I’d just started having my lunch, which was chow mein, a special dish of that day (every day, a special dish is served in addition to a regular thali) when the person seated next to me smiled and said, “Chinese food; nice nah,” and every one around had a good laugh. I enquired the reason for the sudden euphoria, to which the person quipped, “Chinese food, you happy, nah,” and they erupted in yet another chorus of laughter. I politely told them I love dosa and even rotis too. The intention of making fun at somebody based on looks was unmistakable and beyond the level of tolerance, but I restrained myself from what seemed like an open invitation for an office-canteen brawl. I didn’t want to amplify the ignominy further.
To be called ‘Chinese’, not because of ignorance but for the sheer purpose of humiliating one had me mull over it day and night, so much so I feel like an alien in my own country more than ever. The thought really disturbs me. It dwells in one’s psyche, especially when one is a thousand miles away from home and is the only Mongoloid-looking individual in an office having nearly a thousand workforce. The arduous task of voicing racial discrimination is like wielding a double-edged sword. While the perpetrators and their acts will be condemned, it also exposes the victim’s vulnerable side, of appearing weak and helpless. It is this dilemma that discourages many to even talk about it and instead chooses to look strong and powerful enough to dismiss off the issue.
In the second instance, I’d just passed by a colleague who called me ‘Hey Chinese’ out of nowhere. He is a quite, shy and usually friendly guy. I am the least intimidated by someone of his nature and physique. In fact, he has my sympathy for his soft-spoken nature. In both the instances, I honestly didn’t know how to even respond. If you want to make fun of a person, there are 100 ways of doing that. Why should we make fun of people based on their caste, creed, colour or looks?
Unlike the many incidents I had encountered earlier, with people who had no idea an Indian could look like me, my experiences in the above mentioned two instances were with people supposed to have a general awareness expected of a graduate or above. It cannot be ignorance of my nationality, since both are aware of my home state. I failed to understand the motive behind them calling me Chinese. These incidents of mine may be the most civilised racial discrimination on the Northeast people. I can choose to be silent on it. But it is time that these issues get highlighted; to at least send a message to people around that ‘Northeast India and its people with different looks should be respected and accepted as they are and the diverse culture, history and geography of India should be well inculcated in the minds of everyone including our children.’
The fact that perpetrators of this whole menace involve supposedly respectable and educated people makes one wonder as to whether it is the frustration of India lacking behind China in many ways or the blooming growth of Northeast people in the service sectors across the country that results in the increased outburst of discriminatory remarks, which is carefully masked by jokes and loose comments.
Either way, we cannot pour out our frustrations by branding people as Chinese, knowing well that they are not. On a lighter note, It is more so offensive to the neighbouring country. We have a long way to go before we can compare ourselves to China. In fact, many manufactured goods sold in India are wholly or partially made in China. Their advancement in military, space and economy is also unmatched by us. In that logic, an Indian being called a Chinese should not be that offensive. The reverse could be. Many then asked our madness on being called Chinese.
As Rahul, a friend from Bihar puts it, “Haokip, why do you all take the Chinese remark so offensive? Aren’t they better than India in many ways?” It is only an issue of how, who, why and when that matters. It is the intention that is important. Moreover, the discrimination Northeastern people face had the choicest of discriminatory words like chinky, chow mein and momo, etc, flung at them.
The culprits of racial discrimination against the Northeastern people, though, are not restricted to the educated lots alone. Ten years ago, one fine evening, as I waited for a bus at Mehdipatnam in Hyderabad, a pani puri seller nearby yelled out, “Hey Chinese, pani puri khalo. Bahut barhiya hain.” (Hey Chinese! Come have pani puri. It tastes superb) I replied, “Main Indian hoon. NE se hoon.” (I am not a Chinese. I am from NE India.) He said, “Wo toh pata hain.” (I know you are from Northeast).
I was dumbfounded. What possible gratification could he derive by calling me that, I wondered. The Northeastern people are victims of racial abuses from all types of people; rich or poor, educated or illiterate and north or south. There are countless numbers of experiences faced by most NE people outside the Northeast, most of which are silently swept under the carpet. This unspeakable difficulty to comprehend how we are made to feel in actual fact is the hardest part. Honest mistakes do happen and they are meted with equal humour. It is a fact that the idea that is India, with its beautiful diversity is unknown to many. The sad part is — our inability, as Indian to avoid the flirtatious idea of rebuking our brethren just because they look, eat or dress different.
The Northeastern part of India is strategically very important to India. It is this frontier which shields India from China, a country which is not India’s best ally. Most people would not be able to fathom what consequences would befall us if Northeast India fell under foreign control.
Interestingly, there are numerous organisations aspiring self-governance or sovereignty in the region. The government of India is investing considerable amount of resources and spending huge amount of money to contain this movement and the people that you branded foreigners are mostly the patriotic lots from the region who proudly sing “Jana Gana Mana” and say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” with honour.
One should also remember that it is these “Chinki”or “Chinese” looking brethren of the Northeast that fearlessly protect our border and their acts of bravery in many wars for India are well documented. To those people who think Northeastern people are only to be rebuked, I would like to caution them — the next time you see a Northeastern person, try thanking him/her for protecting the integrity of the country instead of calling him a Chinese, as branding him/her a foreigner would tantamount to you supporting the militant-movement in the Northeast whose main agenda is to secede from India, apart from the fact that discriminatory remarks based on one’s origin, culture and appearance can attract legal punishment under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
(The writer is a former development professional and has served as a consultant to the Union ministry of rural development. He is the author of the book Hilly Dreams: The Story of Aboi. Views expressed are his own)