By Deepak Singh, author of How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage
Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I usually work from a café. Every morning, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., you’ll find me there, often writing, sometimes reading. I can usually walk to the place, but sometimes I drive to the ones that are a little far. I park my car, walk in, drop my bag on an empty chair and get in line for a cup of coffee. This is a routine.
About a year ago, I was in a coffee shop, writing. The place had a chair against the wall with small square individual table in front. I liked to sit there because I could sit upright and focus, instead of lounging on one of its comfy chairs.
Since I was a regular customer, a lot of the staff members knew me by face and some of them by name. When I arrived, I set my computer on a table and went to the counter to order a cup of coffee. The barista took my money and said, “You are Abdullah, right?”
“No, I am not.”
“Oh, sorry. You do look like Abdullah, the guy from Saudi.”
“Okay, but I am Deepak, the guy from India.”
“I’ll try to remember that, sorry.”
“No problem,” I said.
I got my coffee and sat down.
A few minutes later, I noticed people’s eyes skipping around me as they passed by or waited in line. Then I saw the person sitting on my left reading the news on his laptop. His computer screen had a picture of the couple who had killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. It was a day after the shooting had taken place. I looked at it for a few seconds and then went back to writing. I didn’t want to think much of it, but I looked at it again and then looked around. There was a woman sitting to my right wearing a hijab. She hadn’t been there when I came into the coffee shop. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed. She was busily chatting in English on her phone and typing on her laptop at the same time. Her white veil covered her head but not her face. Her long-sleeved top covered her arms and wrists. This was not the first time I had seen a hijabi girl in the coffee shop, but I didn’t remember when the last time had been. I looked at her from the corner of my eyes and then my eyes shifted to the picture on the laptop to my left. Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter, didn’t look very different from the lady sitting next to me. I thought that might be what people were looking at.
It dawned on me that I, myself, could be confused for someone who looked like Syed Farook, the male accomplice. There was an early morning rush, and there were more people in line now. A lot of them were looking at their phones and also looking at me. At least that is what I thought.
I was not able to focus on my work anymore. I was fidgeting. The lady next to me was still talking and typing. It seemed to me the more I tried to avoid attention, the more conspicuous I was getting.
“She’s not with me,” I wanted to say to them. “I’ve never seen her before!” Then I thought even if she moved away from me, the folks in the coffee shop could still think of me what they might have been thinking of her. A part of me thought that I was overreacting. But then I remembered all those times working a day job in an electronics store, when so many Americans asked me if I was from Syria or Iraq.
All kinds of thoughts were brewing up in my head as I sat there staring at my computer, my fingers frozen.
I was irritated at the people who were looking at us. I wanted to move to a different spot, but all the seats were taken. The only choice was to get up and leave. Or just sit there and let people stare at me. I left. Later, I thought to myself that I was being worried for no reason. It was all in my head.
Last week, as I read the news in another coffee shop, the big story was about two Indians enjoying a few drinks at a bar in Kansas. Reports say that a prejudiced man shot them and killed one of them. They didn’t look much different than me — in fact, they looked exactly like me. Now their parents are mourning back in India. I could have been one of those men.
I thought of my time at the coffee shop a year ago and how I had felt threatened and uncomfortable. I can only imagine how Muslims are feeling now that Trump is president.
I came home and held my wife and my daughter and felt happy and lucky to be together and alive. And then I thought about the most powerful men in America who seem to be waging war on everyone who resembles me.
Deepak Singh is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. He tweets at @deepakwriter and now lives in Brunswick, Maine.