Category Archives: Being a Migrant

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.

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