voices from the margins

As an Indian living in China, I often encounter misconceptions about my home country, its languages, cuisine, and cultural practices. These misconceptions stem from India often being narrowly portrayed in mainstream media without showing its vast diversity.

One common assumption I face is that Hindi must be my native tongue. While Hindi is widely spoken in parts of North India, it is not the default language or mother tongue for all Indians. My native language is Malayalam, spoken in the southern state of Kerala. I was taught in English and Malayalam during my schooling in India. I learned Hindi as an additional language, not my native language. Furthermore, Malayalam and Hindi are totally different languages in their own right, unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, which are considered varieties of the same Chinese language.

Another misconception revolves around Indian cuisine. Many assume the Indian dishes served in upscale overseas restaurants accurately represent India's diverse culinary landscape. However, most establishments often focus only on North Indian dishes, neglecting the richer cuisines from other regions. As a South Indian, the dishes I grew up eating at home differ greatly from the stereotypical "Indian food" many know. And contrary to popular belief, many Indians like myself regularly consume meat. I often find myself cringing when people new to me inquire whether I worship cows when we are about to order something at a restaurant.

Furthermore, the assumption that all Indians celebrate Hindu festivals like Diwali or adhere to specific religious practices is a gross generalization. India is a secular nation with many religions and belief systems coexisting harmoniously. While religions coexist, not everyone subscribes to or celebrates religious festivals and practices. I, for one, do not identify with any religion, nor do people in Kerala celebrate festivals like Diwali that are sometimes portrayed as being intrinsic to Indian culture.

Unfortunately, even within the Indian expat community, there can be a lack of representation and understanding of this diversity. The Indian WeChat group (notifications off) I'm part of in Chengdu mainly shares information about Hindu festivals and practices, failing to reflect India's secular and multicultural reality. This narrow portrayal could contribute to some local Chinese having skewed views of Indian culture due to limited information sources.

This phenomenon is not unique to Indians in China; it is a challenge faced by many international folks whose multifaceted identities are often reduced to a handful of stereotypes in mainstream narratives.

Image: flork.

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