Saturday, May 20, 2006

Is it shameful to be Indian? (part 2 of 2)

(Previously... got chatting with an "Indian"-looking girl in a restaurant about descent. She was Malay of Punjabi descent, but looked very Indian.)

"I am Malaysian of Punjabi descent," G said, with a different accent indicating she wasn't from India.

That is where the trouble started.

Her eyes had some distinct Malay features-- which I didn't notice -- Erin pointed them on the way home.

"Don't get to meet Indians from Malaysia everday," I said. Wrong, wrong. She bristled.

"I am Malay and Punjabi. I don't like to be called Indian. I can't stand people calling me Indian at Bhangra parties," she said, throwing a few bones to analyze her.

She seemed idealistic, so time to set up the chat rules:

1) Don't argue with her..
2) Agree with whatever she says..
3) Ensure she doesn't brainwash me into some crazy religious or cultural thought process.

"Why is that [you hate being called Indian]?" I asked, out of curiosity.

"The only connection with Punjab is through my Mom, and her village was in Pakistan, not India," G said. "Call me Punjabi, I'm happy with that." she said. Her hand loitered in the air and voice got intense.

I got her point. She was Indian as we'd generically identify, but with intense Punjabi history/culture pride. She loved traditional Bhangra music with dholaks, not Talvin Singh's fat beats. She respected Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a great Punjabi ruler who ironically was based in Pakistan.

But *why* was she upset at being tagged an Indian? Punjabis had a remote connection with being "Indian," a simple, unharmful 6 letter word. Right, I'm Gujarati, Jew of the East, but I didn't mind turning into a 'Nepali' to avoid chat with Indian cab drivers. What was so difficult with a simple cultural transformation?

"Historically, Afghanistan and Pakistan were part of the Indian subcontinent," I said, adding a dumb factoid into the intensifying flame.

"Punjab could have been in Pakistan after [Indian] independence, and I would've been a Pakistani, which I am not. I treat India the same way. Malaysia is my country." she said, getting into a groove I felt uncomfortable with.

She simply felt no connection to India. She even referred to Gujaratis as "Jews of the East," not "Jews of India," a rather easier simile I would have preferred to hear. Was she challenging the concept of modern India, a mish-mash of cultures? Continuing a historical argument wouldn't serve a purpose, she was kicking ass in that.

"I know some Punjabis who wouldn't mind being called Indians, like my sister-in-law. I think it's relative to each person," I said.

"Do your Gujarati friends really feel Indian?" G asked somewhat fiercely.

"I don't know where we [Gujaratis] were from, maybe China, Japan or San Francisco, but we're now Indians," I said, garnishing facts about the India/being-Indian concept. "Some feel Indian, perhaps not all. Many don't mind being called Indian for the cultural connection." Maybe I was BS-ing, but it sounded good.

"They [Gujaratis] have their choice," G said, cooling down a bit. "When I use a term, I want to mean it. I've never been to India and I have no connection there, so I don't understand what being Indian is like. I'd like to keep it that way," she said passionately. "Though, I'd like to go to India and my village in Pakistan someday."

Every few seconds G swigged her beer, a sure sign of her Punjabi-ness. She controlled the conversation and my head. Time to bust-a-rhyme and put the topic on hold. G seemingly had a point to prove, so she kept going.

"Being Indian is such a wide term. Do you prefer being called Gujarati or Indian?" G asked.

"Maybe desi is the right word?" I said with my Colgate smile, trying to lighten up the argument. The last thing I wanted was a ruckus in a peaceful restaurant.

G rested her hands on the bar table, looking me straight in the eyes with a beautiful smile.

Erin, monitoring the chat next to me, smelled the one-second silence and asked me to join her for a smoke outside. Twas a surprise, none of us smoked.

"Is everything okay with the two of you?" Erin asked outside.

"Oh yeah, everything's just fine." I said. "Where's the ciggy?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being Indian is more than just being "Indian". It's being gujju, punjabi, sindhi, etc. Is an ABCD, who has never been to India, still Indian? I'm told no, and this is from FOBs. ABCDs (and this woman) feel more connection to being gujju, punjabi, etc than they do Indian. Gujju translates to America, Indian doesn't. Does this make sense?????

4:38 PM  
Blogger Khakra said...

maketh sense anon. i didn't feel so "indian" during my formative years in the US, until I moved there and connected with my cousins. she certainly had a point and so do you.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now that you're back here, do you feel more Indian, or more Gujju? Or are you both?

5:36 PM  
Blogger Khakra said...

Indian and American, though if given a choice, Gujarati for certain. I'm picking up pieces from my life in America and India, connecting them piece by piece to reveal an identity. Each step is difficult but fascinating, tracking down friends, chatting about old times and rekindling passions that never really went away from any country that I was in. I lived in other countries as well in between..

5:50 PM  
Anonymous brimful said...

Identity politics gives me a royal headache. I guess I question why the discussion is so important to people. If you self-identify as Indian, cool. If you self-identify as Malysian, cool too. But ultimately, doesn't it really come down to how others identify you?

I used to bristle when I was younger and people would ask where I was from. I would say New Hampshire, but this inevitably brought about, "But where are you really from?" I can scream from the rooftops that I am American or from NH, but ultimately, how I'm perceived is not going to change. Sure, I like the term desi, but I don't think it's going to be used by the general population of this country, realistically.

I don't know. But I do know I have a headache again. ;)

12:28 PM  
Blogger Khakra said...

haha brimful! i still don't know where i am from and it drives me nuts!

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Matey, guess who coming for a visit in about 8 weeks? Feeling like showing a pair of Aussies around the place? :-)

7:24 PM  
Blogger Id it is said...

"Jews of the Esat" hummh..interesting coinage!
Enjoyed the post.

1:13 PM  
Blogger RPM said...

@khakra: Well, if she was from a part of Punjab which is now in Pakistan, is she ashamed to be called Pakistani? Why Punjabi?

Are we talking nationality or ethnicity? Sometimes the two meld, sometimes they don't. So it is important to distinguish, especially if you want someone to reply the way you expect the reply to be :-)

Proud gujju myself! :-)
Proud Indian too! :-)

8:38 AM  
Blogger Khakra said...

rpm, i kinda missed that part too. her reasoning was based on logic: Modern India truly formed after independence, the pre-British part doesn't exist anymore. Considering that, where she originally hails from is now Pakistan. She has not much to do with India, but she has much to do with being Punjabi. Simon Says I'm a Punju, so Punjabi she is. Horizontal logic, but a pretty interesting case study.

10:11 AM  

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