At a work conference recently, I was approached by an Indian woman who had been watching me from afar for most of the day. She was middle-aged, dressed in a salwar kameez, and she smiled as she walked over.
‘Where are you from?’ were her first words.
I smiled back, but there was a sinking feeling already invading my stomach.
‘That’s complicated,’ I said lightly, hoping to indicate that a) it’s not as simple as listing a country of origin when you’re a migrant and b) that I didn’t really want to talk about it.
She kept looking at me patiently, so I caved.
‘I was born in Fiji,’ I said.
‘Oh, I am Fijian-Indian too!’ She exclaimed. And then she did the next thing I dread the most – she started speaking to me in Hindi.
For the next ten minutes, she grilled me on where I was born, where my parents were born, what their names were, and managed to find a tenuous connection between our families – all in Hindi.
I responded in halting Hindi and English, feeling increasingly awkward as this continued and people around us looked on in interest.
I finally managed to get away by ducking into a different room, and spent the rest of the day avoiding the woman.
Why, you might ask, was I so freaked out by a little harmless conversation from a well-meaning stranger? Why do I feel so uncomfortable speaking to someone in Hindi, or acknowledging my ethnic background?
There were two main reasons for my discomfort, one of which I think is valid, and the other which is somewhat problematic.
The first is this – I was at work. I work in a professional environment, and I don’t want to break into personal conversations in a language that no one else present can understand during a work event purely because I think it’s rude.
This also happens to me a lot – at a function last year that I was invited to, during the networking drinks before a formal dinner, I was cornered by another Indian woman who spoke to me in Hindi for over 30 minutes, despite me only responding in English.
I understand the excitement that some people might feel when they forge a connection with another person from the same ethnic minority. I understand that it might be nice to speak in Hindi and to celebrate that common ground. But I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate in the context of professional events where the choice to communicate in a different language effectively cuts out the participation of anyone else in the room.
The second reason for my discomfort is more complex, and engages with many of the aspects of my migrant identity that I haven’t even fully worked through yet.
The thing is, when Indians approach me in the context of an Australian, mainstream setting and point out our connection in being different from that exact mainstream, it makes me feel anxious.
I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to have my differences made obvious after the years I have spent trying to fit in. At that work event, I was wearing my western clothes, I was speaking English in my Australian accent – but for my skin colour, I was sporting no indicator of my cultural history.
But when that woman spoke to me in Hindi, it was like a flashing neon sign had appeared, marking me out for what I really am – a migrant, an ‘other’, connected to no one in that room more closely than I was connected to her.
I am not ashamed of being Indian, or being a migrant. But I don’t feel that my cultural heritage is the biggest or most prevalent factor in my overall identity. In fact, the way that I see myself is entirely Australian – the only issue is that most people I meet see me first as brown, then as Indian, then as an Indian who has ‘grown up in Australia’. Being Australian is something I own and act in my daily life, but not something that most other people see in me.
So when that woman chose to start speaking to me in Hindi, her assumption was that, like her, I would ultimately feel more comfortable speaking in our first language, and that our connection was immediate because we are both ‘others’ in an environment where we’ll never fully belong.
I took issue with that, because I absolutely don’t ‘belong’ in Fiji or India – and until that moment where she forced my ethnicity into the forefront of my thoughts, I had felt a sense of total belonging at that event, surrounded by young women at a feminist conference for my workplace. In fact, ‘young’, ‘feminist’ and ‘woman’ are all much bigger parts of my identity than ‘Indian’ has ever been.
I understand that for that woman, connecting with me was just a pleasant side effect of the conference – meeting another Indian person might have made her feel a stronger sense of belonging, in contrast to the sudden unbelonging I felt. I have no doubt that she meant well, but her actions forced me back into the loop of grappling with my identity that I feel like I’m never completely out of.
There is a prevailing attitude of homogenisation when it comes to migrant identities. The idea that two Fijian-Indian women in the same room would doubtless have a sense of connection is not uncommon, and in fact, my feelings of anxiety are probably surprising to some readers.
But the fact is, the migrant identity is inherently complex and ever-changing, and is dependent on so many factors outside of where you are ‘from’, or what languages you speak. When I see another Indian-Australian, I never assume a similarity or common ground between us – like any other stranger I might come across, I treat them as a completely unknown entity, which is ultimately how I prefer to be treated myself.