India is not a country. It is a cauldron of humanity. So a lady from the northeast – like millions other from the northeast ‑wonders whether her Mongoloid looks make her a Chinese, Korean or… is she still Indian?
It is an existential crisis.
For us from the northeast of India.
Just because we have certain features, like slightly slanted eyes!
‘Chinkies’ you call us.
It’s not uncommon for northeast people to be thought of as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., by mainland Indians.
And I have personally faced this here in Delhi, quite often.
However ‑for me, it’s the intention with which the person says that matters!
Let’s not get into the ones who purposely do this with vile intentions ‑bad and good people are there everywhere, and I do not believe in generalising.
Coming from the background of marketing and sales, which requires me to go out regularly to meet different prospective clients, my facial features generate some really interesting situations, at times.
Before COVID-19 happened, and when I used to actively go out for meetings, I was scheduled to meet a new potential client in one of the travel companies here in Delhi.
I went to his office and requested their receptionist, a youngish looking girl, to inform him that I had a prior appointment.
She stared at me for a while and gestured me to sit on the couch adjacent to her table.
She picked up the phone to call my client, carefully placing her mouth as close as possible to the handset, and she said, “Sir, aapsey koi cheeni milne aayee hein.” (Sir, some Chinese woman is here to meet you).
(Now when I think of it ‑thankfully, this was pre-COVID era, else the entire building might have run away from there).
I wasn’t sitting too far from her, so I could overhear what she said.
She looked at me and beamed a smile and I was fighting hard to control my laughter.
In instances like this, I prefer to play along.
It’s fun. Just then, I got a call from one of my close friends.
I picked up my phone and with the best nasal tone I could manage- trying to mimic the mandarin-like accent.
I told my friend that I will call her back. In that same accent, of course!
After a while, another lady staffer walked in, looked at me and gave me a smile, walked towards the reception area, signing her attendance register, bending down a bit, and she asked the receptionist “kissey milne yayee hein? (Who has she come to meet).
She repeated the name of the person with whom I had the appointment.
And they got down to discussing about the top I was wearing!
They did it in slightly hushed voices but again, they were audible enough to me.
One of them said that she loved the loom of my top, while the other expressed the sadness that they may not find it in ‘India’.
I am Indian, I thought, hearing them converse rather empty-headedly!
Before I could be privy to more of their conversation, where the hot topic of discussion was my frilly white cotton top – the receptionist got a call, and was probably instructed to take me to the conference room.
She again gestured me to follow her.
“Tea…or, coffee?” she asked me.
Just that much of civility for may be a Chinese, may be a Korean or may be Japanese woman, wearing an enticing top that “they could perhaps not find in India”.
Forget not that I had bought it in Kalimpong, Darjeeling divison, in India!
Which India? Theirs. Mine or ours?
To her offer of tea or coffee, I nodded my head indicating that I don’t want anything: “No, thank you!” She stared at me for some more time, smiled and left.
An old man whom I would always encounter while going to a particular office in Ahmedabad, and who had also started recognising me and would give me his almost toothless grin every time, asked me: “Made in China?” I laughed and replied to him, “Made in India”
After the meeting was over, while leaving, I looked at the lady at the reception and told her in my best Hindi: “Dhanyavad apkey help kay liye. Aur aapko yeh top online bhi mil jayega (thank you for your help and you will easily find this kind of top on online store).
She looked at me shocked, with her mouth wide open.
In a second, she realised it and she moved her hands swiftly, placing them over her face, and she started laughing.
She placed herself on the chair, threw her head backwards and continued laughing.
Her laughter was contagious.
It was of that pure, innocent realisation of what she had done to me, and I also could not help smiling, looking at her.
When she managed to control her laugher, she looked sheepish and told me: “Sorry.”
I said it’s okay and I complimented her saying that her smile is infectious- to which, she blushed.
In another incident- an old man whom I would always encounter while going to a particular office in Ahmedabad, and who had also started recognising me and would give me his almost toothless grin every time, asked me: “Made in China?”
There cannot be any direct translation than this. I laughed and replied to him, “Made in India.”
He smiled back, giving me once again his wide grin with an almost bare mouth of a few teeth, remembrances of his forgotten youth, hanging from his top gum.
Sitting in that tiny space of the lift’s stool, on his haunches, which he proudly declared as his territory, probably his entire life‑encountering someone like me with different features and facial features from most north Indians ‑must be interesting for him.
And I do look forward to seeing him on my next trip.
Tell me, who is an Indian, pray!
The toothless liftman, the sprightly receptionist, me, or my friends from Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura, Arunachal, Meghalay, Nagaland… just because we look a bit different?
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Sashi hails from Sikkim. She is now working as a professional with a travel and hospitality business organisation as its General Manager. She revels in writing as a passion. Her novel on social life is being readied