‘If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi’ Is a Midwestern Indian Americana that Eschews Stereotypes

Neel Patel on writing his book to fight against societal expectations

The Indian Americans in Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi possess serious real estate square footage and all the trappings of upper bourgeois America. Yet, they’re still saddled with discontented dreams.

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Patel’s characters veer from the ambitions of their parents, who came to America for the advertised skyward course of the American Dream. They are straight, queer, single, twice-married, troubled, and unrepentant. Even the ones who become doctors zigzag and transgress the model minority cardboard version of Indians in America.

I spoke to Patel about Midwestern Indian Americana, revenge, and a short story collection as a middle finger to societal expectations.

J.R. Ramakrishnan: Being first-generation Indian-American takes up prime space in your biography. I also read that your parents are from East Africa.

Neel Patel: Yeah, my father is from Kenya and my mom is from Tanzania.

JRR: I grew up in London and know many South Asians there who had families who came from Uganda. That particular trajectory seems like diaspora times two.

NP: Yes. At 16, my mom relocated to London so her family is there. The culture of my household was very different. When you are part of a community that you don’t feel like you really and fully belong to, you have an interesting perspective on it.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town with a tiny Indian community. We were very different. Most of the families there are from India. I know my mom didn’t always fit in. She went to a convent school. She lived in London as a teenager. She went rock concerts. She had a lot of freedom. My parents are pretty progressive. They drink alcohol. My mother is Gujarati and there was a time when she really enjoyed a good steak dinner. The other women in our town would have been horrified that she was eating beef.

Being culturally different from the other Indians certainly informed my writing. As did being othered by white people and feeling like you didn’t have a choice.

JRR: I was in Milwaukee recently visiting a friend, who could be a character out of your collection. What struck me the most was how much of space there is in those suburban houses. You can move without getting close to anyone ever. In your story, “Just A Friend,” the narrator makes a similar observation. And in “The Taj Mahal,” Sabrina says, “you knew you were rich when people wanted a tour of your house.”

NP: I grew up in a house like that. In the Midwest, it’s just cheaper. Indian communities who settled there did so because they knew they could do very well. There is this subculture of Indian doctors in the Midwest. They are in these small towns, where they know everyone, and have these five or six-thousand-square-foot mansions. It’s amazing how you can live with people for 18 years and not fully know them. Our immigrant parents had no idea what our day-to-day lives were like. Their major concerns were: Are you doing well at school? Are you thinking about your future? Are you going to become a doctor, engineer, etc.? Are you going to get married? They didn’t understand that for us happiness was more complicated than checking things off a list.

Being culturally different from the other Indians certainly informed my writing. As did being othered by white people and feeling like you didn’t have a choice.

JRR: In the collection, parental expectations are very linear and your characters stray off the path in all kinds of ways. Was that you in real life?

NP: Yes, it was very much my experience. I grew up feeling like there were so many things that were expected of me. I was not able to meet my parents’ expectations and that was really hard as a kid. I am terrible at math. I was always an artistic kid. I’m gay. I was different from everyone else’s children. I was an A, B, and C student. I got Cs frequently and that was unacceptable. So yeah, I wanted to write about characters who don’t always please their parents or society. Society is like a prison. It can be cruel.

JRR: Your Indians are no model minorities but they are exquisitely human. For example, the feisty Sabrina from “The Taj Mahal,” with whom I fell in love, is not your average young Indian doctor.

NP: What I was trying to say was more complex. The thing I love about short stories is that you can really experiment with different styles and perspectives. I felt Sabrina’s voice was in me somewhere so that’s where I started. That story and “These Things Happen” were the first two I wrote. The last three stories I wrote were the title story and then the two linked ones. Those are more of the traditional narrative that one would expect of this community. I started at an atypical point (“The Taj Mahal” and “These Things Happen”) and brought it back to something more familiar. Sabrina is unlikable. I really like unlikable characters.

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JRR: I thought the women in your book are very subversive and aren’t depicted as stereotypes.

NP: Oh, thank you! I think that women, particularly women in our community and Asian communities in general, are expected to be submissive, soft-spoken, and malleable. I wanted to write women who were unapologetic.

JRR: The fixation with material goods is overwhelming. I am thinking of Anjali’s mom in “Radha, Krishna” needing photos of Anjali’s new Jeep and shrimp risotto meals to show off.

NP: It all goes back to expectation. People come to this country expecting certain things — success being the biggest. And I do think that people, especially my parents’ generation, are very obsessed with wealth and status. I remember being at a dinner party where someone was talking about how much money somebody else made. They started arguing about it and then somebody said, “Who’s the richest person in the room?” I thought, my god, this is a sickness.

There is this need to prove oneself. My father always told me as child, “In this country as a brown person if you want respect, you need money.” That’s a very powerful statement to tell a child. That told me that being brown wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t be average. I couldn’t just be me. I had to be successful to be accepted. It’s especially true with the preoccupation with medicine in the Indian community. My friends’ parents who were in the motel industry all encouraged their kids to become doctors, no matter how successful they themselves were. I was aware of the way they regarded my father who is a doctor. I wanted this to be in the stories.

I wanted to write about characters who don’t always please their parents or society. Society is like a prison. It can be cruel.

JRR: How did the two linked stories “World Famous” and “Radha, Krishna” come to you?

NP: I wrote “World Famous” about seven years ago when my friends were graduating medical school. I had heard a story about a med student who didn’t match (for a residency) and had to go back home for a year. I started thinking about what that would be like. When my editor asked me for another two stories, I revisited it and made it a love story. I wanted Ankur to meet someone like him: an outcast. So I came up with Anjali. The story twists and turns and there’s only unreliability in the narrative. Anjali was the tragic figure in that story and I wanted to keep going so I wrote “Radha, Krishna.” We saw Anjali through his eyes and I wanted to see him through hers — and what it would be like to be her in this community.

JRR: The straight relationship dysfunction in “Radha, Krishna” feels so spot-on.

NP: I like writing about straight relationships. Most of my friends are straight. I think especially at college, I was the person who witnessed everything and was completely neutral about it all. Young love is interesting. It’s very insecure and so influenced by outside forces. This is what I was thinking about when I wrote their relationship. Social class is a big part of it. He’s from an upper middle class family and she’s the daughter of a motel owner. They have all these ideas about each other. And then there’s the fact that he ultimately believes his mother when she is actually wrong about Anjali.

JRR: Revenge appears to be quite a force. Sabrina gets back at her friend who stole a boy from her at high school. In the title story, Premal has the satisfaction of seeing a girl who snubbed him at school working at the gas station, while he has become a surgeon. A lot of fuck yous here.

NP: Yeah, I really never felt like I was good enough. I felt scrutinized and having the book published in many ways is a fuck you to society. I was a troubled kid and I made plenty of trouble for my parents. In one of the many lectures my father gave me, he said, “We live in a society.” In my head, I thought, I don’t want to live in a society. My characters are fighting against this society and trying to find themselves in spaces to be comfortable in.

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