Friday, November 13, 2015

Ask Firangi Bahu: "Why do NRI's care about my husband's caste?"

(Img via Eutah Mizushima)

Sharing a letter from a reader...

"Hi Alexandra,

I am an American woman married to man from India. We reside in the United States. 

I have noticed for several years that when meeting an Indian for the first time and informing the person that my husband is Indian, they immediately ask me for my husband's last name (surname). My suspicion is that most of these people are making a not so subtle inquiry into my husband's "caste". If this is an erroneous assumption then please correct me but I think caste determination of the intent of the question.

When I meet non-Indians for the first time, last names rarely are asked. The initial exchange is mostly about pleasantries and questions about I live, my occupation, or how many children I have.

Yet even with NRIs would have lived in the US for over 30 years I have found that they have an urgent need to determine my husband's religion and "caste". Caste is an abhorrent and man made institution that should be deemed irrelevant in the year 2015.

Here's a typical exchange with an Indian woman I met that I will call Priya:

Me: Hi, are you from India?
Priya: Yes.
Me: My husband is from India.
Priya: Which part of India?
Me: (I tell her)
Priya: What is his surname?
Me: (I tell her)

At this point, I have to restrain myself from laughing because I can see the puzzled expression on Priya's face as she tries to determine the caste of my husband's obscure surname. He told me only a few thousand people in India have the same surname as him. 

I am really rather tired of this not so innocuous question and am asking for advice from your readers on how to handle this in the future. I don't want to appear rude or insensitive yet may not really care if I alienate an new acquaintance who still cares about caste. I have considered replying "Why are you asking?"...."


Dear readers, have you experienced the same thing from fellow NRI's or Indians?
Do you think the Aunty was just being nosy or trying to figure out caste?
Do you think caste and/or caste based discrimination happens even outside of India?
Have you met people who really care about caste? What has been your experience with that?
Do you get more respect if people find out you're married to a higher caste Indian?
How can this reader re-route these intrusive questions?



  1. As an Indian who has an unusual surname, I myself have been oblivious to this. My wife just thinks I don't notice stuff, and she's probably right! Both of us have been shocked in the past about how even educated Indian friends sometimes openly ask us about our castes - and it's totally weird because I don't know what my "caste" is, and neither does my wife.

    It can be very pissing off - because you know you're being stereotyped even as you speak. I mean we all stereotype, but this is specifically asking for information in order to do so! But "C'est la vie!" People will do what they want to do, and we can't change that. The best thing you can do is laugh it off, and hope your friends are mature enough to not be stupid...

  2. The way I see it: in the university community I live in, non-Indians (Americans), to break the ice talk about "what sports team they support", "what Ford x50" they drive and "if they hunt". The whole caste idea is something similar. I doubt many Indians would want to be friends with ONLY their "caste", but it allows people to somewhat (on many occasions incorrectly) decide how the interaction should proceed.

    I am an Iyer. I do find that a lot of my north Indian friends were interested in my surname and "caste" and modified their dialogue with me accordingly so as to use the same "lingo" as far as possible. This could very well be the case.

  3. Perhaps it is to see if there are any commonalities...or to see if there are any shared religious/value systems.
    Most Indians are very curious and at times obnoxiously nosy about the personal information of people they meet.
    As long as they do not ask for 'caste' info, just let it slide.
    If anyone specifically asks about caste, just say: I do not know as it does not matter to me. It is only when we ALL drop the caste labels will it end divisions amongst groups.

  4. I haven't found that people ever ask me for my caste in the US.
    However, I do ask for last names when I talk to someone. I never do it to ask for caste. The thing is that the last name can tell you a lot about the identity of a person. I find it confusing when people try to hide parts of their identity when it obviously affects their world view. For example, I'd met a guy who when I asked where he is from, he said he was from a neighboring city to my hometown. So when I talked about some other things, he seemed confused. So I asked him "Are you *insert state identity*?" And he said no - his family was originally from another state. I could have just as easily asked his last name and then I'd have the same information. Really - knowing where a person grew up and where his family is from originally tells us what to talk to them about. I know certain parts of India don't make such a big deal of Diwali so then I know what to wish them when I meet them next. Or they celebrate new years day at a different day than my community does so then I know about that. Or the fact that my husband grew up in several different parts of India so then I could connect with them over shared backgrounds. Any number of things really.
    An American analogy would be having someone tell you they are from NYC but then you start talking about NYC neighborhoods or NYC landmarks that have changed and you find that they actually grew up in Utah but their parents moved there much later. So then it would make sense to shift conversation to "Oh! I've always wanted to visit X place in your home state." Or whatever else you find in common.
    However, I do not insist that caste based thinking does not exist among the NRIs. It probably does. I haven't come upon it among my friends but that could just mean that I socialize with a specific type of people who don't care about caste.

  5. I actually see my (Indian-born) husband doing this to people a lot -- he even asks me (white) the last names of Indian people I meet when he is not around. I do think he is using the name to determine background -- which includes caste but I think it's a bit more than just that. It helps him place a person, and I do find often he can guess a lot about an Indian person just from their name.

  6. I think that it is a very reasonable question to ask, considering India is so huge and diverse. Without knowing more context, it appears as though your husband has some insecurities about his caste which he has passed on to you. This makes you imagine ulterior motives for simple questions.

  7. A surname is not just about caste.. India is huge and surname helps to get a lot of context right..

    1. you are just 'contextualising' casteism. it reflects casteism still is prevalanet in indian . in urban class it is not easy to show your caste so they do it by another way it's nothing but 'socialisation' of urban people based on caste that's why they ask surname it will give them idea to judge people based on their surname ..

    2. From your answer i think you are the one who is insecure about your caste and judging people.

  8. Read this article!

    1. Yes, that's a great article! I was going to recommend it too!

  9. Dharti, anon,

    I agree--last name tells so much more than just caste. And although they may be trying to figure that out too, last names tells so much about the person's background and context. As anon said, one "can guess a lot about an Indian person just from their name." In fact, I've notice myself asking last names of Indians in the west too...not because I want to know their caste, but because of the background and context it gives me for that person and their community.

    1. what does mean by background surname itself reflect background .there are very few examples where surname are based on name of village or cities like jafar allahabadi hasrat jaipur but common folks prefer to reflect their surname to show their social background and don't make fool yourself ..we indian know how casteism play significant role in surname so please accept it that casteism is the sole reason behind asking for surname of her husband

  10. i agree with a lot of the comments that surname can provide a lot more clues than just caste. In Australia where everyone knows everyone, i would also assume the questioner is also sussing out if they know or have heard of this person by last name or are familiar with other people in the family. I have been with my husband for 9 years now though and have never really had this problem here

  11. I feel the LW is reading too much into this. I do not really believe the person asking for the surname is necessarily looking for the caste. They are looking to place him, surnames can tell you about regions/states also.

    I do not really find it offensive because most Indians ask questions like these while it may be considered intrusive to foreigners.Many aunties ask questions like "what do your parents do" etc. Yes, partly to judge you but also to get you. Something like what Elizabeth GIlbers says in Eat pray love about Bali and how they need to place you.

    I often may ask many questions because I am trying to understand a person and I generally can't trust someone who tries to hide where they are from and where they have lived etc. Many people here do it because they want to fit in, pretend that they are from around here when they are not, perhaps because they do not want to stand out but also because they do not trust you. Often when people hide these basic things, it tells me more about their insecurities and fear of discrimination.

    Surnames are just a way to place people in context and all humans like to categorize things in their head. Individuating information with categorizing would fry our brains because there is so much information in this world.

    Yes, people may be prejudiced that you are from a particular state or have stereotypes but if someone does not want to pursue a conversation with you because your husband is from a so and so state, then do you really want to hang out with such a narrow minded person?

    Dear readers, have you experienced the same thing from fellow NRI's or Indians? Actually I do not remember being asked for my surname at all but when they hear it they can know my state/caste easily if they are Indian.

    Do you think the Aunty was just being nosy or trying to figure out caste? Nosy of course. Hell, I am nosy albeit in a subtle way. When an Indian marries a foreigner, everybody is more curious about the Indian person.

    Do you think caste and/or caste based discrimination happens even outside of India? I don't know. I have witnessed or participated in any. However, I feel that many Indians who immigrated here embraced this country partially because it enabled them to shine and overcome the caste based barriers.

    Have you met people who really care about caste? What has been your experience with that? Yup there are fussy people I have heard of but personally I do not remember that much coming across people like that.

    Do you get more respect if people find out you're married to a higher caste Indian? N/A

    How can this reader re-route these intrusive questions? Smile and just tell the surname and tell the state her husband is from when the said Indian person is struggling to figure out where they are from? Or just smile and talk about something else and pretend you did not hear their question.

  12. I'm from Switzerland, were people will also ask last names to get an idea of where a person is originally from. And I know that last names in India serve the same purpose, it is not all about caste but indicates the state the person is originally from and help strike a conversation. I really don't get irked by the last name asking at all. But I do get a bit annoyed when people ask me directly what caste my husband is, first because I think it is rude to do so, then because I have no idea and then last but not least because I don't care. I took to replying to these nosy people by "Why do you want to know that?" And they usually just retreat in shock and stop talking.

    I also use that line when people in India just come straight to me ask me where I am from. Not that I mind the question if you took the time to say hello, ask my name, and have tried to strike a conversation in a polite way. But the random stranger that can't be bothered with even saying yellow and start by immediately asking me where I am from doesn't really deserve an answer. So I ask them why on earth they would want or need to know that.

  13. Let's put it this way : suppose your husband is Tamil, each time he speaks Tamil, other Tamils can guess what is his caste and region of origin. Then not everybody uses their caste in their name, they use only their father's name, which makes it harder to make educated guesses - Padparadscha

  14. All these starightforward investigations is only to find some common connection - like city they grew up in, family connections, etc. Equal of FB showing mutual friends.
    I used feel irritated when I was younger. But now I use the direct questions approach to find common points, when I meet someone new. And it works most of the time. I have met ppl in America who were in the same neighbourhood as me in elemenary school.

    I second Dharti's comment and Anonymous about "breaking ice" talk.

    Finding caste from surname is tough. There are very few surnames now, which reveal caste. Last name has undergone an upheavel through different movements in India like freedom movement, itercaste marriages, adoptions.

    There are so many regional identities apart from caste - like City/village, language, religion, college etc. You can rest assure that they wont use caste to discrimate on. There are 100 other things, they can use to throw shades :)

    How to deal with it, is to play the same game.
    Ask them questions, to find their American connections.
    Asking "why do you want to know? " wont be rude at all. It will give them a chance to be more open.


Respectful comments only, please! (That means you, anonymous.)

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