When Americans Tell Americans “Get Out of My Country”
I landed in Boston for Rahma and Mickey’s memorial service not long after the World Trade Center Towers fell on Sept. 11. My friends had recently gotten married, and Rahma was several months pregnant when they boarded American Airlines Flight 11. Like the 90 other people onboard, they never landed. That same morning, I took the Path train from New Jersey to the World Trade Center stop for a meeting downtown. The delays, at the time, frustrated me. But I was one of the last passengers to make it out of that tunnel alive.
As I drove to Rahma’s service outside Boston the week after, I was angry and sad, and I was slow to react to a light that had turned green. I was jolted out of my revery when I heard the man in the SUV behind me yell, “Terrorist! Go home.”
I straightened up, put my car in park and looked around for the terrorists. He started honking, but I scanned the intersection and didn’t see any signs of violence. The man then drove around by my side and stopped. Looking straight at me with piercing blue eyes, he yelled, “Get the hell out of my country and go home,” along with a few other expletives.
Shocked, I started to tell him I wasn’t the terrorist. I was there at the building. I wanted to say I had friends that were also victims. But before I could form the words, he had driven away. I pulled over, shaken up, and just stared ahead past the windshield.
Today, I think about that afternoon frequently. That was the day I started to realize people look at me differently. I am a brown man, and subject to the stereotypes and assumptions that come with my appearance, despite my American upbringing, education, and tech industry resume. That incident was 15 years ago, and not much has changed.
In late February, when my mother messaged me “Please don’t go out to bars anymore,” I immediately knew she was referring to the recent incident in Kansas where two Indian engineers were shot at the bar that they frequented. At the same spot where they regularly drank Jamesons after work, a patron yelled at them, “Get out of my country!” and then shot them both. One survived. The other was fatally wounded.
“Mom, those were Indians in Kansas; I’m in Cambridge,” I messaged her back. “Things are different here. You don’t have to worry.” She was unconvinced. Another Indian family she said, in New Jersey, had recently had eggs and dog feces smeared on their house.
It gave me a start. I thought, My parents live alone in New Jersey—what if the same thing happened to them?
My father moved to Jersey City in the late 1960s to attend graduate school. He started his new life with just the phone number of a friend in hand, and a couple hundred dollars in his wallet. To him, the “American Dream” meant education and hard work. He was accepted at Stevens Institute of Technology, where he attended graduate school with a full course load and held down a full-time job. How he was able to do both, still baffles me till today.
It was during these years that I was born in Elizabeth, N.J. My parents raised my brother and me in the Tri-state area. Both of them worked extremely hard and made innumerable sacrifices to ensure that we were able to access opportunities and attend good schools.
My parents have been living in the U.S. for more than 40 years, but only now have they started suggesting some rules for my safety. They tell me to be careful in public and to not go out too much. My mother wants me to shave my hipster beard and keep a “clean look,” and she wants me to make sure that when I am in public I am not surrounded by too many Indians, so as not to attract unwanted attention.
She asks that I don’t wear anything that looks “Indian” and that I not speak Hindi outside the house. I initially brushed off their well-meaning advice as just parents being paranoid. But then I started paying attention to the news. I read about the Sikh man that was shot in Seattle, a murder in South Carolina, and then the convenience store arson in Florida. It dawned on me that people like my parents are now leading their lives with extra caution. They are living in terror, but this time it’s terrorism incubated closer to home.
I’m an American. I was born in this country and I have lived most of my life here. I worked in India for several years heading up new business development in the country for Google. An while I was there, it was clear to the locals that I was not a native and I was often asked where I was from. I always always proudly replied “America.”
I’m still proud: I was born here, this is my country, and I have the same rights as all U.S. citizens. Most Americans, in fact, are the sons, daughters, or grandchildren of immigrants. Even if you narrow your focus to just one generation, according to 2016 Census figures, immigrants and their U.S.-born children now account for almost 30 percent of the overall U.S. population.
Their contributions, it should go without saying, are innumerable. Steve Jobs’ father was an immigrant from Syria. Elon Musk is an immigrant from South Africa. Sergey Brin is an immigrant from Russia. Those men have done more to catapult American innovation than nearly anyone. According to one recent study, 51% of companies valued at a billion dollar or higher have immigrant founders or co-founders.
Still, today for the first time in the U.S., my parents are scared, though they don’t talk about it. Their history as immigrants and their cultural traditions make it especially taboo to say anything publicly about the pressures they’re facing. In school, we hear stories about the Italian, the Russian, the Jewish immigrants along with so many others. But we don’t hear as many stories as we should about the Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Koreans, Indians who are also all around us in New York. There are more immigrants staying under the radar—who, instead of protesting or raising awareness, are just trying to blend in and not to attract attention. Dress nice, wear a blazer, put on some nice shoes, be well groomed before you head out of the house and nobody will bother you.
In this, I know my parents aren’t alone. There are many more mothers and fathers from India and other countries also telling their kids not to go out to bars, or in some cases, not to come to the U.S. at all. Often, we don’t notice; the media doesn’t report on it; and their worries go unaddressed. But we should start noticing. Rising anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t just about Indian Americans at traffic lights, it’s anyone deemed culturally “different”—whether it’s because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion.
Without those people, American society will be weaker, and U.S. businesses will be poorer. If they start hanging back, as some already are, the erosion of U.S. cultural norms will be slow, quiet, and profound. That’s unless we start yelling like hell to stop it.
—Gautam Gandhi is currently studying at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.