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An Indian always

It was easy enough being Chinese in India, but then she went to China. And found both her Chinese and Indian identities called into question. Arlene Chang writes.

india Updated: May 29, 2009 22:02 IST
Hindustan Times

The story of my life can be summed up in one quote, “But how can you be Indian? You look Chinese....”

In my travels around the world, I have always been showered with a plethora of questions about my ‘look’ and my nationality, and strangely it has always been outside India. Considering that only three per cent of India’s population consists of people with Mongoloid ethnicity, it has always thrilled me that people never discriminated against or were overtly ‘curious’ about why I look the way I do.

Of course, there were those stray comments that drifted by from time to time — “Aye Nepali!”, “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” (the slogan promoted by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954) and “Le gayee dil, gudiya Japan ki...” (referring to the song from the 1966 film Love in Tokyo) — and questions about how I know Hindi or Marathi (“Ai ge! Tumhala Marathi pan yete kai?”). But I never had to answer the question — “How can you be Indian?”

My great grandparents left their home province of Hubei in central China during the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, then head of the Kuomintang government, in the late 1920s. This was also the time when the Northern Expedition, a military campaign to defeat the warlords controlling northern China and unify the country under the Kuomintang, was in full swing and there was much unrest in the country. Brutal poverty and severe hardship were the only way of life and my great grandparents had enough of it. It was not a life they wanted to pass on to their children and hence they decided to emigrate.

Apart from being the jewel in the British Empire’s crown for most of the 19th century, India was known as the ‘golden land’ — abundant in wealth, natural resources and spirituality. It beckoned my great grandparents and they couldn’t resist its allure. One fine day they set out for India on foot and never looked back.

They literally earned their passage into India by multi-tasking as street performers, handymen, handicraft vendors and fixing people’s teeth (which was the informal form of dentistry). It took them several years to reach India. But reach they did. That was probably my grandparents’ first and last trip to what was then a foreign land.

Even in those days, they weren’t asked, “How can you be Indian?”

Fast forward to the present. I am now in Beijing, least expecting to be questioned about my ethnic Chinese looks. But what do I know? The Chinese are more curious about how and why I look Chinese. So, the question I thought would never surface in China, threw me off guard.

“But how can you be Indian?” a Chinese colleague asked me. “You look Chinese!”

After I explained my background to her, she promptly said. “Oh, no wonder!…Now I know why you don’t look purely Chinese!”

Poof…boom…bang! She disowned me and slammed me to the ground like a hot potato in a moment!

And this is pretty much the standard crest-and-trough reaction I elicit from the Chinese. They probably think my great grandparents betrayed the fatherland and hence I cannot claim any ownership of it, even if by way of my physical appearance.

One of my colleagues, who has taken it upon himself to prove that I am not Chinese, was elated when I was first introduced to him. He was overheard telling his friend, “Today I met Hubei Chinese!”

However, I get the impression that after he realised that I do not speak Mandarin, he is hell bent on making me prove that I am indeed Chinese.

A couple of days ago, I happened to pass by that colleague’s department and he promptly called me, inviting me to converse with a Hubei native.

“Kao Mo Seeh?” the Hubei native said. I didn’t understand.

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“It meant, ‘What work do you do?’”

I said to him, “But in our language, we say ‘Ni chao sung sih?’”

He then asked me, “Are you from Wuhan or from another county in Hubei? You know, the Hubei dialect in different parts of the province differs from that in Wuhan.”

I smiled at him and said, “I don’t know which county I come from. I just know that my great grandparents were from the Hubei province.”

My colleague, who started this whole prattle, laughed and said to me. “Ok, find out which county you are from and we will find a person from your county to speak to you.”

In retrospect, I think I should have told him I speak Indian Chinese and then seen who he could find.

I guess I didn’t retaliate because I don’t care what anyone thinks I am. I consider myself nothing but Indian — a hardcore one at that.

I’m as Indian as anyone who gets the goose bumps every time “Jana Gana Mana” plays or each time they see the first glimpse of India’s land mass from a thousand feet above ground while cruising in an airplane, or whenever India wins a nail-biting cricket match.

When my great grandparents came to India they thought it was the land of gold. I couldn’t agree more, even today.

India is still the land of gold for me — golden smiles, golden warmth and golden hearts. A colour more brilliant and lustrous than the yellow of my skin.

I couldn’t care less if I am brown in my next birth. I just want to be an Indian.

First Published: May 29, 2009 21:57 IST