Saturday, May 17, 2014

Confronting the complex migrant identity AKA 'Please don't speak in Hindi to me at work'

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. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

India's Gulabi Gang - feminist action in need of support

A while ago, I wrote the article below for Lip about a vigilante feminist justice group in India, the Gulabi Gang. These women don their bright pink saris and take action against men who treat them or their sisters unjustly.

Now, a feminist group in the UK has set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the Gulabi Gang. Please, read my article, and then consider donating to the campaign.

You will be helping to empower Indian women to undertake collective action for their own betterment. 


India’s Gulabi Gang – feminist justice, vigilante style

When I first hear about the Gulabi Gang in India, my initial feeling was exultation. Being from an Indian background myself, I’m used to the inherent and pervasive issues of sexism and misogyny that seep through almost every aspect of Indian culture.

I had never before seen Indian women taking action against sexism though – if anything, I was used to women perpetuating their own oppression to an extent by reinforcing the same sexist ideologies to their own daughters and sons.

The Gulabi Gang was the first time I heard of Indian women joining to collectively combat sexism – albeit through vigilante violence and retribution. The Gulabi Gang is a group of female activists from Uttar Pradesh, who first came into being in 2006. The Gang is led by Sampat Pal Devi, a mother of five who decided to take action against the continuing domestic violence and oppression of women that she saw in her community. Donning pink saris in unity for the cause, the Gang was originally formed to combat domestic violence, oppression and desertion by fathers, brothers and husbands. The women would ‘prevail upon men to see reason’, and resort to their wooden rods to assert justice when met with opposition.

There is no denying that Indian women have a lot to be angry for. Shuttled from their father’s household to their husband’s, many women are treated as no more than expensive property to be bargained with, sold off, and used as desired. Bride burnings, child marriages, female infanticide, domestic violence, sexual assault – it is perilous to be a woman in India, a fact that was confirmed when India was listed as the worst place in the world to be a woman.

The Gulabi Gang can be seen as an example of women empowering themselves against the constant oppression they face, and doling out justice on their own terms to the men that wrong them.
However, the use of violence in the Gang’s response raises a number of questions, particularly from the perspective of western societies like ours.

To me, there are two ways in which to look at the use of violence by the Gulabi Gang to (literally) fight the oppression of women, and to discourage domestic violence and sexual assault. On one hand, there is the argument that responding to violence with violence does nothing other than legitimise violence itself as a meaningful and reasonable response to oppression and opposition. It negates the message that violence against women is wrong, and suggests that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a suitable way in which to eke out justice.

This seems archaic, and counterproductive on several levels, particularly from our western perspective – in Australia, the thought of women beating up their male oppressors with wooden rods sounds incredulous, and would be considered a crime like any other incident of violence. It also grates against the commonly held ideals in western feminism, about the importance of awareness raising, and cultural education as opposed to the more direct response of a returned beating as punishment for violence against women. And ultimately, the use of fear to gain a result seems counterintuitive – won’t fear just brew further resentment? Couldn’t it lead to even more violence against women, as men attempt to reassert their dominance?

The problem that comes up when following this line of thought, however, is that India isn’t a western country, and the norms of western culture and feminism don’t really apply there. The cultural systems in India (and particularly rural Northern India, where the Gulabi Gang originated from) are incredibly fraught – poverty, the caste system, and the inherent corruption within the justice system mean that our notions of fairness and judicial punishment for wrongdoers just don’t exist in the same way in the context of Indian society.

Where the threat of reporting violence to the police might hold weight in Australia (although even that is debatable), such action is not really an option for Indian women. Similarly, wives and daughters in India remain largely economically dependent on their fathers and husbands, so escape is not a real possibility, and the oppression they face is compounded by their utter reliance on their attackers.

When these factors are taken into account, suddenly the notion of taking justice into one’s own hands seems like a more viable solution, and even the use of violence as a method to reinforce the message against sexual assault and oppression becomes more empowering and meaningful. In the context of the rural communities where the Gulabi Gang formed, violence is often used as a systematic way of oppressing, controlling, and proving dominance over others. Beating one’s wife or children is par for the course, and a man’s fists and superior strength are his ultimate weapons.

By turning the table on men who perpetrate violence, and using the violence that oppresses them as a weapon of their own, the women of the Gulabi Gang are in a way reappropriating  physical violence as a method of punishment and justice, as opposed to the force of subjugation and victimization it has traditionally been in their lives.

Violence is also a punishment with an immediate effect – giving significant disincentive to causing harm to women, in a way that the deferred punishment of legal action (which isn’t a viable option anyway) can’t really achieve. In the context of rural India, the idea of prosecution or reporting of crimes against women is intangible, and doesn’t pose a strong level of threat to perpetrators. A physical assault, however, is a punishment that has strong immediate effects, and the added component of shame that occurs in the community when it is a woman doling out that punishment increases the level of risk associated with committing such crimes.

In many ways, the question of whether such violence is helping or hindering the cause for gender equality in India remains unanswered. The cultural differences between Indian society and western society create a gulf of understanding that can be difficult to surpass at times, and trying to analyse the Gulabi Gang from the perspective of my safe and ordered existence in Australia is unlikely to render results.

Ultimately, the fact that the Gulabi Gang has to exist, and that women in India have to take these matters into their own hands at all is disappointing – Indian society continues to undervalue women, to oppress them and subjugate them with the systemic misogyny. Whilst it is inspiring to see women defying this sexism, it is also disconcerting to thing that vigilante justice is needed in India to achieve what we almost take for granted in the west.

Monday, December 9, 2013

mipsterz - what's wrong with muslims being hipsters?


(First published on Lip Magazine)

So, the internet exploded recently with debate about a certain video – the ‘Mipsterz’ video. ‘Mipsterz’, or ‘Muslim Hipsters’ are a group/collective of American Muslims who also identify as hipsters.

The video features a group of Muslim women wearing their hijabs in unconventional ways and styled in the cutting edge of fashion, dancing, skateboarding, fencing and generally being cool, set to the soundtrack of Jay Z’s ‘somewhereinamerica’.

Unsurprisingly, the video was faced with immediate backlash from the Muslim community, who felt that not only did it not ‘make a point’, but that it was suggesting that to be accepted, Muslim women must conform to Western ideals and notions of what is ‘normal’ or ‘cool’.

There was also some more silly criticisms which I won’t bother to go into here, such as that the women who were featured were almost all models (because models can’t be Muslims?), that the video was largely produced by men (but still featured women who have the agency to direct their decisions, so not sure why this immediately means exploitation), or that the hijabs featured were not ‘modest enough’ (bleugh).

As someone who was raised a Muslim in the western context of Australia, watching this video evoked a whole range of emotions for me. When I was growing up, I felt deeply disoriented by what I perceived to be the disconnect between creativity and alternative culture, and the Islamic traditions that I was raised with.

Going through high school, with a growing interest in indie music, art, literature, and alternative fashion, I felt like I had to make a choice – it was either alternative culture or my faith. I chose alternative culture. I stepped away from my faith, and denounced Islam, and it’s something I now deal with every day.
If 15-year-old Zoya could have watched a video like this, would her choice have been different? If I could have seen a (yes, slightly superficial, sugar-coated) vision of young Muslim women embracing their religion and not being excluded from the aspects of western culture that most appealed to me, would I have tried harder to blend the two influences in my life?

Could I have had it all?

The backlash against the Mipsterz video, unfortunately, seems to indicate ‘no’. Reading the numerous critical comments about the women featured in the video, a large portion of which shame them for not wearing their hijabs in the traditional sense, or for being too ‘western’, makes me realise that a significant amount of opposition still exists against the performance or ownership of western culture by young Muslim women.

To me, the Mipsterz video was not suggesting that all American Muslims are ‘just like everyone else’, but that there are different pockets of Muslim culture, which can be diverse and linked to western subcultures, and that that’s ok.

The biggest criticism of the Mipsterz video is that it doesn’t make a ‘point’. What does ‘somewhere in America’ even mean? Why are these women trying to appease the western gaze by downplaying their differences instead of embracing them?

To me, this criticism just proves the utter lack of conversation that exists about young Muslims in western countries. Reconciling cultural traditions and religion with western culture is incredibly difficult and fraught with tension for migrants, and is an area that is largely untouched in public debate. Mipsterz should not be responsible for making the ultimate statement about young Muslims, or Muslim women. 

The video is offering one view of Muslim culture, not a determining view of all Muslim culture in America.
By claiming that the video is attempting to appease western assumptions about Islam is to deny the participants of the video the right to perform their mixed cultural identity how they choose. It would be like telling me that by wearing skinny jeans and enjoying listening to HAIM, I am somehow trying to negate my cultural identity as an Indian woman – that I couldn’t possibly really just enjoy what I wear or watch or listen to, but that it’s a misguided attempt to ‘fit in’.

Muslim women living in western countries face an uphill battle of cultural acceptance from both sides of the fence. The Mipsterz video tells us that not all Muslims need to subscribe to the same ideals of either Islam or American culture.

Is that such a bad thing?

Monday, November 11, 2013

5 annoying misconceptions about Indians

Growing up in Australia as a person with a visibly different ethnic background, you get used to fielding questions about your heritage, and dealing with the sometimes misguided assumptions people make about you based on your ethnicity.

Most of the time, these assumptions are harmless, but if you hear them regularly, it can get a little irritating after a while. I decided to compile a quick list of some of the most annoying cultural misconceptions I regularly hear about Indians.

But first, a disclaimer. Not all racially-based assumptions are ‘racist’. It is completely normal to have preconceptions about different cultures based on what you may have picked up from popular culture. It becomes racist if you refuse to accept when those preconceptions might be wrong, or not applicable to the individual you may be interacting with.

In general, though, when people assume I like curry or whatever because I’m Indian, I’m ok with that. It’s not racist until they’re calling me ‘curry muncher’ and assigning value judgements to me based on my ethnicity.

So, the following things aren’t ‘racist’ by my estimation – they’re just misguided and somewhat boring to deal with time and again. They’re also kind of funny.

1. ‘You must be great at Bollywood dancing!’

Yeah, not really. In fact, not at all. Probably the most annoying thing about this misconception (which I really do get confronted with quite often), is that it assumes that there is a thing called ‘Bollywood dancing’. I mean, Bollywood movies incorporate all kinds of dancing, some of which is based on traditional Indian dance styles, some of which is simply choreographed by contemporary dancers and choreographers in the industry.

And no, ‘screwing a light bulb while patting a dog’ is not a legitimate dance move.

Also, being Indian definitely has not instilled me with rhythm or dancing ability. My idea of a sexy dance is still to just awkwardly sway from side to side while wiggling my shoulders. Anyway.

2. ‘Oh my god, my friend Priya is also Indian! You guys should talk in Hindi to each other!’

Why is it that two Indians in a room together are assumed to a) have anything in common at all, and b) are expected to speak the same language?

The census in 1991 recognised 1,576 classified "mother tongues" in India – that is a shit load of languages. The official national language is Hindi, but not everyone even speaks that in the same way. In fact, my ‘Hindi’ is often referred to as ‘Fijian Hindi’ which is just a slang mish-mash of different dialects that came out of Fiji over the years.

So, no, your Indian friend and I don’t want to speak in Hindi to each other like it’s some kind of party trick – though thank you for the offer of awkwardness.

3. ‘Wow, so do you do yoga?’

If there is one misconception I wish was true, it’s that Indian’s are inherently good at yoga. I actually do practice yoga (the westernised version, anyway), but I am not any more skilled than the person next to me.

Ultimately, yoga is closely associated with Hindu and Buddhist cultures, whereas I grew up as a Muslim. So depending on what part of India you’re from, yoga might have never even been mentioned to you while growing up.

Brown skin sadly does not make you more flexible – practice, on the other hand, almost certainly will.

4. ‘I bet you like spicy food.’

Yeah, yeah, curries are spicy and Indians eat them. Here’s an interesting fact – I used to struggle heaps with spicy food as a child. Despite being Indian, my taste-buds rejected that shit like nothing else.

However, being exposed to it consistently while growing up probably has given me a higher tolerance than some people, so maybe this assumption is based a little in truth. I’m still one of the least enthusiastic people about spicy foods in my group of mostly-white friends though.

5. ‘You must be excellent at maths and science.’

Ha! My parents sure wish I was. Despite a lot of Indians working in mathematics, science or engineering, I am not in any way gifted in those areas. I often wonder if part of the reason why I was put into the top maths and science classes in high school (despite really low grades) was due to an assumption on the part of my teachers that I should be doing better than I was – but maybe I just fluked the entrance exam, I can’t remember!

The thing about cultural assumptions is that, like all stereotypes, they’re based on a teeny bead of truth. It’s just that that bead probably dissolved long ago, and the assumption somehow lives on.

What are some of the assumptions that annoy or amuse you about your cultural background? 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to deal with disappointing your parents

(Alright, Amrish Puri isn't my dad, but thanks to Bollywood, he's the epitome of a disappointed parent to me).

It's almost impossible to grow up in a western country, and participate in the culture there without at some point disappointing your traditionalist, ethnic parents.

Your parents love you, and want what's best for you - but their concept of what is 'best' is deeply coloured by their own experiences, and the context of their cultural upbringing.

Growing up in Australia, with conservative Indian muslim parents, I found myself almost always embroiled in some kind of internal conflict about my goals, ambitions, or interests. Wanting to live on my own, engage in creative activities, not have an arranged marriage, choose my partner, wear, watch and do what I want - everything that made life good for me seemed to inevitably disappoint my parents.

Although my parents were generally supportive as I grew up, the fact is that a lot of my life choices have been disappointing for them, and hard for them to accept or deal with.

That, in itself, is emotionally very difficult for me. No one wants to feel like they've failed or upset their family, by virtue of being themselves. The things that make me happy are things that my family don't agree with, or that conflict with their values and religious morals - but that doesn't mean that my choices are wrong, or any less valid.

However, there's a fairly constant feeling of guilt that emanates through my life, largely as a result of my ingrained sense of duty towards my parents. Indian culture is built around family honour and loyalty, and in particular, deference to one's parents, so disappointing them is incredibly hard to cope with.

Dealing with this guilt is hard, but I know it would be a lot harder if I didn't have an excellent support network, and the power of hindsight and experience to help me through it. That said, I would have loved some advice from someone in a similar situation when I was younger, so that I knew I wasn't alone in this.

So, here are my tips for the average first/second gen migrant youth, struggling to balance their own values against those of their parents:

1. Don't apologise for being who you are, but do apologise that it's difficult for your parents. 
This is a tricky distinction to make, but ultimately, you are who you are, and unless you're a murderer or Robin Thicke, you're pretty awesome. It's unfortunate that there is a conflict between your identity and what your parents want for you, but that's not your fault and nor should you apologise for it.
If you're going to apologise for being you, you might as well change yourself, as you're not really being true to yourself anyway.

That said, your parents probably aren't monsters either. They can't help the fact that their belief systems or cultural traditions don't match with yours, or that some of your choices make them uncomfortable. I think it's a mark of compassion to be able to see this, and to acknowledge that whilst they may be being unfair, it isn't easy for either party in a cultural conflict.

2. Be honest.
I have seen so many young migrants lie to their parents so that they can do the things they truly want to do - whether it's lying about a relationship, outings, career choices, food, whatever. My one rule has always been to have the difficult conversation, and be honest with my parents, because ultimately lying only makes things worse.

Partly, honesty is important because it shows a level of respect for your parents, and takes an element of betrayal out of the conflict. But being honest is important to me because it means my integrity is in tact.

This is not to say it's easy - you will undoubtedly struggle to tell your parents something they definitely don't want to hear, and it's likely to cause a lot of stress and anxiety in the lead-up. Plan your conversation in advance, or do what I've done and opt for an email. Sometimes it's just easier that way.

3. Accept that your parents have a different view, but that doesn't mean you're not awesome. 
The thing about parents is, you generally care what they think because you respect them and look up to them (you know, unless they're actually just arseholes, I won't claim to know your parents better than you do). It's easy to internalise their disappointment and question your self, and your self-worth.

DON'T do this. You are a good, interesting, unique snowflake, and life isn't about living up to someone else's expectations. It sucks that your parents can't accept you as you are, but that doesn't mean that you're a crappy person (or that they're crappy people) - it just means you're different and can't relate to each other the way you would like to.

Being able to stand up for yourself is a unique and brave quality - be proud of your ability to go after what you want in life, and try not to cloud your judgement with what others think, even if they are your family.

4. Talk to someone. 
Family conflict is never fun, and it can often make you feel isolated or lonely. I know that in dealing with my own issues with my parents, I often struggle because they're the people who know the most about me - I mean, my mum and I are the only people I know who were there when I took my first breath, so you know. She's pretty important to me.

Assuming you have a pretty regular family, it's likely that your parents are also the people you love the most and know the best, and who you've always felt the most comfortable with. It's hard to feel like you're losing that relationship, and it can make you feel as if you don't quite exist the same way anymore.

Don't try to deal with this alone - if you need to talk to a counsellor, do it. Sometimes, learning coping mechanisms is not as easy as a simple google search (and whilst blog posts like this mean well, I don't claim to be an expert). Talking to someone who is objective and neutral can help you put things in perspective.

Or, if you're really not into that, maybe write some stuff down. I journal regularly, and it makes me feel better to get it all out. Either way, don't suffer in silence.

5. Live your life with conviction. 
At the end of the day, you can only live your life as yourself and for yourself. It's tough standing up for what you want when it will make other people unhappy, but you need to live your life with conviction, so that you don't end up with a lot of regrets.

'Conviction', to me, means knowing what you want, and not being afraid to pursue it. In a way this is a learned skill, but practice makes perfect, and start small by challenging little things until you can build up to the big stuff.

So, that's my two cents worth of advice. Don't forget that there is a big difference between your parents' love and their approval - I don't doubt that my parents love me no matter what, even if it's too hard for them to always be in my life. And ultimately, time helps mend most things. Be patient, and stay yourself.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Exercise - does India have a fitness culture?


Up until about two years ago, exercise did not play a huge part in my life. My body is not naturally a fit one (is anyone naturally fit? I probably mean ‘naturally skinny’). I’m prone to curves, and not always of the flattering-Beyonce-esque variety.

As an enlightened feminist, I would like to be able to claim that I don’t buy into the media-perpetuated ideal of what a female body should look like (i.e. skinny, with weight distributed to the breasts and bum only. Also, a box gap), but in reality, I am often self-conscious about my body and certainly spent my teenage years obsessively hating how I looked.

I loathed exercise, because not only did I feel like I couldn’t participate in it – largely because I was too self-conscious to try – but it also felt like admitting failure. I would tell myself that if people saw me exercising, they would know that I was trying to lose weight, and to admit that felt like making me vulnerable to judgment.

Added to this was the cultural layer of attitudes towards exercise that I grew up with – although my parents encouraged us all to be active and join sporting teams, it wasn’t considered necessary so much as a fun social activity. Yes, activity was considered good, but exercise as a fitness regime was really only seen as necessary in relation to weight loss, not as a general part of daily life.

When I first joined a gym in 2011, I was intimidated beyond belief – and, let’s face it, was mostly interested in losing weight, over any kind of fitness goal. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, I dithered around in gyms, doing yoga classes, and generally having a half-hearted approach to exercise.

Then, in March this year, I discovered bike riding. My partner and I started riding his parents’ bikes in the afternoons, and slowly I got the hang of keeping the vehicle upright and in motion (not until I managed to ram into some pedestrians, and bruise myself by constantly hitting my leg into the pedals when trying to dismount). I immediately noticed changes in my fitness levels from bike riding – my knees felt stronger, my legs were firmer, and I wasn’t scared of climbing stairs for fear of wheezing for an hour afterwards.

I rejoined my gym, and started doing regular yoga once more – again noticing the fitness gains of better flexibility, stronger legs and core, and an easing of joint pain in my elbows and knees.

And now, over the past few months, I have taken the final leap and started running. Running was one thing I never thought I would do. I suffer from asthma, and running as a child often meant an asthma attack, and general humiliation at athletics carnivals at school.

But I started out slow – running and walking around the local lake, trying to get a breathing pattern down, and now I can run almost 6 km with only a short break in the middle – no asthma attacks as yet.

Needless to say, I’m pretty proud of all of this – to go from being generally apathetic (and even a bit afraid) of exercise, to being able to enjoy it and not think about it in terms of weight feels like a big achievement. But it has made me think about the cultural attitudes we hold towards exercise and fitness more generally.

When I first started exercising, my parents were a little bemused. They thought it was good, but also reminded me on more than one occasion that I didn’t need to lose weight. To me, this showed the difference in our approach towards exercise – I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of weight anymore, but weight loss and appearance still seemed to be intertwined with exercise and fitness for them.
I started researching Indian cultural attitudes towards exercise, and found that for the large part, there doesn’t seem to be a big fitness culture in India. In fact, studies have found that Indian’s suffer from weaker bones in comparison to Americans and the English, due to less exercise.

Of course, we all know that yoga originated in India, and is still practiced commonly and in varying ways across the country. However, conventional western exercise activities such as gym workouts, running and bike-riding are all less common in India (and even less common among women than men).

This could be for any number of reasons, but the big one that comes to mind is the economic disparity between classes in India – the richest 5% of the population spend up to 15 times the amount spent by the poorest groups. Exercise (and eating healthy food, for that matter) is expensive.

Exercise equipment (bikes, running shoes), gym memberships, and importantly, leisure time to actually undertake exercise activities, all cost money. When income is scarce and opportunity even scarcer, you can see how fitness takes a bit of a back seat.

I’m sure there are other cultural reasons for the different approaches to exercise cross culturally as well – for a start, different cultures perceive ‘fitness’ or even ‘health’ quite differently (I remember being told that in India, being a bit overweight is almost considered a marker of prosperity, because it means you can afford to eat more).

Incorporating exercise into my daily routine has again made me think about my personal culture, one that incorporates elements of my background, my homeland (Australia), and what I learn through popular culture.

And when I do go for a run, and see Indian families at the lake, or other Indian girls also running or walking, I do have a moment where I reflect on our privilege to be here, in this country and this economy, where fitness is a choice, and not a fact of our circumstances.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Subtle Racism - Why Don't I Speak Up?

A few days ago, while at work, I decided to take a break and head to the football club next door to grab lunch. I know, it sounds like an unlikely place to get a great meal, but this club isn't always terrible and they have a particularly good vegetable panini that I enjoy.

 So, I headed off downstairs, only to discover that, thanks to it being a Friday, the club was absolutely packed with slightly drunk office workers, enjoying ‘working’ lunches and beers. No matter, I thought to myself. I’ll just line up, grab a sandwich to go, and head back to work.

I headed to the till, and found myself behind a particularly rowdy group of men. They kept looking behind me to their colleagues in the line, and telling them to join them in front of me (which is rude), but other than that mostly ignored me.

I finally got to the till, and leaning over to shout over the general hubbub, asked the staff member if they were doing sandwiches that day.

“No,” he said. “We don’t do those at lunchtime.”

I was slightly bemused (aren't sandwiches a classic lunchtime food?), but shrugged.

“Ok, cool – thanks,” I said, turning to leave.

There was some laughter behind me, and then he called, “Wait, we still have curry! We could give you some curry?”

There was more laughter.

I shook my head slightly, and rushed out of the club, not entirely sure what just happened.

From what I could tell, the staff member made an inappropriate joke based on my Indian looks, implying that I could eat curry if there’s nothing else available because I am after all, a curry-muncher, and surely that should satisfy me.

Here’s the thing – maybe that comment was not meant to be racist. Maybe he was just trying to help, maybe they actually have curry on the menu and I didn't notice, maybe he was just smiling to be friendly, maybe the laughter wasn't directed at me, maybe he meant for me to be in on the joke – or maybe he was making a snide joke about my race, intended to make other people laugh and to make me feel uncomfortable.

The thing with offhand remarks and jokes like this are that I probably won’t ever really know if this guy was being intentionally racist, and it’s for that reason that I didn't complain (and that I wouldn't complain if something similar happened in the future). Sure, he needs to know that making racist jokes to strangers is inappropriate, and yeah, in all likelihood, he was genuinely just being a dick. But I don’t know enough to say for sure that’s the case, and that makes me hesitant about complaining.

First of all, what would complaining about this really achieve? He could easily say that he didn't mean it that way, and that I misheard or misread the comment. And I would undoubtedly come off as humourless, and a victim.

Secondly, a formal complaint would probably do little other than make him more hostile towards ethnic minorities. If I had wanted to complain, I should have said something in the moment to make him aware that he had upset me, rather than waiting to lodge a complaint formally, when it’s likely he won’t remember the incident and will just feel attacked.

There is a problem with this mode of thinking though – ultimately, I’m making excuses for someone who said something racist to me, because I don’t want to have to acknowledge that the incident happened, and in particular, because I feel that people will tell me I’m overreacting and minimize my discomfort because they, too, probably don’t want to acknowledge that this shit goes on.

I hate feeling like I’m playing the victim, and I especially hate making a fuss over minor slights. But what I hate more than anything is having to cover up or talk down racist incidents because I worry that I’ll be judged as ‘too sensitive’.

What he said to me might have been minor – but combined with other factors it left me feeling embarrassed and intimidated. The rowdy group of men in front of me in line, casually encouraging their friends to push in front of me; the staff member watching this happen and not saying anything; the slightly derisive tone in his voice; and the fact that laughter followed me out of the club, all heightened my feeling of discomfort, and of not belonging.

I hate admitting the small incidents of racism because they remind me that, to many Australians, I am still ‘the other’. I’m the butt to their jokes, the person who doesn't fit in, their common target when making fun.
This time, like many other times, I doubt if I’ll ever know whether the guy was being intentionally racist. But it’s not a question I should have to be asking, regardless of his intent.