Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Indian expat in Britain

I have been meeting up with various Indian people in the UK since coming back to live in England. By Indian I mean Indian visitor or expat, not British Asian (or British Indian,  as some prefer to be called, referring to British citizens of Indian heritage either born here or who started arriving in the 1950s.) Indeed about 20 years ago most British people’s only exposure to Indians in the UK was  the immigrants who moved here en masse in the 50s, 60s and 70s and their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Now with the wealth and skills set increasing in India, more Indians are coming to Britain to study Masters and MBAs and many of those are managing to find work and get employed here afterwards. Others are coming directly on highly skilled migrant work visas to work in sectors like IT with companies such as Infosys, Aviva on 2-3 year contracts. Many are already here as doctors and priests. This MBA/IT/highly-skilled set makes up a new genre of Indian you will find in British cities and towns, quite different to their counterpart, the British Asian. It’s funny because, having lived in Mumbai for more than 3 years, I can spot an Indian expat a mile off. They are distinctly quite different, in their accent, dress and behaviour, to a British Asian/Indian. 

Meeting them is interesting for me. I'm curious to see, having been an expat, how well they adapt to the UK, or not; whether they integrate or not and watch the little faux pax or gaffes they unknowingly make that arise from cultural misunderstandings. I know I made many similar gaffes and faux pax in India. I also know, having lived overseas, that it is important to overlook those faux pax as they only arise from being raised in a different culture and society. They are never intentionally offensive. When I was in Mumbai I also made blunders, but, sadly, whereas some people overlooked them, others did not.

In Mumbai, some Indians were welcoming of expats and others were not. I know that some Indians made me feel really different. They did not include me in things, would not confide in me or gossip with me or would say really strange things to me.  As a British woman I also had to fight stereotypes in India. I remember one Indian woman saying to me, “You know how all western women write about sex in their blogs and Indian woman bloggers don’t well..” I was furious. Since when did all western women write about sex in their blogs!! (I know I have touched on relationships, but still…) On another occasion an Indian woman said, “You know how all French people are manic depressives, well it’s because they are spoilt and have not had to endure the hardships Indians have, well….” Such sweeping generalisations spring from ignorance and I generally ignored the remarks. Similarly there was an element of Indians who had a post-colonial hangover. If I dared to criticise India, the response would be “So you want to rule us again?”  Or “Why do you think your culture is superior to ours?” I didn’t. I may have been merely mentioning something or other that could be improved in India (like the fact drivers don’t stop at zebra crossings. They don’t in Rome either and I get equally annoyed there.) I can think of plenty of things that can be improved in England too. I don’t see why I have to continually praise a place. And I don’t. Some of the most interesting discussions with one’s friends can come from debating how to improve or solve social issues. If there were no social issues to solve, what would we discuss? Men and make-up? There was also a resistance among some Indians towards expats getting jobs in Mumbai. If you explained to them that the Indian diaspora was massive and millions of Indians had jobs overseas it made no difference. They were not overseas and didn’t care. Of course outside this stereotyping and prejudice were many very decent, intelligent, bright, spiritual, welcoming Indians who I thoroughly enjoyed meeting.

Expats take to India differently. There are some that ‘go native’ so to speak, refuse to mix with other expats, eat only at street food stalls and so on…There are others who refuse to mix with Indians , slag off India and are only seen at five star hotel brunches. I liked to be somewhere between the two extremes, with half Indian and half expat friends, semi integrated but making the occasional gaffe. One area I did struggle with was using the words, Sir or Madam. This to an English person is completely alien. To my knowledge, the UK, Sir is only used in the British Army and possibly when a commoner meets Royalty. Otherwise it might be used by a waitress in a very posh five star hotel in London to a customer. No one uses this as a form of respect for elders or people more experienced/powerful than you, as they do in India. I also could not bring myself to use the word thrice instead of three times or ride a moped without a helmet. 

But now I am the local in my own country and seeing how the Indian expats get on intrigues me. I was out with an Indian friend the other day at the cinema. After buying the tickets he asked the ticket booth man if he had any change. When the man refused my friend blew his top at him.  I was shocked as it is not acceptable to be that rude to someone selling tickets at a cinema. Then outside a Big Issue seller came to speak to me when I was with my friend and my friend said in a loud voice, “How dare you interrupt our conversation?” I was taken aback as, again, in England we would never speak so rudely to a Big Issue seller either. We know they are homeless and selling the Big Issue to make ends meet. But I guess my Indian friend treated him as though he was a rickshaw driver, day labourer or beggar who had come up and barged into our conversation, something unthinkable in India. They know their place in Indian society and probably would not dare. But England is far more egalitarian. The person selling Big Issue might be homeless today, but yesterday he may have been in a good job. The ticket booth man is probably studying a Masters or working as an actor. In India sadly the treatment of rickshaw drivers, waiters, maids and the like is not always the same as here and sometimes they are treated with immense disrsepect. I didn’t say anything at the time but decided if I met this Indian friend again and got to know him better I would mention it.

Another funny incident happened when I was with an Indian friend going out for a meal and I asked him what cuisine he wanted. “Something spicy” he said. This will pose problems in England where most food is not spicy and we eat a lot of French and Italian cuisine. I explained that left us with Bangladeshi or Mexican cuisine and there wasn’t a Mexican restaurant in the town where we were. He finally caved in and we went to a French restaurant. He was unable to comprehend the French menu. (The menus are always in French in French restaurant in the UK to add to the experience. For Brits they are pretty easy to decipher as we are used to it.) “What is canard?” he asked. “What is poulet?” He asked. Of course he spoke about 7 languages but French was not one of them. For the Brits French is pretty easy. Then the food came and whilst I raved about the food, he seemed unimpressed, probably similar to how I had reacted when an Indian once friend took me to a Rajasthani traditional restaurant in Gujarat where I couldn't get to grips with the unusual food at all. I exclaimed, “Isn’t French food just the best!” tucking into a rare steak with frites. “You know French food is the most gourmet in the world and yet I barely came across a single French restaurant in India,” I remarked. “There is a reason for that,” my Indian friend, who did not eat beef, said dryly.

Meanwhile the British friend I was with kept calling him middle-class. He was saying it to compliment him on how well-brought up and well-spoken he was, but the Indian kept merely smiling; this was the other meaning of the Indian smile and I knew it. I finally explained to my British friend that being called middle class in India isn’t  seen as a great compliment– it’s basically seen there as what we describe as lower class here – you need to say upper middle class to refer to what my friend was trying to communicate…Middle-class in England  conjures up Wimbledon, Henley, private education, four bedroomed-detached house, professional occupation, tennis, rugby, Berkshire etc…But in India it refers  to the  masses, not the upper echelons of  society. It conjures up a very simple home and life in India. So this was another cross-cultural miscommunication, I figured. When I explained it to both of them, the Indian stopped the ear-to-ear grin and his shoulders seemed to relax. He admitted he had been baffled by the constant comment he was middle-class. “I  just could not understand why you kept on telling me I was middle-class,” he said.

As we left the French restaurant we walked past a group of English woman. It was a cold night and they were all, without fail, in mini dresses or mini-skirts, which hung almost below their knicker lines, they had completely bare legs and stilettos. Some had tattoos; others had cigarettes dropping out of their mouths. Most were heavily made up. There were 100s of them all appearing from nowhere, heading for the local dodgy nightclub of the Home Counties town we were in. I was rather embarrassed by this sight and explained to my Indian friend that not all British woman dressed or behaved like this.  I hadn’t seen anything like it myself for years. My female friends and I were more likely to be seen in a country pub in designer jeans and a T shirt than anywhere like this and we never dressed like that in the evenings.  These women all looked like they had one intention in mind, and it is a sentence that is three words long. The Indian friend had no idea that what he had seen and experienced did not represent British women or indeed British society.  If anything, it represented a segment of British society - one that would not be found at Cheltenham Ladies College or in the King’s Road, London or in a British law firm.  “There is a different kind of English woman,” I started to explain as best I could. “Not all British women dress like this.  I am different, for starters,” I said proud of my designer jeans and black top I was in, my stock ‘night out’ outfit, in fact.  “Oh you mean the plain Jane!” he said confidently, in a thick Indian accent. I swallowed my anger, as did the British guy who was with me. I realised the Indian expat had no clue what the connotations of the phrase Plain Jane were.  I have been called many things to date, but not till now, anyway plain. Anyway I forgave him, as you have to, if you want to befriend a foreigner in your homeland. It reminded me of when an Indian in Mumbai had said I looked well fed. I couldn’t have been more offended but he had said it with a big grin as though he was complimenting me and this Indian in England who said I was a plain Jane was also grinning from ear to ear.  I fathomed that expats will make faux pax and social blunders in the mind of the locals, wherever they are, but ignoring them is the best thing to do. Apart from the plain Jane remark, we had had a great evening. The same with the guy I had gone to the cinema with. On both occasions we had discussed politics, culture, and society and exchanged ideas. In fact, the Indian expats had even been so kind as to decipher aspects of Indian society I had not been able to understand. What was the point of holding a social gaffe against them?

I guess what I have learnt from all this is -  you have to be elastic – you have to be able to give and stretch your boundaries of acceptance  and what is normal far more with a foreigners, than with the locals, and don’t expect them to integrate fully (why should they?) but the rewards will be worth it. You will get things from friendships with foreigners you can’t get from friendships with locals, so please be open-minded.