Awkward Introductions From Dubai To India
A whiff of cold air slapped my face as I stepped out of my guesthouse in Reykjavík. I gingerly placed one foot after the other on the pile of snow and ice at the end of the steps, hoping I wouldn’t slip off it. I pulled up my buff to cover my nose and looked down the street half expecting to see a small tour-bus heading in my direction. Nothing.
I turned to look at the magnificent façade of Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church that stands in the center of Iceland’s capital, my attention captivated enough to keep me from looking at my watch repeatedly.
A few minutes later, I climbed into a white mini-bus as my guide Leifur apologized for having kept me waiting on the chilly morning. “Oh, I didn’t mind,” I said to him smiling. “Just look at this street, it’s beautiful!”
He nodded in agreement, “I drive here every day and still stop to look at the church. So, where are you from, Natasha?”
“I’m from Dubai,” I said and paused. As usual, that sounded incomplete. “But I’m originally Indian,” I added, secretly confused whether that made my introduction any more complete.
“Oh, really,” he said, “I’ve never met someone from Dubai before.”
As we drove around the city to pick up the rest of the group, I thought about the awkwardness I’d felt while answering. One that I’d experienced every single time I had introduced myself to someone on my travels. Whatever I said about where I was from, it never seemed complete or relevant.
Multiculturalism Exists From Dubai To India
Unlike most expats who move to Dubai for a few years before onto their next destination, I was born and raised in the city. Dubai is home to a significant and sizeable Indian community, and, like most Indian communities abroad, it is closely connected to the culture.
From Bollywood movies, stores selling traditional clothes in Meena Bazaar, more Indian restaurants than you can count, and festive celebrations, there’s plenty here to make Indians feel like they haven’t ventured too far away from home. India is just a three-hour flight away.
As a kid from a liberal family, I wasn’t rooted to tradition. I was raised to be confident and curious and encouraged to ask “why?” often. And so I questioned everything, prodding persistently till the answers satisfied me. Where others accepted faith and custom, I looked for reason.
My parents didn’t insist on my participation in matters of tradition or religion and for the large part, I had the freedom to choose which parts of them I would adopt if any. As an adult, I became a mere observer of the traditions of my own culture.
I’d never go to the Hindu temple to pray or observe fasts or vegetarian days. My limited Indian attire would only come out of storage when I had to attend a wedding or on Diwali. I never learned how to properly drape a sari. I hadn’t grown up believing that I had to behave in a certain way or learn how to do certain things because I was Indian. In fact, I strongly believed that the definition of ‘Indianness’ needed to be updated to include people like me who couldn’t relate to many of these things.
Living and working in Dubai, I was surrounded by many nationalities and the concoction of the exported versions of their cultures resulted in a cosmopolitan one where the need to belong to Indian culture wasn’t really strong. In my head, I could pick and choose the parts of it that I liked and tie them together into a neat little package that could become one aspect, among many, of my identity. I didn’t have to be traditional or religious or love Bollywood movies and cricket.
Surely, being Indian was about much more than that?
Interestingly to me, one of the most important things about growing up as an Indian in Dubai in the ’90s was that I didn’t necessarily think about race and how it can segregate society. I was always surrounded by many nationalities, many cultures, and many languages, and none ever seemed better or worse, superior or inferior, just different. As an adult, I realize now that I was lucky to never have experienced racism growing up in Dubai. As I was about to find out, there are places in the world where the color of my skin could unsettle and confuse people.
Travel Changed My Perspective On Being From Dubai But Indian
After a few years of working, I put my savings to good use and began to travel frequently, often alone, driven by my desire to see the world. I’d lost my mum a few years ago and that made me realize that life was short and unpredictable. Whether or not I admitted it then, I understand now that I needed to travel so I could understand who I was and what I wanted from life. I hadn’t grown up rich at all and hadn’t seen anywhere but Dubai. Suddenly I realized I had no idea what the world was like. I’d been missing out and now it was finally time to change that.
While meeting people from around the world on these trips, I would get comments about the Indian head nod, Butter Chicken and Bollywood. But most often I’d be met with confusion when I introduced myself as ‘from Dubai, but Indian.’ These are the types of things I’d hear:
“What does that mean? Do you have a UAE passport?”
“So where’s home then, Dubai or India?”
“So what is different about you as an Indian who grew up and lives in Dubai from someone who was raised in India?”
“So is that why you’re okay traveling solo, because you were raised in Dubai? Because I’ve never met another Indian girl traveling solo in this part of the world.”
“Is that why your English is so good, because you didn’t grow up in India?”
“Is that why you don’t do the Indian head nod?”
“Is that why you don’t have the Indian accent?”
“I love curry. “
The fact is that none of these questions have a straightforward answer. And ‘curry’ isn’t a real dish in India. We have so many different types and they’re all different dishes with specific names. But, I digress.
My cultural identity hardly fits into one clearly labeled box, and that’s even true on paper since in Dubai I’m a resident but still an expat. Meanwhile, while visiting family in India, the difference becomes glaringly obvious. I find myself caught up in conversations, some of which my only role is that of an observer. It is apparent that Indian identity is linked to tradition and tradition dictates the structure of relationships, community, and marriages-and to a certain extent-aspirations and life choices. Festivals are celebrated with fervor but sometimes that also involves blind faith and disregard for certain sections of the population.
Most women don’t just leave a comfortable life to travel the world and learn new skills, even if they want to. Most men don’t wash their hands of family businesses to become musicians or artists. Those who do make unusual choices are branded ‘rebels’. A large part of the Indian identity comes from satisfactorily fitting into certain pre-defined roles of career and family life. It becomes clear that someone like me who doesn’t play the part will always exist as an outsider looking in the window. At least for now.
What I realized after fielding all of these questions and situations is that people are confused by others who don’t fit into the boxes of their preconceived notions and stereotypes. We make them uncomfortable because we don’t conform to the idea of who they think we are. Unfortunately, most of their ideas come from stand-up comedians who play on these stereotypes.
Smashing Stereotypes From Dubai To India
When it comes to being Indian, I often have to enlighten people that yes, of course, Indians speak good English because we were ruled by the British for almost a hundred years. Indians grow up in cities go to schools where the language of instruction is English, so English is also one of our official languages. Some of us have accents, depending on where we grew up and live, just like Americans and Europeans, who have different accents depending on where they’re from.
Yet again, there are a whole set of stereotypes about people from Dubai. People tend to ask if I drive a Ferrari or own a superyacht and if I’m a millionaire. Their idea of Dubai as a city of rich people comes from popular Western media. It’s the same media that doesn’t find it worthwhile to talk about Dubai as a city where real people live and work and do the same kind of stuff that people do in other cities-such as take the metro to their jobs.
As a travel writer and blogger, I tend to meet and talk to a lot of locals and fellow travelers from around the world. So many have not been able to wrap their heads around the fact that I am an Indian woman from Dubai traveling solo on a budget. Why?
Because Indian women aren’t as independent and don’t travel solo.
Because as an Indian, it’s surprising that I’d be a writer writing in English.
Because people from Dubai don’t travel and are never on a budget.
It was then that I realized how important my mixed identity was. It was important for me to talk about it so that the people who hadn’t met people like me had a better, more real and personal source of information. While there was no need to pay attention to identity and race and religion in a multicultural city like Dubai, it was increasingly important in a world where so many people saw only half the picture and had incorrect or incomplete information.
From a little village in Denmark to a mountain town in Vietnam, I’ve had so many discussions with locals about what it is to be Indian and to live in Dubai. It’s like seeing a light bulb go off in their heads, their minds struggling to accept this new information not from a magazine article written by a Westerner or a news channel, but from someone who is actually in both of these situations.
Positive Experiences As An Indian
While travel opened my eyes to identity and race, it also reinforced my belief in the kindness of people everywhere. There have been times where locals have been welcoming, friendly and protective of me because I’m Indian.
I had a particularly heartwarming experience in Georgia, which might just be the friendliest country in the world. The locals in the mountain towns of Svaneti watch Hindi TV shows and Bollywood movies dubbed into Svan, and they were thrilled to have me around. As the only Indian in Upper Svaneti for five days last winter, I felt like a movie star; people waved to me on the streets, inquired about my well-being, invited me to tea, offered to carry my bags for me, saved me a window seat on the local minibus, and even sent marriage proposals my way.
I had some great experiences in the Stockholm Archipelago where people approached me and offered to help. They had never seen an Indian on their little, remote island before and were both surprised as to how I’d found my way there and happy to show me around.
In Montenegro, I had largely positive experiences traveling around the country. To explore the Lake Skadar National Park, I based myself in the village of Virpazar. On my first day, I got many curious looks that were hard to ignore. The town center is so small you could walk around it in under ten minutes. It was unsettling at first but slowly, the locals got used to seeing me around the next few days, and gradually it stopped feeling uncomfortable.
I was right at home traveling in Sri Lanka. Firstly, the locals are extremely friendly towards everyone. Two, there are many similarities between India and Sri Lanka when it comes to the culture, so there was some level of familiarity. I felt extremely comfortable and welcome while traveling around the country.
Travel Conferences While Asian
At first, I was oblivious—naïve even some would say—to the effect my skin color seemed to have on some people I met while traveling. Slowly, it began to sink in. There were the stereotypes that I talked about before, and those I could deal with. But there were also times when I realized that people didn’t want to occupy the same physical space as me. This happened to me in hostel common rooms, public transportation, and also in social settings. Sometimes these people were the kind who had never traveled or in towns that don’t see a lot of brown tourists.
But what was disappointing was when this happened with people who were seemingly well-traveled and supposed to be open-minded. I’m talking about travel conferences and events. As a travel blogger and writer, I regularly attend these types of events and press trips. In recent years, I’ve noticed that cliques tend to form. As one of the few Indian and/or Asian attendees, it feels like segregation happens, perhaps unconsciously, on the basis of race. While I have made some close friends and cultivated excellent working relationships at such events, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is an invisible line that keeps Indians and Asians on the other side.
With time, I’ve learned to not let it affect me. To take the emotion out of it as much as possible. It is my right to continue to explore the world. But it doesn’t make it OK or make me feel welcome or treated as an equal.
Travel Media Needs To Recognize Asian Travel Writers
Do I think travel media or media in general needs more representation from People Of Color (POC)? Of course. It is an undeniable fact that travel media hasn’t kept up with the changing landscape of travel.
Think in terms of demographics, target markets, and economic growth, and how the focus has shifted to Asia and the Middle East. Now go back and look at your favorite print or online travel magazines, travel shows, travel Instagram feeds and Youtube channels. Is their voice representative of the diversity you see on your travels in terms of fellow travelers? Is it relevant?
I’ve read articles that are caricatures of places, including Dubai. Now Dubai is the city I call home and know closely. And it gets written about a lot, often in a negative light. But that’s not the Dubai I know and love- heck, it isn’t even the complete picture. For one, Dubai doesn’t always have to be crazy expensive. Those articles are written by people who have the privilege of being published in big publications as travel writers. Being published is a coveted part of a travel career that everyone wants, but these writers and influencers do not understand the responsibility that comes with it. They do not explore places or cultures but reinforce stereotypes and recycle old information at minimal effort.
That is disappointing, and I am trying my best to change that with my work. Admittedly, as an Indian writing in English, there are times when it is difficult to be taken seriously by editors.
From Dubai To India: Who Am I?
I have to question if in our times the concept of cultural identity has progressed. There must be a place for people like me: those that occupy the confusing in-between of home and abroad.
When I say I’m from Dubai, there is no hesitation because it is where I was raised and live and has played a huge role in shaping who I am. It has broadened my horizons and taught me that all cultures and nationalities are equal and deserve the same amount of respect. It has taught me about tolerance. More importantly, it has taught me that it is perfectly okay to live a life that is not bound by traditions and religion but one whose possibilities are rendered endless by the power of dreams and the freedom to choose.
Every time I add, “but I’m Indian,” I wonder if this is, for all real purposes, a lie. I mean beyond the technicality of my passport, I wonder if someone’s going to call me out and say something about me not standing for the things that make Indians Indian. Like taking my husband’s last name or mapping out my life plan in terms of child and family-related goals. As I struggle to find my place somewhere between where I’m from and who I am, I hope they will be wrong.