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Stop asking where I'm from

When I was growing up in Sydney, Australia, I was called an Indian; even after I had received an Australian passport. I had a tinge of Indian in my accent (which I'm sure I still do). I would talk about my favourite Bollywood movie. Hence, I was not Australian.

As I grew up, perhaps due to my circumstances or perhaps it was a conscious decision, I began doing things that weren't very “Indian.” I started hip-hop dancing. I learned Italian. The final straw was when I chose to study Fashion design at University. That was it. I was a maverick. I was the mould breaker. My identity was steering towards Australian during that phase. Everyone would say, “But you're not very Indian, are you?“ Till this day, I'm not sure how one measures one's Indian-ness (or any other ethnicity). But also, how much is acceptable and who gets to decide?

About 6 years back, I started travelling. Till that point, I was quite certain of my Australian identity. People would ask and I would say, without hesitation, “I'm Aussie.” It was after I started visiting other countries that I realised I wasn’t sure anymore. I hesitated every time someone asked me. I'm not trying to be some flower child and say that I am a citizen of the world. But because I really don't have the answer, a certain sort of discomfort sets in. It’s like the discomfort that comes with eating lemons. Your face contorts, eyes twitch and body shudders.

And I'm not sure why people are so keen to find out where someone is from anyway. In my experience, some people just won't quit asking till they have your identity pinned down to a place. I lived for a year in Colombia as an exchange student from Australia with an Indian heritage. You try saying that to a person who has never left Bogotá, Colombia and see on their face the conundrum you've put them in.

During my year in Colombia, saying I was Australian was never sufficient. I would have to dive into my entire life story. Conversation would go something like:

“Where are you from?”


“Oh, but you look Colombian.”

(insert my fake laugh)

“My family is Indian but we live in Australia.”

“So you were born in Australia?“

“No I was born in India, but moved when I was a child.”

Some people would leave it at that. But many others would persist to find out further how Australian or Indian I was. They would fire away all sorts of generalisations of both nations. This wasn't limited just to Colombia. It's happened just about everywhere I've been. And the more it happens, the more uncertain I become of the answer.

The funny thing is: the place I've felt the most foreign is in India. When I was younger and we used to come to visit family, my parents always told me to never open my mouth in public because people would pick up on my foreign accent. Sometimes I wouldn't even talk and shopkeepers would look at me and say to my mother, “She's not from here, is she?” When I've travelled through India by myself, people don't even think I am Indian. They'll start talking in Hindi and think I can't understand. (I won't lie, calling people out in those instances has been rather enjoyable.)

Last month, I moved back to India for an indefinite adventure. My Hindi is pretty decent and I'm quite aware of the cultural norms. It's a little unsettling, though, constantly being called “foreigner didi” (“didi” means sister). After being an immigrant in Sydney for 17 years, I’m now an immigrant in my own birth nation. They continue to ask questions in broken English and I keep finding myself reminding people, in Hindi, that I speak Hindi. I’m constantly being told, ”Oh, but you're not really one of us, are you?” Mind you, I also fit the general Indian look: dark skin, sharp features, long dark hair. But in a population of 1.3 billion, what exactly is the general look?

I guess this is a common enigma faced by immigrants. Some of us will find more grounding in one nation than the other. Perhaps, if they're like me, they'll just feel a little lost.

I'm not particularly patriotic. I guess that doesn't help. Yes, I am Indian by birth. But that doesn't mean I am a prude conservative. Yes I am a naturalised Australian. But that doesn't mean I sit on a beach drinking VB beer all day. If I just told you that I'm a fashion designer but I also love to dance, read and travel, would you say I'm more Indian or Australian? But then, what if I told you I do Indian dancing and like to read Spanish books?

I'm happy with my identity. I know who I am from my work, my beliefs and my experiences and they don't specifically align with India, nor Australia. My heritage and my environment have shaped my character to an extent. But why does my nationality matter so much? Why are we so eager to create division amongst ourselves at first sight?

Maybe I've missed a point. I don't know. And, at the risk of sounding like a flower child, I would like to just tell people I'm human. And geography really has nothing to do with who I am.

Follow Mandish on Instagram here.

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