In the social circles that I move in (cosmopolitan, multiracial, liberal, well educated, etc. etc.) I don’t get asked the question “are you Indian?” or “Are you from India?” often. This is a big change from my youth. In the 1980s I was probably asked this nearly every week. Today if I am asked it is usually from a white or black American over the age of 40. That is, of the generation where “Where are you from?” had an exotic valence because not too many of their classmates were from/hard parents from elsewhere.
But a few days ago I was introduced to an old high school friend of my wife. To give some background, he’s a cultural Jew who lives in the Pacific Northwest, with a “New Age” orientation (so to speak). He greeted me with the “Are you Indian?” question, to which I responded apathetically with “my family is from Bangladesh.” Nevertheless, he decided to tell me about his friend from Bombay, and also asked me how I thought the chai was (I drink coffee). I found this all somewhat amusing, though tiresome (also, his wife was surprised that I didn’t know much about homeopathy, since it was big in India!). And yet I had a bigger meta issue which I was considering: is really useful to categorize brown folk/South Asians/Indians into one group?
Obviously to some extent it is. Pakistanis may protesteth, but to to Middle Eastern or Southeast Asians they’re just Indians-by-another-name, who happen to be Muslim. Our genetics, cuisine, to some extent language, folkways, unite us. And yet we’re also extremely varied. There is “Indian food” in a general sense, but there is also Indian food in a real regional sense. I don’t know much about Udupi cuisine, and what I know about Tandoori is from visiting Indian restaurants in the USA. There’s a lot of cultural detail about South Asia that I feel I people assume that I am aware of, which I’m not. Some of this could be my ignorance, but I suspect that a lot of it is just the fact that South Asia is diverse.