When the time came for me to start applying to universities, studying abroad felt like a no-brainer - I wanted to study literature and adamantly maintained that it would be impossible to get the right kind of education anywhere in India. More than anything, I had been seduced by gorgeous college websites, their photos of oh-so-natural multi-ethnic students, and the life of freedom and intellectualism that they promised.
When I stepped out of Heathrow airport and entered London for the first time last September, I was nervous and excited; ready, albeit a little apprehensive, to begin my time at university. I expected that the coming years would be full of new people and experiences, some slightly bland British food, a little bit of culture shock, and a lot of good old college fun. What I didn’t expect was how much living abroad alone would teach me about who I am, where I’m from, and my relationship with my Indian identity.
Because of the schools I went to and the international education I was pursuing, so much of my life was spent aspiring to Western culture and media. But having finally moved to London, I’ve realised that not only was I unaware of how much my Indian identity and culture meant to me, but that I was ignoring so much history, art, and culture, both old and new, in India. Or rather, I realised that the history, art and culture that I had taken for granted, was a much more essential part of my identity than I ever knew. Removed from the familiarity of my culturally homogenous upper-middle class bubble and thrust into the world of the British Indian diaspora, I was forced to understand and reckon with ideas of race, class, and colonial history in a way that I had never been able to while at home.
Every fall, India sends hundreds of thousands of students abroad to study in universities around the world. For those who can afford it, interest in going abroad for higher education has steadily increased, and the number of Indian students studying abroad increased by 103% between 2006 and 2015. According to statistics released by the Indian government, over 5 lakh students were studying abroad in 86 countries, as of August 2017. Here at Homegrown, we want to dissect the interesting space of the Indian identity that finds itself in young Indians who move abroad to study. We asked five students who left India for university about their student experience, their relationship with their Indian identity, and their opinions on the Indian diaspora.
I. Shambhavi Thakur
Moved from New Delhi to New York City, USA
For many Indian women, moving abroad brings with it the promise of an independence and freedom from fear that can be hard to find at home. Shambhavi Thakur explains that one of the things she anticipated the most before she began studying abroad was moving away from the fear and restrictions she had as a woman living in New Delhi. “I wanted to meet new people, challenge myself with the level of education I going to receive and explore a new setting. My first semester went by really quick as I was extremely excited to explore New York and ace all my classes, so I didn’t experience any culture shock until my second semester.
I made friends and lost friends and was influenced by many of the characters I met - they changed my style of conversation, my sense of humour, and my tastes. However, they also made realise how transactional and superficial American society could be and how much I missed Indian cultural values and priorities. I also did not realise how much I valued Indian food, especially street food and the variety of Indian cuisines, until I encountered an inaccurate perception of a singular Indian cuisine that begins and ends with chicken tikka masala.”
Among the people Shambhavi met at university, most were fascinated by India but had little to no knowledge about it. “During my first few weeks, the absurd range of questions I had to answer, or peoples surprise at my fluency in English was something that will always stay with me.” As for the Indian diaspora, Shambhavi says, “I found that Indians who have been raised abroad have a very idealised view of Indian culture and only associate themselves with the rich heritage. Living in New York during these years of protest and increasing racial, social and political conversation, I felt hypocritical commenting on happenings in the States while being unaware and unable to associate myself with anything happening in India. So I began to make a more conscious effort to keep up with Indian news. But where I identify with and feel more dutiful to the Indian political environment than to the American, Indians raised abroad are the opposite.”
But perhaps one of the biggest realisations Shambhavi had about her relationship to her Indian identity came in her classes. “During my history classes I was put off by the concentration and amount of time spent on studying European Art and how quickly our syllabus skimmed through India and the rest of the South and Southeast Asia, like they did with Africa. I realised that I felt some innate responsibility to educate my peers about the diversity and craftsmanship in India, and I did that through my clothing choices, and presentation topics.”
II. Prithvi Hirani
Moved from Mumbai to the UK
Prithvi Hirani had decided to study abroad for many of the same reasons I did - studying abroad felt like the natural progression from her IB education. Unlike me however, Prithvi initially moved abroad in 2007, and the discourse around ethnicity and identity in the UK was quite different from how it is now. “When I first moved to the UK to do my BA at the University of York, the narrative of globalisation and multiculturalism was ripe. Although I found myself in a predominantly white upper class University on a predominantly white course, I was forced to confront what my Indianness meant to me. While I had never rejected my Indian identity, I did not feel as strongly about it before moving abroad.”
One of Prithvi’s pet peeves has always been Indians who move abroad and then complain about everything in India. As such, she says “Even though I lived in the UK for nearly 10 years, I have always maintained that I am a Bombay girl exploring the world. I have never changed my accent even when I am participating at conferences or teaching undergraduate students. Living in India again, I have noticed that I don’t follow Indian news as intently as I did while in the UK. But I think when you’re abroad you want to know what’s happening at home, and when you’re home you want to know what’s happening abroad.”
Over the last ten years, the UK has undergone a fundamental shift in the way in which they deal with borders and immigration, something Prithvi experience firsthand: “When I was doing my BA and MA, once you were granted the visa, you had the visa - you couldn’t lose it and the UK border agency didn’t monitor you. But during my PhD, in 2013, my student visa really influenced and affected my daily life. I had to present my passport to the University twice a year, all my supervisory meetings had to be recorded, summarised and sent to the UKBA, my attendance was monitored, and if I left the country even for a weekend I needed written permission. These practices really made me feel like an immigrant and an outsider.”
Her experience with the Indian diaspora at university led Prithvi to study the British-Indian diaspora in detail for her PhD. “I was perplexed by the fact that religious identity seemed to play such a big role in their understanding of India and their relation with other South Asians. I think Indians raised abroad either reject their Indianness or are way more hardcore Indian than us. They can be super conservative and more aware of different sub caste groups and will follow traditions you and me have never heard of. I think what I have come to realise that the notion of authenticity and hybridity play a very interesting role when we think about British Indians.” Having returned to India, Prithvi has found this hybridity in herself, as she says “For me, adjusting two worlds and living between them has become a fundamental aspect of my identity.”
III. Siddhant Chawla
Moved from Ahmedabad to Urbana, USA
Siddhant decided to study abroad because he wanted a wholesome college experience where he could discover his interests and be exposed to the opportunities that arise from hardships of being independent in a foreign country. “Also at that time, juvenile as I was, I wanted to run away from my problems that I thought existed because I was in India. I had expected to immediately blend in with the people there as I thought my interests and way of thinking were very similar to theirs. I considered myself to be a liberal minded intellect, but I wasn’t one.”
He found that the impressions that most people in his university have of India are very misguided. “They’re deeply rooted in bias and prejudice perpetuated by the media. People have been ‘pleasantly surprised’ by how ‘good’ my English is. People have brought up, at the oddest times and most inappropriate places, the topic of the caste system and sati. People have implicitly asked me if I am from a slum. One person on a public train in Chicago assumed that I was a terrorist because I was taking photos of the beautiful architecture and confronted me publicly, threatening to have me shot by the police.
Essentially, most people (students and professors alike) in my university have this feeling of superiority for being in a first world country. Having such encounters again and again has weathered my ability to not be affected by them and feel left out and alone. I feel like I have to fit into what they expect me to be as an Indian immigrant, or I have to speak for my entire nation if I disagree with them.”
Siddhant also found it difficult to relate to Indians raised abroad. “I have found that they have hardly any knowledge of India and often look down on it, but they conveniently use parts of the culture they like - clothes and Bollywood movies. On the other hand, there are some who do have a respect for India but they want to learn more about regional dances and languages than actual life in India.”
On his relationship with his Indian identity, Siddhant says, “Going abroad and being isolated because of my accent and different experiences, and feeling attacked because of my culture, has made me connect with my identity even more. This kind of marginalization, has resulted in me making an effort to learn more and more about my beautiful country. Initially I found myself investing more time and money in watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food to reconnect with my childhood memories. Then I realized - I wanted to explore the real India that I had distanced myself from almost all my life. I made a change in my lifestyle and began by reading books, watching regional cinema or learning about history. I even practiced writing Hindi and Gujarati!”
Moved from Pune to Bennington, USA
Nirmohee was homeschooled, and as such, her options for pursuing a higher education in India were limited. Aside from being concerned about how she would fit into a formal education environment after years of homeschooling, Nirmohee says, “I had prepared myself for any cultural differences I might face even though today’s India is pretty westernised in my opinion.”
Having grown up around her grandmother and her traditional values, Nirmohee felt deeply connected to her Indian identity from a young age. “I was always encouraged to study classical music and kathak and so on and so forth. And even though studying abroad often lead to being disconnected from this culture I tried my hardest to keep it intact. After having moved abroad, I often find myself fascinated by things from back home that I would have found myself complaining about in other circumstances. Loving things from afar is always easier than actually having to deal with the nitty-gritties of a close-up view.”
Nirmohee found that studying abroad made her view society as a whole from a more multicultural and accepting viewpoint. “Of course I’ve been asked questions like ‘Do you speak Hindu? Or Indian?’ and ‘Do you have Elephants?’ and those did make me laugh, but as I thought about it more, I began to feel that they were just a product of cultural difference and ignorance. I’ve come across a lot of people who have heard stories of an India from the past and believe those are true, but I also believe that, because of the internet, people are starting to become more and more aware of what India is really like. Their knowledge of India is no longer limited to what they’ve heard about great weed in the Himalayas, but is growing more educated and nuanced. I get questions like ‘How do you feel about the state of women?’, ‘What is politics like?’, ‘Is there an Indian version of trump?’, and so on and so forth, and I genuinely enjoy answering these questions.”
V. Kaashif Hajee
Moved from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi, UAE
Kaashif moved to Abu Dhabi to study because he was unhappy with the kind of education he could get in India, and was able to get an amazing scholarship opportunity at NYU Abu Dhabi. On his relationship with his Indian identity before moving abroad, he says, “Given the particular urban and westernised section of Indian society that I belong to I was not as much in touch with my Indian identity in. But when I went abroad and I understood that I was an Indian amongst a number of foreigners, my Indianness was heightened. I realised all the ways that I was involved in India and Indian culture - I listened to Hindi music and watched Bollywood films, my English is Indianized and often Hinglish, I have a palate for spicier food, and so on. I became more acutely aware of these things about myself and this awareness made me start to form a different relationship with my Indian identity.”
The situation of the Indian diaspora in the UAE is particularly interesting. The country is largely populated by immigrants and almost all of the country’s labour population is Indian or South Asian. As such, Kaashif’s experience with the Indian diaspora was different from that of students who moved to other countries. “The face of India and the Indian diaspora represented by Indian immigrant workers is completely different from Indians like me and other Indian students living abroad,” he says.
“I’ve had to grapple with the idea of what India really is when faced with these different aspects of the country. I kind of had to understand my privilege and that I am not the everyday Indian and really understand the kind of inequality we have in India in a way that I had never done before.” But as he was realising the differences between himself and the majority of Indians, he also was realising the similarities between himself and other South Asians. He says, “I was startled by just how similar I was to the Pakistani or Bangladeshi students. The people who I’ve gotten along with the best on campus are not necessarily Indians, but are South Asian. We’ve all gotten along based on a shared history and shared cultural identity that we all have - we all speak Hindi or Urdu or similar languages, we all have a similar palette, we all have a familiarity with the same music and film, we all have similar cultural values.”
With regards to the impressions of India he has encountered, he says, “In college, most people are very socially and politically aware, and so I haven’t encountered much ignorance about Indian culture. However, our campus is not representative of all of Abu Dhabi or the UAE. While I have never directly encountered this myself, I know that there are some Indians who have been made to feel inferior because they get automatically associated with the labour force, a part of the country’s population that is often considered inferior. It is also somewhat paradoxical that most of migrant Indian workers are treated quite poorly because of the UAE’s labour laws, but students like myself are treated so well.”
Featured illustration courtesy of Chaitra Bangalore.
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