Me: “Hi. My name is Najmuddin, I am from India.”
Him: “Oh, nice to meet you. I always wanted to meet an Indian. Tell me, is it really true that you guys are a good alternative to cheap labor ?”
For a brief moment, I wanted to smash his mouth & tell him what it meant to be an Indian. But then, it suddenly dawned upon me…. the simple fact that his remark was not meant to be an insult. It was rather a product of the impression that the world outside has of us Indians. This experience actually made me (rather forced me) to wonder about what it is like to be an Indian outside India.
Thanks to my job, I have the good fortune of travelling around to different places. While it is evident to me now that Indians (& Chinese, Koreans & Japanese) have literally made their bases in every country imaginable (akin to the US army bases around the world!!), it is rather inappropriate to consider these NRI’s to be just the same as us.
But let me not try and compare Indians with the other Asians in their quest for reaching out the world instead of waiting for the world to come to them. We Indians probably have a much older history of expanding our national boundaries in other countries while not courting political, social or economic trouble with the foreign country. We are adept at covertly infiltrating a foreign land and making it feel just like home. Striking examples being New Jersey in US, South Hall in London, UK, Little India in Singapore, Meena Bazaar in Dubai, Nairobi in Kenya & Durban in SA. I am sure the list doesn’t end here. These are just a few places that I have had the chance of visiting or have friends staying there.
In most of these places, the local “Indians” seemingly appear to be just like us from India. However, the similarity ends there. Except for maybe a common language and similar sounding names, there is a vast difference which is evident only on scratching the surface and reaching out to the strong under-current of cultural, societal and political differences. One must not presume to instantly strike a bond based on a common heritage which, one would assume, is implicitly inherited from previous generations. As an Indian, I felt alienated from the very people I assumed to be from my culture and falsely expected a similar behavior.
Truth be told, these Indians have probably inhabited these cities & their cultures for generations now. They have no allegiance to India apart from a yearly vacation trip down to their ancestral home (if it still exists) or a joy ride across the country much similar to the Europeans coming to India. I found it rather absurd for such a behavior and despite my sincerest efforts, failed to understand the psyche behind it. All the while, I kept wondering about how different these Indians are and how can a real Indian like myself can accept this difference.
Ultimately, being in a foreign land amongst people whom you don’t relate to (just going out for a drink with them doesn’t really help to break the cultural barriers, trust me), I have started feeling even more close to my home… my India. With a certain sense of pride, I stand tall in front of these people, knowing well about the extent of their travel as compared to mine. For me, cultural tolerance is not just an academic term, it is a survival tactic that I use as a defense tool in a land not my own.
But I know, because thats what MY culture has taught me, I would be just as tolerant to the same people even if they were in my country.
This is probably the biggest difference between being an Indian from India and otherwise.