As an East Indian Sees America
IF people are sufficiently courageous they may wish to see themselves as others see them. But it would take courage to face some peoples’ opinions of some of us. It is especially so in the certain instance we have in mind wherein, as shown in the article which we reprint herewith, an East Indian tells how he saw the United States.
His article does not mention Canada, and indeed we are anxious to believe that although we do five side by side the average Canadian is a more mannerly animal than the average American. There is, however, no doubt that, had Mr. Singh extended his visit to this country he would have had something to say of us too— probably not complimentary. Mr. Singh in effect states that he was treated with abominable rudeness in the United States. Reading his article one is compelled to admit that in our eyes more of his experiences were quite commonplace, but through his eyes, we see them differently.
Even, he says, writing in The Hindustan Review,—even though the stranger may dress himself as does the American of his standing, if his features are of a slightly different cast, his hair of a somewhat different hue, he is liable to be singled out and stared at. The street gamins are apt to insultingly call him a “nigger,” if his complexion happens to be a little bit dark. I have known American boys and girls, of various ages, to follow me in droves as I walked along on the sidewalks of American metropolises; these urchins veiling and screaming and calling me all manner of names as they went along, their number being constantly reinforced. The very first hour I spent on the American continent, and before I had become callous to American impudence, was about the most miserable hour I have spent in my life. I was walking down from ,the wharf, where I had landed, to the city of Seattle, Washington, leisurely taking in the sights, which then appeared to me to be wonderful in the sense of being new. I
had gone but a short distance when a crowd of boys and girls, some shabbily, some stylishly dressed, formed a ring around me and sped on as I did. It is the fashion in the United States for men to shave the face clean. My beard and long hair attracted the attention of the gamins. “Mr., there is a barber shop around the corner. You better get a shave,” yelled one of the boys. “Yes. And get a hair cut while you are about it,” shouted another. “Better get two hair cuts while you are about it,” called out a third. Amidst this yelling, impudent crowd, I, an utter stranger in the country and continent, felt as does a Negro who is being taken to a tree to be lynched by an infuriated American mob. Surrounded by this conglomerate procession as I went on my way, the urchins would yell “Skidoo,” “23 for you!” These happened to be the current phrases which were the rage of the time when I landed on the continent about four years ago, and I had to bear the brunt of them. I did not know what the terms meant as they were yelled at me; and it was good that I was ignorant of their significance, for, translated into plain, everyday English, these phrases meant no less than: “Get ye gone,” and, to be sure, if I had fathomed their meaning I certainly would have been inexpressibly dejected, harassed and discomfited as I was by the little brutes who were hectoring me.
“Get ye gone!” That was the welcome America gave me when I landed on the continent; but that was not the last of that kind of welcome that the people of the United States were to accord me during my extended sojourn in the land of the Stars and Stripes. The very first impression I formed of America was its rudeness to strangers of different appearance from the citizens of the land. The very first conclusion I arrived at in the United States was the fact that I would have to put up with a great deal of impertinent notice. It was providential that the very first day of my arrival on the continent, I registered a vow not to permit myself to be tormented by the ungentlemanly and lo! the ungentlewomanly attention paid to my brown visage and raven-black hair: for had I allowed myself to be discomfited by American rudeness, I certainly would have seen the in-
side of a lunatic asylum within the first six months of my residence in the United States.
As I open the flood-gates of my memory, reminiscences of American unmannerliness force themselves on me. I was in Chicago at the time the last Republican convention was held at which the Honorable William Howard Taft was nominated as the candidate of the Republican party for President of the United States. I wanted to go to the Convention to see what it was like, and I went to the office of the Secretary of the Convention Committee to endeavour to obtain a ticket of admittance. On the second floor of the Coliseum—a mammoth building, containing one of the largest halls in the world—was the office of the man whom I had to see in order to obtain what I was after. The corridor in front of this office was packed with men. A newspaper man I knew voluteered the information that amongst the ¡crowd were prominent politicial bosses, also Senators and Congressmen and newspaper correspondents from the large metropolitan daily papers of the continent. The Secretary of the Reception Committee of the Convention was engaged, and I had to wait ten minutes before being admitted into his presence. I leaned back against a wall and began to take in what was going on around me.
As I stood watching the men standing about me in small knots, talking to one another, apparently about some absorbing topic, a man tapped me on the shoulder. He was a great deal taller than I was, and as I looked up I found that he was faultlessly dressed in expensive clothes. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles. A massive gold chain bridged his two lower waist-coat pockets and from this hung a huge gold fob. He had on his fingers two or three rings set with sparkling diamonds, and carried in his hand a goldheaded cane. A diamond stud adorned his stiff-bosomed boiled shirt. These details impressed me and as I scanned this man’s face, which was blacker than my boots (he was an Afro-American) he spoke to me in elegant English:
“Beg your pardon, Mister, but will you tell me who you are?”
I knew what my questioner wanted to find out. He wished to know whether
or not I was a Negro. But in order to have some fun at his expense, I said unhesitatingly, .“I am a newspaper man. Does he (meaning the Secretary whom I was to see) want me to come in now?” I asked him, carrying the joke farther and making him feel that, despite the gold and diamonds on his person, I regarded him as the office boy of the Secretary.
“Oh! I am not an office boy. I should think you could have seen that,” he rejoined sarcastically.
“Then, pray, why bother me with the. question?” I asked mischievously.
Rebuffed, the “colored” gentleman walked off with an air of injured pride. What he thought of me, I never learned, save what I scanned from his angry face. No sooner was I alone than another man —this time a “white” man—who stood beside men, volunteered:
“Bravo! Well done! I am glad you squelched that nigger. He controls a few colored votes and feels that he is the boss of everybody. We toady to him at election time, but after November 3rd we will not hesitate to show him his place. It certainly was a mistake to make the nigger the white man’s equal. The colored man was made to take orders from the white man, and no matter how much you may whitewash him, he still remains a nigger.” .
This man was a Southerner. His accent and sentiment revealed beyond mistake his identity. After he had finished his diatribe on the inferiority of the colored races, I said:
“Well, I am a colored man myself— not a Negro, but still a colored man. But so far as impudence is concerned, the white man can’t be beat.” Then I told him what happened to me a few mornings previously. I had my Indian headredss on, and when I boarded a street-car I walked down the aisle looking for a seat and found there was just one seat available in the car, half of it being occupied by a woman. No sooner had I sat down when she turned around and began to boldly stare at my face. It was my turban that most interested her. Presently she said:
“Is it not too bad to have your head bandaged so? What kind of an accident did you have?”
“The accident of being born in India, madam, and traveling in a curiosity cursed land. I don’t need sympathy, since my head does not hurt me.”
What monumental ignorance did this question reveal, I thought to myself.
I remember a somewhat analogous incident. An oldish American woman brought a wet towel and began to rub my forehead with it, as hard as she could. When asked to explain why she did so, she said she was trying to see if she could rub off the brownish-black stain from my race. She declared I spoke English like an American, and she was trying to discover if I was merely masquerading as an (East) Indian for some ulterior motive. I was fearfully enraged at the performance; but the woman went about it in such solemn earnestness that to this day I have never been able to decide whether she was cracking a joke at my expense, or was in earnest, actuated by prejudice and ignorance.
It is this daring of the American women that irritates an Oriental sojourner in America. Your Yankee friend is likely to coolly ask you to lay bare the innermost secrets of your soul—and to do it in the most nonchalant manner, disguising it under the cloak of a joke. An Indian friend of mine had resided for a long time in an eastern (Eastern United States) city, and had formed many valuable friendships. One evening he called with me on two sisters and their mother. As we were sitting idly gossiping, the conversation turned on marriage in India. One of the sisters suddenly asked my friend :
“How about your wife, Mr. -?”
She is all right,” he replied, just as hastily as the query was put to him.
“Why, Mr-, you said you were not
married at all,” triumphantly put in the other sister, with a touch of grim humor. The discomfiture of my friend is easier imagined than described. Yet the young American woman was actuated by “smartness”—probablv jocoseness—to ask such a question: or maybe the mind of the American woman, like that of the woman of other countries, works in devious grooves and perhaps there was a deeper motive for this query than I divined. All the same, it was the bold, nonchalant manner of the woman that impressed me most, and it
certainly was illustrative of a similar trait in the average American woman — and eke man.
This spirit of nonchalance in the American is so well cultivated that you cannot rebuff it. At least, such has been my experience. More than anything else, you cannot whip an American at argument so that he will stay whipped. He never acknowledges his defeat, and the minute you get off his breast he rises, forgets his bruises, and begins to charge you once again, trying to down you if he can. Many a time this conclusion has* forced itself on me until now it has become part of my working philosophy in America. As an instance of how impossible it is to rebuff an American, I will cite a personal incident. Wherever I go in America, whether it be a crowded metropolis, or a slimly-settled country site— whoever I meet in America, be the person man or woman, rich or poor, cultivated or illiterate—sooner or later, directly or indirectly, I am asked the question: “How old are you?” Poor John Chinaman gets the brunt of the blame for asking such an impertinent question: but I can swear to it that I have found the American to be absolutely the limit in this respect. I do not know whether other people have had the same experience or not; but I have. As a rule, this question is asked me in all frankness and sincerity. It is the editor of a newspaper who has hurriedly looked through my scrap-book and seen the articles I have contributed to newspapers and magazines of various lands. The editor looks at my face, which is minus a single furrow of care or anxiety. He then shifts his eyes to my hair, which has been, until recently, unstreaked with silver. Then comes the question: “By the way, you are not very old—are you?” Now when the question is asked, the only thing to do is to simply state the case. Evasion will not avail. I have tried it—without success. For instance, I may say: “I am not a hundred thousand years old.” Quick as a flash comes reply from the editor. “I knew that; but how old are you, anyway?” If it is a society leader, a woman
with money and power (whatever that word may mean) she asks you this question more politely and she repeats her query less brusquely ; but the insistence is
there, the same quality, the same quantity of insistence. The young woman will say, for instance: “So you have been away
from home for-years?” and you will
say “Yes.” She will talk for an hour about what you saw in foreign lands, and then will come the query: “And how old were you when you left home?” When she has the answers to her two questions, your age is just a matter of simple arithmetic. If you somewhat hesitate to state just how old you are, you will be condescendingly told: “My question may sound impolite, but we are interested (this word is drawled out, in-ter-est-ed) in you.” Funny interest, you may say to yourself, that hinges on one’s age: but you cannot put off your friend by any adventitious means. She wants to know — she has made up her mind to know—she will know—and the best course you can adopt is to let her know. Otherwise there is a divorce between you and your peace of mind. I once tested the ingenuity of a woman friend as to her ability to find opportunities and ways to pick out of me just how old I was. She asked me a half dozen times, not once putting to me a direct question. A half dozen different ages I gave her, and each time she laughed. At last came my birthday, and she, unembarrassed, asked me how many times she must “spank” me, explaining that in her part of the country it was the custom to spank a friend or relative on his birthday, as many times as he was years old. This was really ingenious—at least it appeared so to me—and I rewarded her stick-to-it-iveness and patience by honestly answering her question.
This pestering perseverance and impertinent audacity in the American are truly galling to a foreigner, especially so during the initial stage of his sojourn in the country. Equally discomfiting is the fact that the average American feels that there is no one who is of so fine a calibre as the citizen of the United States. He considers himself to be by far the highest evolved—the flower of creation. The United States and the American are IT (to use an Americanism)—all else is second-rate or good for nothing. As to the Asiatic, his head is filled with mashed potatoes instead of brains. The orthodox American regards the Oriental as a huge joke. All kinds of fun
are had at his expense. I remember the case of a young Chinese, a very bright fellow, who came to the United States some time ago to study political economy. He spoke English imperfectly, and, as is the case with most Chinamen, he would say “1” where he ought to say “r.” Consequently he would call “rice,” “lice,” and “Mr. Lice” was the name by which he became popularly known. A young American boarding in the same family as did the Chinaman, taught the Celestial to drink his tea with a tablespoon, to eat his pie with ja knife, saw his bread with his teaspoon, eat his soup with a fork, and other ludicrous things, telling him that they were essentially high-bred table manners in America. I had the painful experience of seeing the Chinaman make a fool of himself at an important function. Every one present enjoyed the joke, except the Celestial, who was ¡utterly oblivious of the fun that was being had at his expense,
i The Chinaman had cut off his queue ¡and dressed like an American college man. His eyes were but slightly oblique. In fact, there was nothing but a very slight suggestion about his features of his Mongolian origin. One Sunday he went to the Post Office to get his mail. Nearly ¡everybody, men, women, boys and girls, in the larger American cities, goes to the [Post Office to get mail on Sunday, there being no carrier delivery on the Sabbath. In the rotunda of the Post Office my Celestial friend met a crowd of people, all waiting for the doors to open. As he stood there he heard a knot of three young women talking. One said: “Look at the Chink I” The second interjected, “Why, Isabel I He is a right handsome fellow.” The third articulated, “Yes, Isabel, you ought to marry the yellow beast.” “No!
Excuse me!” rejoined Isabel, shuddering as if the suggestion was contaminating.
My friend from China was greatly wrought up over this incident. He was hyper-sensitive, on the one hand, and without a sense of humour, on the other. Naturally he took the insult to heart and was grieving over it. “Isn’t there any way of stopping this nonsense?” he asked me in all earnestness. “Couldn’t I call an officer to my help?” he continued impassionately. “You certainly could call a policeman, if you wish,” I told him, “but he will not succour you—he will simply laugh at you.” Then I showed the Chinaman a little excerpt that I had clipped from a Chicago newspaper, and which was so typical of the unmannerliness of a certain type of Americans that I had pasted it in my note book. It ran as follows: “Not many years ago, walking in Clark Street, I saw a young American brute spit a mouthful of tobacco juice into an open package of candy which a Chinaman was carrying in his hand.”
“Are such things possible in civilized America?” was the only comment John Chinaman made. “Yes,” said I, “they are possible in half-civilized America. The country is young: it has much to learn. Refinement, one could not expect to look for in men and women whose parents were backwoods people, cut off from communication with the world, engaged in rudimentary farming in a fierce struggle with Nature ; and who, themselves, have no time for anything else save chasing madly after the almighty dollar. When Americans have a little leisure and some inclination to be introspective, they doubtless will outgrow their burly manners, but not before.” This is a simple proposition and constitutes more than ample excuse for American rudeness to strangers.