I’ve been in a foreign country for a year-and-a-half now. The hardest part is not adjusting to the weather or food or the people. Even the accent is not hard, given we’ve all been listening to the American accent right from the advent of cable TV and Star Plus. The hard bit has been to avoid referring to people by their place of origin.
You can’t say someone’s a Jap, it’s racist. You can’t say ‘that pretty Black woman there’. You need to say ‘His accent sounds urban’, not the other thing. Which is hard given I say ‘You sound like a Gult’ or ‘TYPICAL Bong you are’ and pepper my speech liberally with Amit and Isha and Dig and Tam and whatnot when I’m talking to (Indian) friends.
Also, when you ask a Mr. Nguyen where he’s from, and he says ‘San Francisco’, you need to learn to control your impulse to ask ‘Oh.. but where are you really from?’.
Add to this plenty of Op-Eds written about ‘We Indians are so racist ya’. But instinctively, I feel you just can’t compare being called Macaca with being called Bong. I wonder why, exactly…
If anything, NITK has made me more regionalist than I was before. But not in the ‘Slap her, she’s Mallu’ way. To be frank, NITK just confirmed whatever regional stereotypes I was trying to dismiss in mind. While at the same time getting to know the people behind the stereotypes. If anything, it just made the stereotypes more complex and complicated in my head.
The reason the Western world condemns these sort of things as ‘racism’, is because classifying and referring to someone by their place of origin there in the last century or so was borne out of xenophobia and misunderstanding. And a feeling of superiority/inferiority. Whereas, for us, it is not so. There are enough Madrasis in Delhi and there are enough Amits in Chennai that calling someone a Madrasi or an Amit is just a way of referral, not something derogatory. And people from other parts of India in any given Indian city don’t ghettoize and mingle only with ‘their own people’, that anyone would see someone else as only a Bong or Bawa or Dig, or have no idea about anything else about the community than just the stereotypes.
Regional stereotypes in India don’t mean anything. My cousin calls her neighbour Nair-maami, just like she calls her upstairs neighbour maadi-veetu-Usha-maami (Usha-aunty from upstairs). It doesn’t mean anything more. And who the heck takes these stereotypes seriously? No one seriously believes all Tambrahms are paavam vegetarian silent people and no one expects every Bong to have yellow nicotine-stained fingers along with a craze for football and Dada and adda.
If anything, taking the name of your place of origin can only be seen as a celebration of our diversity. Because, heck, we are all minorities and are all so spread out over the country that you can’t say it is better to be a Reddy than to be a Gowda or that you won’t rent your house out to someone with a Maharashtrian surname, the way they do in the Western world. There is not that stark a difference between different communities in India as there is abroad, that highlighting your place of origin means much. To call all this racism in the Indian context would be incredibly shortsighted, and absolutely unnecessary. There’s no point looking at our own culture through the prism of someone else’s culture, take everything out of context to the point that everything appears absolutely wrong.
This is just like a westerner seeing Arab men holding hands in public and assuming that everyone has deep-wrought homoerotic tendencies brought about by sex segregation everywhere.
With one exception, though. I don’t like referring to folks from the Northeast as ‘Chinki’. If we keep doing that, like someone on Twitter said, let’s give up all claim to Arunachal next.
And for the party-sharty crap that infests NITK, the sooner it dies a painful death, the better.
And don’t even get me started on Fair-and-Lovely. But if you do, please don’t call it ‘racism’. ‘Skin fetishism’ is a more appropriate term