Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Being Non-Resident

I discovered my identity only after I started living abroad. If I go back to India some day, which eventually I will, this will be key learning I carry with me.

This reflexive construction of identity took more than one step. First, when I arrived, with all the comfort and reasonableness of modern Industrial life, I started to wonder why some of my relatives and friends did not ever think of migrating. In the cacophony of requests that I started to receive for assistance in migration, I grew a private frustration - why doesn't so and so want to come - and a feeling that the talk about 'Indianness' is all excuses, a cover for lack of enterprise from my own folks.

Then, even in the subliminal reality of the equal opportunity world, my colour of skin became more and more highlighted. Contrary to the common perception, racism, at least in Britain, is far less 'up in the face' and far more systemic. So, unless one is travelling to more 'exotic' parts of the country [which I had to do], one does not come across overt racism too often. On the contrary, some parts of London are so 'ethnic' that one feels space-shifted. However, it is usual to experience racism in a more covert form, as stereotyping and role expectations omnipresent at work and social life.

Admittedly, we all do stereotyping all the time. We may not know it, it was as obvious as the perilous state of my hairstyle till I manage to look into a mirror. Metaphorically and practically, once the relative novelty of being abroad wears off, the 'mirror' moment happened to me.

The stereotypes are very common but they are almost always wrong: Most such theories emerge from newspaper stories we read, one or two people we met from that culture, movies we have seen, and private anecdotes we hear. As an Indian, I grew up to believe that almost all Western women are single! On the other hand, I remember a friend earnestly explaining to an American visitor that Indian boys are as likely to chase their fiancees singing around trees as an all-American girl is expected to jump into bed on the first date.

As an immigrant, I got exposed, for the first time, of the de-humanizing nature of such stereotypes. I learnt, in a perverse way, the British claim to sophistry, aided by the pride of English as a world language, implied that all other cultures were inherently inferior and must follow the 'English ways' to become civilized. Many great English characteristics which I grew up to admire, the ability to laugh at oneself, the respect for others and ubiquitous politeness, and a disinterested approach to the other people's affairs which easily translates into a deep tolerance of diverse opinions, suddenly vanished in this game of inversion of stereotypes. On the first encounter with ground realities, I was disinvested of my long cultivated definition of Britishness rather quickly and was handed down an alternative, simplified version reduced to simple matters of colour and accent.

I also noticed that the overt expression of stereotypes happen in role expectations. A certain type of people are supposed to be doing certain things, I learnt. For example, if you are looking for a job in fashion retail in Oxford Street, just being well-groomed will not do; you will need to be white, ideally blond, not disabled, well 'shaped', young and chirpy, with an unintelligible accent which will pass off to be authentic British. When I asked someone in Fashion Retail why such an overtly discriminatory practice lives on in this day and age, I was told that the customers expect it, and hence, retailers are powerless to be more 'fair'.

On the reverse, if you are Asian, you are most likely to be good in Maths, and will find it easy to find a job in computer programming. This was the helpful advice passed off to me by a sympathetic recruiter, who wanted to push my candidature in a large corporate training company. After a few rejections, I chose to follow his advice and tried my luck in the e-learning sector. To my surprise, I landed up almost every job I interviewed for in the sector. Not that I had any special qualifications or prior experience in e-Learning. Someone explained to me, much later, that customers don't feel uncomfortable being told about IT systems by an Indian man. Good for me!

However, the problem is that such role expectations are wrong and unhelpful. People take great pains, if and when confronted, to build defences and justify such prejudice, hiding behind customers, personal anecdotes and sometimes, dated quotes of dead men. I usually cite Kohlberg, the influential psychologist in 1960s who concluded that the men have greater 'moral' capabilities than women, when engaged in such conversation. Kohlberg was influential, his research was used to justify why there were so few women in higher positions in America. It was only much later the two principal flaws of Kohlberg's research was pointed out: That his sample included very few women, and his definition of 'moral' capabilities gave weight to traditional male values like independence and drive, but did not include feminine, but equally important, values like responsibility and relationship. I cite Kohlberg because the stereotypes and role expectations that I encounter face similar problems: They are extrapolated from a small sample to create a general rule [stereotyping] and then fitted into a set culturally biased 'role descriptors', the blondness of hair for fashion sales type or the wizadry of maths for an IT worker. In a struggling luxury retail industry surviving on Chinese tourists, more people in Fashion Retail will need to learn Mandarin than having blond hair soon. Nothing against blond hair, please: Of course, I know many blond-haired Europeans speaking fluent Mandarin and Hindi.

My first engagements with such racism and role expectations are inevitably bitter and disconcerting. However, as I stayed, a more mature reality started to emerge. Stereotypes are initially matched by stereotypes, but as time went by, I met people who defied all the moulds that could be built. Initially, I started making exceptions: Neighbours who were friendly, colleagues who showed genuine empathy and respect, people who matched their impeccable manners with a cultivated mind, and friends who crossed the boundaries of superficiality and became, well, friends. Soon, the exceptions became far too many and I started to see the pointlessness of all stereotypes, including my own.

Gradually, I saw the point - that racism is actually an institutional construct, maintained by the media, the demagogues and the sly political men, the parochial businessmen who would want to live in a frozen, status quo world; in short, all those who would want the world not to change. These assumptions inform and shape public debates, and manifest themselves in oblique forms as customer 'expectations', 'competency' definitions, editorial construction of headlines and also in the mechanics of everyday language.

But, with time, it became equally obvious that this discrimination isn't an inalienable feature of humankind; rather, the prejudices are quite obviously against the basic decency of all the individuals I got to meet in real life; at least, those who are capable of thinking for themselves. So, I arrived at a point of yet another transition, of enlisting myself in the post-racial camp, when I started to abandon the pretence of 'ranking' the cultures including my own and start to enjoy, genuinely for the first time, the diversity of modern life.

At this very point, paradoxically but may be not, my own identity became more apparent. This time, this identity is neither constructed on the absence or ignorance of 'otherness', nor in contrast or competition of other people's stereotypes. The identity I have now is built around a purpose: an obligation to uphold certain things and values, an assumption of responsibility I was born with and the rediscovery of the web of relationships which defines me as a person. This realization suddenly makes apparent the answer to the original puzzle : The relatives and friends who stayed back, stayed for a reason - because it was home. In the nakedness of a knowing existence, I as an immigrant suddenly discover my greatest desire and my greatest void - the ordinariness of being a resident.

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