Friday, 19 December 2014

So, where are you from?

To date, I’ve been asked if I’m Indian, Punjabi, Malaysian, British, Gujerati, Spanish, Bengali, and just yesterday, South African.

I love this question, because I believe in roots, and mine are pretty strong. But I've learnt along the way that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it.

As a Malaysian, growing up in a country where race is at the forefront of everything, while the answer may be obvious, the question of nationality, race and origin is sometimes a delicate one.

While I was studying in the UK, I received mixed responses. Most fellow students were earnest about exchanging stories on their origins… diversity was part of the attraction of being there, after all. But to my great surprise, a large number of ethnic Indians had an issue with it. Where-are-you-from was met with ”the UK”; where-are-you-originally-from was met with “the UK” and rolled eyes, and oh-my-god-what-is-your-ethnicity-for-heaven’s-sake was met with “well my grandparents are xxx but I’m British, obviously”.

Yes, obviously.

I was at a loss as to why they found it so difficult to acknowledge the culture from which they came. Why such a strong need to disassociate? To me it was heart-warming that non-ethnically Indian friends were curious enough about the Indian subcontinent to recognise that within it exist dozens of unique cultures across the different states. Not to mention that a lot of them had roots not in India, but in East Africa. What a heritage to come from!

So after a few years of this, my questions evolved into greater sophistication: so you’re probably from here but where is your extended family originally from? Geez.. what a waste of breath. Over time, I grew more hesitant and resorted to Google-ing to discover the origins of surnames (clearly I am obsessed with this question!).

These days, this question is coming back to find me again. Joining the UNDP family has been delightful, because I feel so keenly the celebration of origin and ethnicity in the way we work, dress and speak. It is often the second question asked of anyone, right after “what is your name/ how should I call you”. It’s a badge that my colleagues carry ever so proudly; we decorate our offices and tables and desktops with reminders of who we are, and how in spite of all that, we are working towards a common goal of empowering lives. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be able to touch so many corners of the world just by going to the office! So rich is this environment that yesterday, when I heard a colleague speaking in an American accent, my thought was “that’s interesting.. how did an American end up in this office?”. And then realising that I was in America, and really it wasn’t that surprising after all! :)

From where I am today, my courage is back, and I feel like I have been given the licence to shamelessly ask this of anyone, because it matters to me and the work that I do.

My response to the question from yesterday:
“South African? No, I’m not (smiling). I’m Malaysian, but my family is from India. We are Punjabi.
And you? Which part of India are you from?”

“Actually, I grew up in Zambia.”

Welcome to my world! 

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