The label of being ‘fresh off the boat’

Is there a right to stereotype?

My boyfriend Samvit and I met in our junior year of high school at the ripe old age of 16. At the time, I was living in Bangalore, which is a major city in the southern part of India and often referred to as the Silicon Valley of the country. We didn’t start dating until the eleventh-hour in our senior year, long after I had sent off my college applications and even paid my deposit for my spot at the University. Samvit, on the other hand, had chosen to stay in India for law school. I never thought I would find myself in a long-distance relationship, but when the time came to decide what we wanted to do, we both agreed to give it a shot.

Fast forward three years later, and we’re still going strong — yet another thing I never thought possible. Yes, there are some cruel truths — like how we only see each other twice a year, and when we do, our time together is very limited. Despite all that, I can frankly say that he’s constantly been my best friend, supporter and cheerleader. The distance is nothing if not worth it.

So, you can probably imagine how excited I was when I found out Samvit would be visiting me during the semester for three weeks. An entire three weeks to just be with him, show him around town, cook with him, watch movies, talk, laugh and above all, just be a regular college student with her boyfriend. The interesting thing was this would be his first time ever in the United States.

Even though we’d been dating for a substantial amount of time, Samvit had preconceived notions about the United States. Of course, this is only natural for anyone who has not visited a particular place. Some of these assumptions were about student life, since his closest source of information was a student. For example, he was extremely fascinated with the idea of Greek Life and begged me to take him to a frat party just so he could see if it was “really like what they showed in the movies.” In another instance, he commented on how large the food servings were at restaurants, another aspect that appeared to be so quintessentially “American” to him — regardless, he was quite happy that he was getting his money’s worth.

I certainly teased him about being “fresh off the boat.”  It was so endearing how he found everything from deep dish pizza to gigantic lecture halls perplexing. Subconsciously, I realized I was viewing him as the naïve newcomer, who had been given a taste of the abundance that the U.S. stood for — something he had not found in India.

While he was certainly the epitome of a tourist in many ways, he was also quick to adapt and took my way of life in stride. He’d have no problem playing pick-up basketball with guys at the AFC, wandering around Grounds like it was his own school and staying with me until an ungodly time at night in the photo lab when I’d have endless amounts of work to do. Most of all, he became more sensitive to multiple things students here have to juggle. He began to see what it was like to be responsible for not just academics but responsibilities such as bills, laundry, repairs, groceries, cooking and so on. 

While Samvit harbored stereotypes about the United States, it was easy to forget that others here may also have stereotypes about India. It did not occur to me that this stereotype business was, in fact, a two-way street. We were visiting my family in Chicago over spring break and were at a party thrown for a close friend of my aunt. Samvit and I really didn’t want to be there — seeing as we were the only people under 30 — but we stuck around for my aunt and managed to engage in polite conversation with other guests.

At some point in the conversation, my boyfriend was rattling off statistics to prove a point that he was trying to make. The lady we were talking to turned to her friend and said — not unkindly — “Gosh, these Indians always have these numbers that they can just throw out off the top of their head! Beyond me to ever do that…” which was funny, since this lady was also of Indian origin.

Samvit and I subtly exchanged confused looks at her phrasing but continued the conversation without reacting. The comment stuck in my brain for the rest of the night. It was not meant to be spiteful at all, but the delivery and word choice were still disconcerting. The use of “these” immediately established a wall between Samvit and the lady speaking. It was a word that separated him from everyone else in the room, singling him out as only one who was not really “from” here.

What was more apparent to me was that stereotypes now were becoming more critical. There were more comparisons made between “here” and there” or language being used that imbibed a very “us” versus “them” attitude.

Perhaps this stems from globalization — people can hardly turn a blind eye to what is happening in other parts of the world. When I thought of my grandparents as immigrants here, I had always thought that being critical was not something they were privileged to. To have left their home country for a better life in the United States implied that there was less to be critical of here. Now I realize that of course, times have changed. Wars have been fought, new people have come into positions of leadership and perceptions are different.

This critical form of stereotypes made me understand better that a life in any country has no less a chance of offering good opportunities than a life here in the United States. The privilege of being critical is no longer reserved for those who had better lives and opportunities than others since the chances of prospering no matter where you live have become more equal. People all over the world have access to resources such as education and technology that are not just exclusive to the United States anymore.

With that logic, does being “fresh off the boat” have any connotation of being awestruck with the possibility of a better life anymore? Being a “FOB” could as easily refer to an American in India or a Brazilian in Singapore, could it not? The phrase now seems to refer to anyone who is mesmerized by a place they have never seen before. To me, it no longer means being stereotypically enamored with things that the individual was previously lacking. It now means being enamored with the rich differences and variations that each nation is proud to display.

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