagement of community-leaders with those whose faith is wavering, no “we are better than the rest” rhetoric. Nothing.
So isolated, bullied, you start hating everything about who you are. While you cannot avoid being dorky or wash away your skin, you can change your name and then your religion and hope that somehow this will make you American.
A large part of Jindal’s Bobbyness is because he has always wanted to be President. And much as America might hector and advice other countries on pluralism, it is singularly majoritarian when it comes to its politics. When Obama first came onto the scene, and the Republicans started spreading the canard that he was a Muslim, the counter-line from the Democrats was not “So what if he is a Muslim?” but “Oh no he is not Muslim. The Christian faith is extremely important to him. Hell he prays to Jesus everyday”. Things are so bad that President Obama had to cancel his visit to the Golden Temple, over concerns that if he covered his hair, and the picture of that got out, it might be construed as proof that he is Muslim. In this political environment, it is impossible to stay a Hindu and dream of the office of President of the USA, and so much of Jindal’s overt religiosity is carefully calibrated to resonate with his Christian conservative base, and compensate for the foreign-ness of his face.
— Lamar White, Jr (@CenLamar) February 3, 2015
While Latino-Americans and Jewish-Americans find no conflict in endorsing and championing Latino/Jewish issues and, as a matter of fact, draw significant political strength from their composite identity, Jindal goes through great pains to de-hyphenate himself from Indian-American to pure American. His conversion to Christianity is not enough, he still has to keep on saying “Dude I am not Indian”. From his hilarious “tanned” campaign line to his rather Fair-and-Lovelied official portrait, (Nikki Haley, yet another Jindal-clone, lists herself as “white” in her voter registration) and his refusal to associate himself with any political cause that can be considered Indian, this heavy-handed denial of his roots is not only ridiculous, in a Uncle Tom way, but also pathetic.
Bobby has never supported a single Indian issue, he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a congressman [on] Capitol Hill and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader,” Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and author, wrote in a recent book, “India Shastra.”
“It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.”
Of course, not every Indian-Hindu becomes a Bobby Jindal and thank God for that. But a lot do end up growing up alone and rootless in a culture that does very little to welcome them. And while it is perfectly good fun to mock Jindal and his stance on guns and homosexual marriage and evolution and, yes also his loathing of his roots, it might not be a bad idea to take a step back, pause on the #YoJindalSoWhite hashtags, and contemplate what it is about the American immigrant experience for second-generationers that makes a Bobby out of a Piyush.