For three years I called New Delhi home. In a city that is a living breathing reflection of India’s cultural heart, I guess as an expat I stood out. Though we foreigners may wear the clothes, soak up the festivities and get our feet dusty wearing sandals all year round, unless you’re one of those fortunate souls who can thoroughly imbibe the deep seated culture, you’re still somewhat of a surface dweller. We enjoy all the wonderful offerings that India has to give, but still replying under our laughter “thora-thora” (“little by little”) when someone asks if we can speak Hindi. The truth is that not only do foreigners mostly never grasp the language, it’s thora-thora to most things about the Indian culture that many will never truly understand.
And so we float along with our very western identities trying oh so hard to fit in; after some time we can even recommend suitable high-tea venues and share drivers but even so, we can’t mask our tendencies. And in any case, why should we. As westerners we’re a robust band of travellers who love absorbing the duality and richness that so many destinations afford. We love it because we so often feel that these experiences in age old rituals and family customs etched in local language fill a cultural void that is lost in the West. And so it is no surprise when foreigners come to live in Australia or any western country, that their tendencies, social connections and even their language are never far behind. When you live overseas, especially one marked by a tapestry thousands of years in the making, the best you can really do is to absorb the first and most one dimensional of layers, every layer resting beneath will be your own fabric of social conditioning, familiarity and perspective and you naturally take that with you wherever you go. How funny anyone could ever think this could be entirely discarded.
When you travel, each country becomes another weave in your shawl of experience and as you wrap it tightly around your shoulders these experiences give you the warmth of treasured moments, joyous discoveries and a new depth of companionship with the people you’re lucky enough to traverse the journey with. Each of these new senses seep under your skin, gradually shaping and changing you until you blossom with the idea of who you are ultimately meant to become. Perhaps my own experience has been somewhat topsy-turvy because living in Delhi I didn’t hold on to my western ways, not overtly anyway and now that I’m in Australia, it is easier for me to preserve my Indian habits. And mostly the world is pretty okay with this kind of blended identity. Some years ago I found myself in a vortex of Indian culture with a social circle made up almost entirely of friends who were determined to create the Punjab on the Northern Beaches, we would literally go to the beach in the height of an Australian summer and start cooking channa and roti on gas fuelled hot plates, the ultimate in mixing cultures and we loved it.
We all have a longing to be accepted for who we are, we all have the right to be our true selves no matter where we travel or live and yet we still have so far to go in terms of affording each other the same liberties we hold as sacred. Until I lived overseas I questioned why people held on to their beliefs so vehemently, dressed in a sari or kaftan downtown, only ate hokkien noodles or why people clustered together even while others made comments about their inability to integrate. To be fair, they’ve probably integrated enough, probably stretched out of their comfort zone with all their strength and so these outward customs help them share their identity and tell their story. They are the links that bind.
I am reminded of the philosophy of so many Indian Mystics who impart to us that all of these outward customs and expressions are not in any way a reflection of our true selves. They are the masks we wear, the stories we chronicle, the lives we build. But we are radiant beneath the shadows, collective beneath the boundaries and joy beneath the misery. And when we find this, realise this and see it in each other we see our true identities for what they really are.
(c) Lee Grewal