In India, army officers stand at the entrance to each airport checking passports and boarding passes before stoically handing them back or providing a curt nod that they can enter.
After the person in front of me in the Jaipur airport queue received their nod of approval, I approached the very stern looking officer. He took my passport and opened it to the main page, observing the photo and reading the details. His eyes looked up and met mine; his eyebrows furrowed. I worry that something is wrong with my passport or that I've mixed up the day of my flight (a mistake that would not be out of character). His stern look turns to a quizzical one as he looks down at my passport and at me again.
India is an incredibly diverse country composed of many different ethnic groups, faiths, languages and appearances.
"You're not Indian?!" I reply with an easy answer to a complex question, "I'm mixed Indian...". His eyebrows remain raised, "I was shocked! Your face is literally Indian!" I'm not sure whether it was my Western name, Australian passport, my inability to speak Hindi - or perhaps a combination of all three that led him to this conclusion.
The first time I remember being asked in Australia where I was from was in primary school. I know and felt that the inference to the question was, you’re not from here. At other times, such as when I told a co-worker that I am Indian, she exhibited the same shocked face as the airport army officer, however her comments were to the contrary: “You’re not Indian!”.
It is a common experience for me to have people comment on and define my race.
The first issue with these comments is that they erase the reality that India is an incredibly diverse country composed of many different ethnic groups, faiths, languages and appearances. This includes Indians who have inherited Christian, Catholic and Catholic-Portuguese names and ancestry. These names were sewn into the fabric of India during Portuguese and British colonisation whereby Europeans brought their respective religions and married into local communities. One need only walk down a main street in Kerala or Goa in South West India to see the Portuguese designed and built churches which to this day remain active places of worship.
The second problem with the framing of these comments is that they erase the painful legacy and ongoing global system of coloniality.
For many people who are the children of Indian and European relationships, many parts of our Indian culture have been lost, erased and whitewashed. This is because these relationships occurred under British colonisation meaning that the language, culture and religion of our European ancestors was posited as superior. One example of this is how Indian women who married European men often had to convert to Catholicism, take on a Christian name and their children often sent to be educated in Catholic convents.
Despite this, my culture and my identity as an Indian has survived attempted erasure in many ways. One example of this is the food cooked by my Indian ancestors which has continued to be passed down through generations. Its presence is felt in the pots of kitchari and yellow dahl that inhabit the stove of my mother’s kitchen. Its presence is felt in the way my mother cooks from memory, by mixing together some amounts of this, and some amounts of that, but always somehow the right amount.
My culture and my identity as an Indian has survived attempted erasure in many ways.
Delicious wholesome food aside, if you were to ask me about what being Indian really means to me, my answer is that it is in my values, which have also been passed down whilst surviving generations of colonisation. They include valuing collectivism and kindness over individualism, believing that certain things are sacred - like respecting your elders (small doses of sass still fall well within the parameters of being respectful), expressing love through guilt tripping or making sure someone has eaten, always sharing and offering food and treating guests like royalty. The tether to ancestral faith and language may have been lost, but these - like precious family heirlooms - remain.
I became acutely aware of how much I missed being around people who shared my values when I moved interstate to Darwin. I was at a barbeque of a friend's friend where I was the only South Asian or person of colour. I felt lonely and alienated in a space where there seemed to be no framework or set of shared rules that people followed in welcoming a new person into a space. Nobody offered food, or a drink, or even made space in the circle they were standing in.
What was initially a feeling of heavy heartedness and homesickness soon turned to affectionate amusement when I hopped in an Uber to return home and the South Asian driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked “are you Indian?”, “did you have your dinner?”, and by the end of the journey: “My sister is getting married in July in Hyderabad, you are welcome to come to the wedding”. I experienced relief as I felt the sense of home that I had missed at the party.
Sarah Ross is an Indian-Australian writer and counsellor from Western Australia.
Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) invited participant writers to reflect on the Stories from the Future project, which gathers culturally and/or linguistically diverse creatives from across Australia to imagine equitable alternative futures for the arts. This project is a partnership between DARTS, the University of Sydney and state partners and receives core support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, City of Parramatta Council and Liverpool City Council.