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.


Abhigyan said...

I quite used to enjoy your weekly HT blog when you were in India. And it is less regular now, but still like the slice-of-life observations :) (hopefully not, another gaffe?)

Its quite amusing the sort of people you ran into from India, in whicever country. Indians can be very judgmental, but I myself have not ran into anyone so blunt. Or maybe I am not an object of curiosity for anyone.

Naomi Canton said...

Hi Abhigyan, India is a vast country and I don't think I met enough different types of people at all. Unfortunately when you are a foreigner, you often only get a limited insight into a country..I even feel the same with foreigners in the UK - that they are not seeing or understanding the 'real UK.' I was in Oxford the other day and there were these large groups of Italians in cafes, but their experience of the UK was limited to hanging out with each other...The only way round it is if a local local takes you under their wing and shows you everything and explains everything to you..which I think only happens to a few lucky people.Btw I am sure you are an object of curiosity! ....Do you live in India or outside?

Abhigyan Shekhar said...

I am very much in India. Though have been rootless enough to have an outsiders' perspective.

We are connected via twitter. Shame could not connect when you were in Bombay.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Naomi. Agree with you :) Sometimes a faux pas can be hilarious, other times plain confusing, and yet other times, annoying!

Proj Ghosh said...

Great Article ! This is the kind of article I like since it's very educative about a foreign culture. I am going to discuss my observations from the US for sure. It would have been interesting had this article mentioned how long the Indian expat has been in the UK. While I did make mistakes in the US, mostly out of cultural ignorance, never intentionally but it changed a lot over time. Other than the perfect accent, I went the extra mile trying to decipher the nuances of American culture and learnt most of the stuff over the years. I completely agree that there is a large section of Indian who don't give a damn about the culture of their adopted country and just stick to Bollywood etc. I find it very annoying that someone would migrate and not educate themselves about the culture of their adopted country as much possible. My experience has taught me there is good and bad in every culture. One has to just pick up the good and forget about the bad. A very simple example would be, in the west, everything is very well organized, clean, rules are generally followed, society at the lower levels at least is pretty much ethical and they take wonderful care of the environment. That was the good, something bad would be mindless consumerism on credit. So I try to imbibe the former in my life and forget about the later. I don't buy on credit till date.

More later,

Anonymous said...

Also, Naomi, I think we must take into consideration that (middle class- I use the term as Indians mean) youth in the UK would take part time jobs selling movie tickets to fund their college studies or for pocket money.. nobody would even think of doing such jobs in India unless they're in a really bad financial position. Hence the class difference. The person waiting on your at a Cafe in UK could be your class mate, or in the same financial class as your are. That would never be the case in India.

Naomi Canton said...
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Naomi Canton said...

Hi, thanks for that insight. That is something I have never quite fathomed. I had an Indian friend who came to London to do an MBA. After the MBA he couldn't find a job in London and had only a limited time he could stay here to job hunt before his visa expired. I think he was also supporting himself financially which must have been tough. Anyway so I suggested he take a job in Pret a Manger as that is an acceptable thing to do there (it's the great sandwich cafe chain which is yet to come to India and I so wish they had it there!) and anyway he told his Dad this and his Dad hit the roof and told him to return to India immediately..From a British employer's perspective it would look good to have UK work experience on his CV, even if serving sandwiches and he could job hunt at the same time but according to him and his Dad, he had to get a job in an investment bank or nothing at all. So he got on a plane and returned to India. On a separate note, while it may be acceptable to "speak down" to waiters, the homeless, beggars etc in India, (is it by the way, I'm not sure?) surely if one is in England, one should realise it isn't and adapt accordingly? Also please would you tell me what middle-class means in India? And by the way one of my Indian friends in England told me that Indians who do MBAs here struggle to find work and it is only those doing masters in other subjects that find work as the UK isn’t that keen on non EU MBA grads. Is that true?

Anonymous said...

Hi Naomi, I have no idea at all about the MBA situation. Sorry, can't help you out with that.
It is, of course, not a good thing to speak down to waiters, beggars etc but it has become 'acceptable' in the sense that.. what can those waiters and beggars possibly do about it? They need to be employed, they need to be retain their jobs (cheap labour is available in plenty throughout India) so they can't stand up for themselves even when they are meted inhuman treatment.
There are mainly three classes in India, all depending upon the financial status: 1) The rich and elite (needs no explanation)
2) Middle class- Here's where things get a lil complex to understand. There are 3 sub-divisions. Upper middle class, middle middle class, lower middle class. The average Indian family is supposed to be middle class.. though reports continually find that an alarming number of people fall in the category of living below the poverty line.
3) Lower class: The really poor - people living below the poverty line.

Indians tend to look down upon the class lower than theirs. Of course, this a generalisation and as with generalisations, there are exceptions everywhere :)

Hope this clears some stuff for you.

Radheju said...

Hi Naomi,

I agree with you; some of us Indians can be extremely rude and opinionated. Curiously, that is a trait more seen in the educated (or shall I say half-educated) than in the poor.

Then there are regional differences; of all the regions in India, the North has the most pushy and rude people - and Delhi tops the list!

Having lived in the UK for months, I was touched by the civility, the respect for the old and the frail..these have disappeared from urban India and that is a pity.

That said, and having stayed in various lands, I still feel that India has some remarkably warm people and that is what makes it special.

I have written about this on my blog the link of which I am posting here.



Radheju said...
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Vivek said...

UK egalitarian? I may be wrong but I thought the roots of the class system lie deep in the British society! There is a certain air of superiority in the tone of this blog entry. Things need to be put in context. Most Indians think it is cruel and uncivilised that British people put their parents in care homes - it is all about perspectives.

Britain has been exposed to food from around the world for some time now but remember most Indians (only in the cities) have tasted foreign food in the last decade - the same as in China.

I have always found London cab drivers very rude if you try to tell them which route to take - no problem with that in India! The same goes with taking kids to classy restaurant.

East is East!

Proj Ghosh said...

I'll have to agree to the previous post that although American society apparently is pretty polite outwardly, deep down they do not always have good intentions. There is an inherent tendency of leadership which is somewhat pretentious. I see a lot of Americans wanting to LEAD just because they were born and raised in the US. They need to work hard and develop the skills to able to lead. You just cannot lead because you speak with the perfect American accent or you work on your looks all the time and make yourself attractive. While presentation is important, it's not everything. Too much importance is given to presentation in the American society and not on REAL values, no wonder all the current problems in spite of being the MOST resourceful country in the world even today.

Varahamihir said...

Naomi, nice to see you back to blogging after a long time. I am surprised that you met one "rude" Indian expat, who had a hard time talking politely to anyone around him. Indians are generally non aggressive people and tend to be more respectful towards others when in foriegn countries, especially European countries. But Indians often treat people making a honest living by doing menial jobs as worthy of contempt. Probably this stems from the castiest feelings, which the Indians inculcate from their environment, where traditionally the lower castes have always been assigned menial jobs and have always been denied social upward mobility.

I will be interested to read your views on the "on going" rioting spree in UK. Do you see this as simple law and order problem or do you think it is the start of class war that has resulted from years of neglect, subjugation, lack opportunities for the poor and the immigration section of the society?

Anonymous said...


Mitzee said...

Hi Naomi,
I enjoyed your blog when you were in Mumbai.Your take on the differences in cultural behaviors is spot on..I am an offspring of Indian and Canadian origin and have grown up in India.Believe me I have tremendous respect for my mother who had to put aside her upbringing to gel with her in-laws who were bigots and had nothing nice to say about her when she came as a new bride.I have seen how she has had to face all kinds of criticisms when all the while she was trying so hard to adapt.Now I live in the US and I respect the people and expect the same as well..unfortunately the subtle inferences of ones origins can not be ignored...