Migration, Identity and Language

When I started this blog, I vowed never to write about migration and identity. I hate being type-caste as a “migrant woman” from South Asia. I hate people assuming I have “clash of two worlds” identity issues, or assuming that my adolescent identity issues somehow differed from those of my non-migrant friends. The whole idea of writing about identity seems self-indulgent and egotistical. But hey, isn’t that what personal blogs are all about?

Probably my resistance to any kind of migrant-woman stereotype stems from an unconscious desire to identify with the mainstream, more powerful group. But we’ll leave aside the topic of my unconscious desires in this post (they’re not that interesting – desire for omnipotent power, for oneness with the cosmos, the usual kind of thing…).

I of course had my issues growing up – for instance, about appearance – but what kind of teenage girl doesn’t? For obvious reasons, my anxieties about my appearance were shaped by ideas about skin colour and beauty. But issues of race, migration and culture clash didn’t, unfortunately, dominate my childhood or teenage years. My ordinary life would disappoint a social researcher interested in the lives of migrant children. My parents raised me with values, as all parents do, but none of these values were at odds with the values I learnt everywhere else (I never felt our home or lifestyle to be somehow distinct from ‘mainstream’ Australian society). They never explicitly expected that I would do (or not do) certain things because of their background. Well, not until my mum chucked a wobbly about L, but by then it was a bit late, my upbringing was well and truly over (23 is not a good age to suddenly dump some heavy cultural expectations on your offspring). Growing up with only immediate family was a big part of this, as extended family expectations and obligations play a major role in shaping South Asian cultural identity and responsibility. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents now live in a city with visible South Asian communities where practices such as arranged marriage and extended family living are not uncommon. Mum now laments (or pretends to lament…in her melodramatic moments I’m unsure if she’s being manipulative or sincere) the fact that she didn’t bring us up “strictly”. Whatever that means. (Locking us up? I was such a bookworm that my mum would often hide my novels and force me to go out with friends. Coming from a collective, intensely social culture, she found my private, bookish ways quite strange, and worried about my lack of social skills.) Her regret doesn’t make any sense because my parents were never consciously liberal. We were all just living our lives; and everyday life doesn’t usually involve reification and objectification of your own actions – “are we being traditional enough?” When you’re working, going to school, meeting up with friends, living life….who has the time to even care?

One consequence of growing up in a monocultural city has been my weak grasp of the Nepali language. While Nepali is my first language, I only had a limited number of Nepali-speakers to practice with as a child (i.e. my parents, the only two Nepali speakers in town). Gradually, English became my normal mode of conversation at home, without my parents even realising. I would speak in English, they would respond in Nepali and/or English. It seemed natural to everybody until an uncle visited when I was 7 and exclaimed that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying.  I never thought explicitly about identity as a kid, but if somebody had asked me where I was from, there’s no doubt I would have said Australia. Not out of any rejection of Nepal – it’s just that ‘Nepal’ didn’t figure strongly in my life, except as a place I visited twice. (These days my response to that question would be entirely dependent on who is asking me and in what context). I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in Australia. As a teenager, I remember visiting Sydney and meeting my parents’ Nepali friends’ children. It was quite an interesting experience because most of them had a strong sense of being Nepali, and demanded to know if I did too. One girl pointedly informed that she “doesn’t like white people”. And – this is not exactly the revelation of the century – having the ability to speak Nepali very obviously bolstered their sense of cultural identity (for instance, bantering in Nepali on the trains, often using this mechanism to talk about other passengers and exclude others from their ‘Nepali’ world…like most things, I guess such behaviour stems from human power struggles…excluding the mainstream world through the limited mechanisms they have because they feel excluded from it themselves).

Yikes it’s taking me a long time to get to the point of this post!

The thing is, I identify pretty closely with Australia (it’s always been home), and have never had any crisis-type identity issues while I’m here. Except for a period around 2005 when racism became quite overt (think Cronulla riots). When I’m overseas, I’ll usually say I’m from Nepal, because I’ve only ever travelled to South Asia and South East Asia, where people will simply think you’re a snob if you have brown skin and say you’re from a western country. Indeed, in India some people thought I was being a snob when I said I was Nepali, as if I was trying to deny my Indianness! (“You are Indian?” “Oh, Nepali”. “But your parents are Indian?” “My parents are Nepali”. “But your grandparents are Indian?” “No, they’re Nepali.” “But your face looks Indian!”). I was often treated quite rudely by workers at train stations because they thought I was pretending to not understand Hindi (all Nepalis should speak and understand Hindi afterall), or presumptuously flashing an Australian passport when I should have had NRI identification. But this was only when dealing with officials and bureaucrats – many Indians themselves don’t identify strongly with the Hindi language, and I was usually treated warmly when meeting people on the street (barring the men who assumed I was a prostitute because I was travelling alone, so you know, that’s probably barring about 90% of my interactions in India).

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for meeting ordinary Nepalis on the street in Nepal (I can say the same for a lot of men doing a lot of inappropriate groping). Of all the countries I’ve visited, Nepal is the one place where I feel like I can never belong as myself. Is this ironic, or just bloody normal as ‘returned migrant’ experience? Language has been a huge barrier. Nepalis (or, at least my family) find it pretty funny when outsiders are learning their language. While they consider teasing to be a kind of support and positive reinforcement, I find it hurtful and infuriating that they tease me when I’m genuinely trying to learn. For all the teasing, foreigners who learn Nepali are generally admired. But speaking with an accent if you actually look Nepali? There’s a popular catch-phrase in Nepal about “striking an airport accent” (referring to someone who’s left the country and then comes back pretending to have an accent). Here I am trying my best to speak good Nepali and people think I’m trying my best to speak it badly! Talk about discouragement. It got to the point where I was repeating certain syllables so much (I will never be able to say “chha” correctly) I was saying them (badly) in my sleep. Irrationally, I began to envy my cousins for being born in Nepal and for being able to move so seamlessly through society; while I was out there attracting stares, laughs at my funny accent, and constantly being ripped off and getting lost. I envied their fluent conversations, their sharp comebacks to sleazy men, their bargaining power, their ‘right’ connections, their dress sense, their hair and makeup…everything which made them so completely Nepali, everything which seemed to exclude me from their easy world (because how could life be hard when you’re so at one with society, right?). Maybe this is how people feel when they migrate to a different place – envy at the majority for their ability to fit in and work the various social systems; resentment at being teased, misunderstood and effectively excluded. No wonder people feel marginalised. I had one understanding cousin who tried to help. “Try not to speak when you go out”, she instructed, replacing my suitcase with her own clothes and encouraging me to dress more “Nepali” (more feminine) and wear heavy eyeliner. But the makeover wasn’t successful. “There’s just something about you. Even if you don’t talk, even if you wear our clothes, you don’t look like us. Even if you say ‘chha’ a hundred times” – seeing the dark look on my face, she drops her teasing grin – “The way you walk…your head is too high. They’ll pick you a mile off, especially the hawkers! You’re just…too different”.

I’m yet to find a comfortable way of being in Nepal, without everyone questioning why I don’t quite look or act or speak ‘right’. As a teenager I never would have thought of writing this stuff down – language and identity weren’t an issue. Now they are, even in Australia, thanks to visiting Nepal.

There’s this popular perception that migrant children who return to their “homeland” experience positive and culturally-meaningful identity reinforcement. Have you seen the end of The Namesake, when Gogol eventually returns to India to put himself back together?

Bet he comes out more confused.

13 Comments

Filed under About, Adolescence, Being a Migrant, Cultural Difference, Parents

13 responses to “Migration, Identity and Language

  1. Hi Taswin!

    Did anyone ever tell you that you’re an excellent wordsmith? 🙂

    Anyway, to the point.

    As a twenty one year old guy who grew up in the US for the best part of fifteen years, I can relate to this post only too well.

    I think I pretty much lived the quintessential suburban lifestyle in the US, complete with barbecues, soccer practice, trips to the mall, occasional hamburger and so on. There was really nothing Indian about it except that I sometimes conversed in Punjabi or Hindi with mom.

    Far from experiencing identity reinforcement, my return to India was tempered by a fair amount of cultural shock. Every darned thing was completely different from what I was used to. Education systems, cultural norms, social contexts, norms of etiquette, acceptable public behavior, taboo topics, diet, weather everything.
    My first school was a bit of a disaster, because I had to relearn everything I knew about school, relearn the way I learnt things. It didn’t work and I was miserable for a while until I switched schools. Thankfully, the new school had a fair number of expats (though none in my class, unfortunately) and the teachers/admin helped me a lot through the transition.

    Even as an adult, I don’t really relate that well to my Indian identity. I don’t know if I even want to. Right now, I think I’m comfortable being who I am and I’ve sort of resigned myself to the idea that I’m always going to be more of an American than an Indian. No matter how much I wear smooth the accent, no matter how many desi slang words I adapt, no matter how long I live here, I’m never going to TRULY belong, and I’ve decided that I’m okay with that. It’s a thankless job to try and fit in with a society that you just don’t relate to, beyond a very superficial level and I don’t even in end to try. I will subscribe to the general conventions of the country, but I will NOT change my way of thinking. If people on the street think that’s snobbish, just too bad. If people dislike me for it, so be it. I don’t owe them any favors and they don’t get to decide what sort of person I am. I cannot change that much without losing a little bit of myself in the process, and that’s far too heavy a price to pay for a few scraps of social approval.

  2. Identities are always confusing specially if you end up growing up in two cultures/countries. I struggle with my identity regularly since I spent 13 years in Bangladesh and the rest in Africa and North America. Sometimes, I am not Bangladeshi enough for my peers and sometimes I am too Bangladesh. It is a confusing road. I hope you can come into terms with yours.

  3. kay

    I went through the same experiences when visiting Nepal in 2007–I was terrified that India would turn out the same way but fortunately, it hasn’t. Nepal, I feel, is too closed of a society to ever be ‘cosmopolitan.’ So there’s this distinct tendency for people to close themselves off into their little corner and reject the rest of the world. India, I’m talking about the big cities, is way more cosmopolitan and accepting.

    Though, like you, I often find people confused when I tell them that I’m of Nepali origin. They generally tend to think Nepali people tend to resemble East Asians and not South Asians. Their reaction is generally ‘but are you half white’ or ‘but your eyes aren’t *insert racist word for Chinese.*’ Tends to get on my nerves a bit.

  4. Identity crises! I face it all the time. When you say you have been able to belong as yourself in Nepal, I can same the same about Sri Lanka. I was born and raised in Dubai and then I moved off to Oxford, UK and I have not found it difficult adapting at all, but when I visit Sri lanka, its difficult to live up to the expectations. The unintentional accented speech, the dressing sense, the mentality of the people. I have never had any Sri Lankan friends in the twenty one years of my life other than the 4 countable peeps from high school. When I visit, I need to “act” Sri Lankan, that too, its never enough or the right way. Until I was seven years old (like you mentioned) my parents and I used to converse in English, they would reply in English or Sinhalese but I would question in English. That was the level of normalcy in my house. But then, the onlookers had their say. They are trying to be all “foreigners” but not teaching the kid, Sinhalese. So I gradually learnt basic speech but I still can’t talk comfortably about things. I can have a good, normal conversation but at home I support it with English. When Im talking to unknown cousins I find it really difficult to carry out a normal conversation.
    They also start treating you like the foreign return cousins and say “you jus don’t fit in” and they add a courteous “we understand” to the end of that. :O
    I find it comfortable being me. When someone asks me, I find it easier to say ” I am from Dubai, living in Oxford” rather than anything else. And when they say “oh you look asian though” to which I add a “oh my parents are sri lankan” – I don’t know how that makes sense, but it seems justifiable to me. Just like you mentioned, even my answer to this question depends on who I am talking to mostly. If I say Im from Sri lankan but I wont be able to relate to at all, it would be indulging in hypocrisy I guess. (atleast to me).

    And just as a teaser they LOVE to ask, “where do you love to stay, Sri Lanka or Dubai?” and they self answer it, “must be Dubai isnt it”. 😐

    (sorry comment too long!)

  5. O

    I hate questions along the “where are you from” lines, especially when I cannot quite figure out why people want to know or what people want in response.

    For me, it was easier when I first moved out of Nepal (in my pre teens). I could just say Nepal. Then after having lived away for a certain number of years (and especially in my late teens after a trip to the motherland when I decided for myself Nepal was not home for me anymore), it got a bit blurry. And now that I neither live in the country I was born in nor the country I hold a passport of, it is increasingly becoming an easier question to answer – my passport defines my national identity without me feeling like a “fake” or having to get into details such as where my parents come from.

    I decided on my first trip back to Nepal that it was not home. However, I was not quite sure if I was Nepali and if so, how Nepali back then. When I went back earlier this year, I decided that I was not particularly Nepali either –I do not struggle to live without daal/bhat or momo, or speaking Nepali or without Dashain or Tihar. My values and my dreams/aspirations or even the limitations on me have not really been shaped by being Nepali.

    About your comment about being in India and people getting rather upset/not believing you about not speaking Hindi – When I was travelling in the United States, I had people get upset (as if I had given up on my heritage) or not believe me when they attempted to strike up a conversation with me in Spanish (they thought I was Mexican) and I said I did not understand. Sometimes they would keep talking even though I did not understand a single word!

  6. I have always felt that I don’t belong any where. It is because when I am in Australia, I will always be a migrant and every time I go to Nepal I am Aussie . Even thought my passport confirms my citizenship, I have always felt out of place in both these countries.

    I used to try my best to fit in wherever I am but I have given up trying as it was really hard. I had made peace with this long time ago but still I have some days when my identity hunts me 😦

  7. I identify so much with what you have said. As an Australian born Indian I never knew whether I was Australian or Indian. To make it more confusing, my parents were born in East Africa which added another culture and language to the mix.

    Now I have moved to India, I find I still don’t fit in here either. No one acknowledges me as Indian. It really feels like I have no specific cultural identity at all.

  8. Hi, we’ve noticed that East African Asians living in Britain often seem to feel particularly displaced.
    It’s fascinating what you say about language. I’m the one learning Bengali not my husband, because I feel everything I learn is progress, whereas he feels the lack of having a more intimate relationship with the language (his mother tried to bring him up mono-lingual, English only) and I suppose would resent having to do grammar etc.

  9. I’ve met a number of kids born in the US whose parents are from Nepal, and they’ve always had it so hard when it comes to expectations about language. The wider society and community is both explicitly and implicitly telling them not to speak their parents’ language while many of their parents want them to learn it. But if they can’t speak it well enough, they are discouraged by the Nepali community, told they are not Nepali enough. I heard of one person who told his daughter that if she does not speak Nepali at home, he will cease to consider her his daughter. wtf! When foreigners speak Nepali, even if all they say is Namaste in a butchered accent, Nepalis bend over backwards to praise them because they don’t expect anything from them in the first place. But sometimes if those own Nepalis’ foreign-born children say something that sounds even the slightest bit different, they give their children such grief. It’s certainly not always so, but it happens.

  10. Hi everyone, thanks for all your wonderful comments! Sorry I’ve been totally MIA from blogging at the moment (illness), but I really appreciate you sharing your experiences here and enjoy reading each comment 🙂

  11. Padmini

    This helps me understand a lot about my Nepali “saathi”. I mean I’m American, born and raised, never even have left the country and I”m just past the quarter century mark. I don’t feel like I belong. My obsession with learning about other countries and learning other languages has left me with a weird hippy/yoga/Buddhist attitude. The past year of trying to learn Hindi, Nepali, and Mandarin sometimes throws me into what I can only call Yoda speak, where I’m speaking English with an odd accent and incorrect grammatical structure.
    Over the past two years I lived with a boy from India, a boy from Nepal, and a girl from China. The boys spoke perfect English, but the Chinese girl spoke in broken English. I found myself using her own language of part English/Part Mandarin to communicate so often that even when I left home I found myself speaking in the same way. Add to that raising a three year old, oh and the Chinese girl had a four year old, we had international baby speak going. I’m talking about messing up my own native language of English. I’m sure my Nepali will be viewed as absolutely horrendous. And though my three year old can pronounce a perfect Chha (even correcting me at times), I will forever say it with too much ch and not enough ts.

    Did I mention that because of the very interest in other cultures that has led to my slippery tongue, I socially don’t fit in? Well at least not with other white Americans. A few of them think I’m cool for trying to fit in with other cultures, but they miss the point that I’m not trying to fit in with my Indian friends or my Nepali boyfriend. I’m not trying to be more Japanese or more Chinese or more Spanish. I really just love all those cultures and feel that my self is a pie made up of about twenty different countries, despite growing up in a pure white american home where the most I could call myself is an Irish-German.

    This post also helps me realize why my Nepali friend can’t imagine what it would be like for kids if we had them. He said that they just wouldn’t be Nepali enough back in Nepal. I’m trying to learn the language, heck I prefer writing in my journal in Devanagri despite the fact I’m using English vocabulary, I’d do anything to keep the culture alive at home, but what you are saying suggests that it wouldn’t be appreciated back home, it’d be put down. I’m so over countries and cultures. I’m left always thinking “imagine there’s no countries, it isnt hard to do, nothing to live or die for, and no religion too”.

  12. anima

    I guess its because you guys have lived abroad for so many years, but I am 16 and have lived in the US for 8 years. I came when I was eight and assimiliated into american society fairly quickly. It did help that I had my cousin who was close to my age. As kids, and still now it is a rule in our house to speak nepali otherwise my mama gets pretty mad. Right now I have cousins who are 14,12,7, and 3. And personally I think I speak the best nepali but who knows. Me and my cousins speak in neglish with inappropritate nepali terms mixed in, like quiero, ta, and etc. At school everyone thinks or thought I was Indian, but lately I am rather flaunting it. I think it has been easier for me b/c of the fact that I stayed there until the age of 8 and my cousins and nepali friends in the US. To maintain a connection with Nepal, I usually chat with dada’s and didi’s over there, and its nice because they are ur family and can give u good advice. Its been eight years and I can’t wait to go back and hang out with my cousins. I am an only child so the closest thing to a sibling are my cousins.

    I agree with the statement that some nepali parents literally force nepali language and culture on their children and that never works. I think it helps if u lived there for a while and know how special it is to celeberate dasai and tihar in ur mamaghar, playing holi(nepali holi is so much more fun than indian holi), and playing dausi while hanging out with ur cousins.

    From the earlier posts I don’t think one is forced to choose b/w two worlds or children who associate themselves are any less American. I have asian, white, black, hispanic, and biracial friends. While Nepal is my home country with whom I have a strong connection with. I consider myself an American. I feel a great sense of loyalty to the country in which I live. I actually plan to pursue american politics when I am older. In the case of marrige, I don’t care who I fall in love with.. “May he be nepali, black, hispanic, white, I simply don’t care.” But I am slightly attracted to Asian men while currently crushing on an indian guy.

    • Hi anima, thanks for sharing your perspective. I think it’s great you maintain a close relationship with Nepal, and especially with your dadas and didis 🙂

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