I am learning Hindi and have found the experience particularly challenging given the rather diverse cultural history I come from ( something I have discussed a bit previously here).

My grandparents were born in India, my parents in East Africa and myself in Australia. Growing up, a mixture of four languages were spoken in my home (English, Gujarati, Hindi and Swahili) but the predominant one was English.  The food we ate was mostly Gujarati with some western influences slowly creeping in over the years: my favourite comfort food is still my mother’s Indian style macaroni and cheese. My mother wore saris and salwar chemise, with western clothes also becoming more common in recent years. My father however never wore a dhoti… he always wore western clothes. As kids we would wear chaniya cholis and go to the Gujarati society functions for Navratri and Diwali and my mother would go to regular Satsangs.

To my Australian friends this all made me Indian.  Yes I had the same accent as them, did the same things (although my parents were a little stricter) and liked the same music, but there were things about my background and home life that were different to them.

Yet in India I am not considered Indian at all.

I occasionally speak Hindi here which completely freaks people out, probably because it comes with an Australian accent. Apparently I dress and carry myself like a westerner (most of the time) and this means I am not Indian.  I personally cannot tell the difference (aside from the accent) between the way I dress and carry myself to that of the middle class Indians I have met here.  Their English is fluent, they wear western clothes and listen to far cooler music than me.  Yet I am the outsider here.

In Australia I am Indian. In India I am Australian. My parents hearts are in Africa, my sister is a nomadic citizen of the world and my nephews have European passports.

So where do I fit in exactly?

Global migration is not a new phenomenon, but it is growing particularly as people move not once but more frequently.  So when we look at who we are, how we define it becomes so complicated. The need to define which “box” I belong in has never been very important to me… until now. Now I am in India, a culture I identify with in so many ways, but no one will recognise me for it.  It is hurtful and quite isolating.

Yesterday I had my first feeling of relief since I arrived in India from a Hindi teacher. He listened to me struggle to speak for 5 minutes and then just looked at me (without asking me about my background) and said “you are a near native speaker”. In para-phrasing him he told me that I was clearly Indian and had been around this language my whole life and it wouldn’t be too hard to get me speaking it properly.

It was such a relief to hear someone actually acknowledge my background for the first time in 6 months.

So when I become fluent in Hindi will that then make me Indian? I doubt it. I also wear kurtas quite a bit, but that hasn’t seemed to change how I am perceived here.  So what is the magic ingredient that will give me acceptance here?

With the Indian diaspora spreading across the world at high speed, how will they all grow up and identify themselves? Perhaps this is the beginning of new cultures, or possibly its the end of the Indian identity as we know it and the creation of a myriad of new ones.

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16 thoughts on “Cultural Misfits: Where do I fit in?

  • February 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm
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    I’ve never had a problem with not being considered ‘Indian’…mostly because I’m not. I’m Canadian of Nepali origin.

    Before I met my now husband in Vancouver a few years ago–I had an idea of what ‘Indian’ meant–I considered the gujarati population of Georgia [south east US] to be pretty Indian regardless of the fact that like you, their parents were born in Africa or the UK and they were born in the US and were American citizens. They ate Indian food at home, were from strictly vegetarian and extremely religious households and very goody-goody-two-shoes. They watched Hindi movies even though they didn’t really understand Hindi all that much [spoke a mixture of gujarati and English at home], and they obeyed their parents with a zombie like obedience.

    So anyway, when I met my now husband, who ate lots of meat including beef, drank alcohol [responsibly of course], partied, was doing an MBA [and not a medical degree or engineering degree], had dated since high school, had male and female friends who had dated since high school without hiding it from their parents, didn’t speak Hindi [regardless of growing up in India], didn’t watch Hindi movies, I was shocked. Then I realized that these are only superficial qualities–he loves India and will always feel at home here. That’s what makes him Indian.

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  • January 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm
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    In part, your experiences come down to our innate desire to be accepted and part of the group/culture with whom we identify. It is clear though that with just simple statements or words carelessly thrown, we can isolate others who feel banished to a sort of cultural no-mans land – neither fish nor fowl. It makes you stop and think about how you interact with others who might be of a different background or country of origin. It also questions our assumptions about other people.

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  • January 25, 2012 at 6:58 pm
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    There is no hope for me then! I feel like a misfit too.

    But how darn hard is that Aussie accent to get rid of! Brings back so many memories of when I started learning Hindi. 🙂

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    • January 25, 2012 at 8:35 pm
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      But Sharell do you really want to trade in the Aussie accent for an Indian one? I would settle for just something less pronounced 🙂

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      • January 25, 2012 at 8:46 pm
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        I was talking to an Indian friend of mine today and couldn’t help but notice my Aussie accent against her Indian accent. I hardly even notice I have one. Oh Well! Don’t think I can rid of it either!

        Nicky Singh.

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  • January 23, 2012 at 11:09 pm
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    A feeling of displacement and ‘un-belonging’ must be a strange experience. I’ve read that, after independence, many British Indians who returned to the post-war austere UK found it a completely alienating experience. Some had left British shores decades before while others had never lived in Britain before. I’m sure as a young, modern, multi-lingual and insightful individual you’re much better prepared.

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  • January 23, 2012 at 11:34 am
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    hii Rakhee…..i have been reading your posts and they are really very impressive and good but this post has a different vibs…..what i want to say about this is that even in India we have many religions and many cultures and about 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers..and i guess English is the one which connects these languages,.. so don’t bother about learning Hindi…. you will automatically learn….India is a unique country and it won’t be hard to fit in ….and if it would have been possible …i can exchange my Indian nationality with your Australian……lolzzzz…May God bless you rakhee..tc

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    • January 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm
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      Thanks for your thoughts. The English speakers certainly do make it easier to navigate India easily.

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  • January 20, 2012 at 11:25 am
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    So where do I fit in exactly?

    Your case resembles that of a group called “anglo-indians”.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Indian

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  • January 20, 2012 at 8:27 am
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    Yes, your anxiety and concern is very true. Next generation of Indians who are all over the world too will face the same dilemma and isolation. But thye will deal with it, and so will the Indians.

    Your exposure to various cultures and languages makes your life very rich. Not many Desis have such exposure!

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    • January 20, 2012 at 10:23 am
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      Thank you, I certainly feel very fortunate for the different cultures I have been exposed to.

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  • January 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm
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    I can understand and appreciate your frustration and pain in the prevailing situation.

    Every emigrant faces the question of identity firstly externally and then internally. Other than a caucasian, every emigrant from say an Asian or African country is identified as a say American or Australian citizen of Indian origin or Uganda origin as applicable. (Indra Nooyi is described as an American Citizen of Indian origin ) .

    This would be so even if the individual’s ancestors were American citizens for five generations or for one hundred years. While we as asians may integrate into a foreign society to the utmost, the ‘origin’ aspect remains visible -at least from skin and appearance. In such circumstances, it does make sense to retain some internal aspect of our origins – such as mother tongue, cuisine, major festivals, familiarity with roots in home country. By not doing so, we give up some thing valuable without getting much in return.

    To put it differently, would you find a British emigrant to say a South American country or African country not knowing English language or their life style? If a British emigrant says that he does not know English (during his or her visit to London) , how would another Britisher react?

    These are instinctive human reactions – based on tribal instincts and thinking- and less of a criticism of the current reality faced by many individuals in different parts of the world.

    Amongst our relatives, we have many families who are first or second generation emigrant to US or Europe. In case of second generation emigrants, the question of knowledge of mother tongue, familiarity with home State (forget about India as a country) is a moot point. To us, it seems that they have ceased to be Indian internally- especially when they speak in English to their parents (with an unacceptable accent) and parents also reply in that language.

    You have asked how the new emigrants would grow up and fit in? Most would identify themselves with the country in which they live. When they come to India, they would be appalled at the living conditions and behave in a manner which would be clear that there is little of India in them- unless extra efforts are taken.

    The situation is not much different for emigration within India where people move from one State to another and settle there. Most metros in India have more emigrants than local population. For e.g. my mother tongue is Tamil, but my ancestors emigrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala several generations back and my family emigrated to Mumbai 50 years back. I do not know to write my mother tongue and can read it with difficulty, but can speak it with a Kerala accent. My daughter has learnt Malayalam after her marriage and speaks and reads it well. But not knowing any of these languages when we go to these States (Tamil Nadu , Kerala) can put us into great difficulty and knowing it has great advantages.

    It is essential to speak mother tongue in our houses, which ever part of the world we are in, to ensure that we are part of the community of our origin and not restricted to the country of domicile. This would be an issue which the next generation of Indian emigrants out of IT boom would have to face/resolve.

    Perhaps all this arises out of a desire to slot every human being into an understandable category.

    What is stated above is not meant as a criticism or a statement of what is right or what is wrong. It is my understanding of the current situation.

    I am not sure how you would react to the above and have written it with great hesitation. if it strikes a raw nerve, do forgive me. It is not meant to be so.

    Best wishes for an accent free Hindi.

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    • January 20, 2012 at 10:26 am
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      Thanks for your comments and thoughts on this topic. I am not sure I entirely agree with you some of your conclusions, for example I have returned to India and am not appalled by it (I am disturbed and saddened by it sometimes though) and I believe there is plenty in India for me. I believe it’s a very individual thing how someone reacts to a country and environment.

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  • January 18, 2012 at 10:18 pm
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    Hi Rakhee, I’m an Aussie girl living in Amritsar, I have left a message on your blog once before. I was born in Australia to an Aussie mother and Greek father. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox religion, went to the Greek dances, ate Greek food and even learned how to speak some Greek.

    However the kids at school viewed us as Greeks and The Greeks viewed us as Aussies because we had an Aussie mother.

    My brother and I didn’t seem to fit in either way. Although I am extremely proud to have a Greek background, I now realise that I’m proud to be an Australian with a Greek heritage, coming to India helped me become aware of this.

    Home is where your heart is, don’t let anyone tell you or make you feel differently!
    If you are proud to be Indian, then good on you, so you should!

    Nicky Singh.

    Reply

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