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  • My parents are from from Aizawl, Mizoram in Northeast India but I was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal.

    My father is in the civil service which meant that we moved a bit when I was in school. I spent the first 8 years of my life in Calcutta where I went to a very anglicised school, where there was a lot of emphasis of speaking English the "right" way, singing hymns and saying the Lord's prayer at morning assemblies.

    I was very happy in this environment because it matched my Christian upbringing and the things we would do at Sunday School.

    When I was 8, we moved to Chennai, Tamil Nadu where things were very different and I had a hard time adjusting. Instead of hymns, there were “bhajans” (religious Indian songs) and “shloka’’ reciting competitions, where children were taught parts of the vedas and made to recite them from memory.

    These schools were not particularly religious schools but these activities were just part of the education we had once a week.

    People in Tamil Nadu are still quite caste-conscious and the fact that I looked so completely different from everyone else, and was a Christian was fodder for everyone to treat me like some exotic being. Thankfully, the kids were not particularly mean or malicious but they treated me with pointed curiosity.

    The fact that I ate pork at home was particularly amusing to them. There was the usual jibes about being Korean or chinky (at that time, there was a Hyundai car plant in Chennai and there was a sizeable Korean community).

    I'm not sure now if it was because of my age and I was becoming more aware but this is my first memory of being referred to with that slur. To be fair, I wasn't too offended because it was a way to differentiate myself from people who felt just as alien to me.

    In a funny sort of way, the fact that I spoke good English, that is with a slight anglicised twang thanks to the teachers at my previous school, made it harder for people to believe that I was Indian. Often, I was treated like a foreigner, although this wasn't always a bad thing.

    When i was in Year Four, we were learning about the states of India, and it seemed to be the first time my classmates had ever come cross my state. Today, it astonishes me when I meet an educated Indian adult who has no idea about the existence of my state.

    One incident I remember when we were living in Chennai, we took a trip to an ancient temple site called Mahabalipuram. The ticketing counter tried to charge us the "foreigner price."

    They wouldn't accept my father's drivers license as proof of our Indian identity, and only after he showed them his work ID with the government of India stamp on it did they sell us the tickets at “local prices”.

    Even as an adult, I have had this has happened to me a couple of times - having to show my identification to prove I am an Indian citizen.

    When I was 11, we moved back to Calcutta and I headed back to my old school. People in Calcutta are more familiar with people who look ‘different’ - probably because of the Chinese and Nepali communities, not to mention the Gorkhas and of course, people from the north east.

    I have to explain where that is - starting from "it's in the north east of India, borders Myanmar and Bangladesh" etc. It always surprises me little people know about the north eastern states, almost as if it was erased from text books when they were learning about states in India. Maybe the "funny, impossible to pronounce names" make them somehow less important.

    When I lived in Delhi, I received a lot of remarks about my Hindi speaking skills (or lack thereof). Some demanded to know why I didn't speak their language while others congratulated me for speaking so much better than the others. People have also commented on my English and asked me why I don't sound other North Eastern people.

    And then there are those who quip about our eating habits:
    “North Eastern people eat everything that moves”
    “You guys eat dog right?"

    Something else I've encountered which is more insidious and not as overt is people assuming people from the North East are not as intelligent because they probably got into their college or job because of reservation.

    Since moving to London, a lot of people I've met are always surprised that I am Indian saying, “I didn't know there were Indians who look like you.” I laugh it off with a "don't worry, most Indians don't know either" and it's funny because it's true if you consider all the times I've been asked in India if I am from Nepal or any East Asian country.

    Story of Mawii Zothan for The Chindian Diaries
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