I know what it feels like to be a celebrity.
When I was 10, I visited my ancestral homeland in Kerala, India. I remember my adolescent intrigue upon entering my father’s cousin’s home and observing my aunt and her daughters scramble to bring out the nice teaware for me and my brothers to use.
I overheard them in the kitchen:
“Mom, should we serve them black tea?”
“No! Get the premium creamer your father brought from Dubai!”
While the adults were chatting, our youngest cousin playfully approached us and asked in Malayalam, “So, what’s America like!?”
“It’s nice, there’s not as many mosquitos.”
We chatted about Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Eminem and 50 Cent — stuff relevant in 2005. My cousin’s fascination peaked when my brother unsheathed his Game Boy Advance. This in turn attracted a congregation of interested local neighborhood children who gathered around the veranda. They must’ve heard that the American cousins were visiting.
Following the usual doorway banter, as we were leaving my enchanted cousin tugged wistfully at the hems of his mother’s maxi dress. My aunt teasingly called out to us as we were leaving, “Take him with you to America!”
I was only 10 years old when I received this preferential treatment from my relatives, long before I became an esteemed student at UC Berkeley or really achieved anything at all. I received this lofty treatment merely because, as an American, my relatives subconsciously associated me with capital and with power — or, more specifically, with access to it. Even at that age I had begun to understand that what I had didn’t necessarily make me privileged in their eyes; instead, what I could have if I only reached out to grab it was what constituted a privilege not afforded to them.
When I visited those same cousins again at age 25, the celebrity-like treatment I once again received wasn’t as exciting. I didn’t know if they were cozying up to me out of genuine affection or if, at least in part, it was done in order to solicit an immigration sponsor. To be honest, if I were in their shoes, I’d be motivated to do the latter.
I stand from the vantage point of one attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I probably won’t encounter serious professional insecurities after graduating.
My conversations with fellow South Asian students on campus typically revolve around discussing the internships they’d acquired in Silicon Valley, which firm ensured someone a six figure salary fresh out of undergrad or which medical school so-and-so was applying to. I applaud the feats of my peers at UC Berkeley as we ascend the social ladder of success and become engineers, physicians or investment traders. But as we do so, I wonder if we ever look beyond that ladder and reflect on just how far we’ve been able to help our families climb. Or, if we ever think about how our international counterparts haven’t been able to scale that ladder as easily as we have.
Whether in my anthropology class or while walking through Sproul Plaza, I hear the term “privilege” everywhere. Being a student at UC Berkeley has inspired me to contemplate the intersectionality of this privilege. As an American citizen, I started my climb on a stepping stool that my cousins must do without.
The socioeconomic prospects available in the U.S. are so much more promising than those available in Kerala or in the rest of India. Almost every man in my family is currently working in Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Qatar and sending back their earnings to their families in Kerala. In this scramble for employment outside of their own country, it is understood that if they could obtain a work visa for America, Canada or the U.K., then their economic insecurities would surely be absolved.
I suppose my privilege is evident in me even being able to identify the nature of my privilege. I can contemplate the nuances of privilege, which are perceptible to me as I scale upwards. For those, such as my cousins, who have to begin their climb from a less privileged point, all of the rungs above them seem indistinguishable. My cousins may see my citizenship in America as a guarantee that I will achieve the American dream — but my ability to realize that dream is still impacted by the challenges I face as a person of color in America.
I write this not as a lamentation stereotyping India as a dilapidated land of beggars. After all, the recruitment of graduate Indian professionals to the global workforce is very high. Instead, my experience in being on the other side of privilege has shifted my perspective on being the son of an immigrant in America. As a benefactor of what seems to me as sheer fortune, I don’t want to become complacent in the privileges I enjoy. As I ascend the rungs of the ladder, I want to be conscious of the profound disparities that exist between me and my international counterparts.