It’s one thing to be a tourist in a country. And it’s another to be a citizen of your own country. What if one combines the two terms? What would that be called?
Behold the acronym–NRI. This stands for non-residential Indian. So, I’m from India, and I live in Dubai. I’m an expat here. It’s quite a sight to see how others react when I try to explain to people how I’m from Dubai, but not “really” from there because expats in the UAE will never receive a passport even if you’re born there. But even if I had dual passports, would I really feel more at home in the UAE?
The answer is probably not because I’ll never feel fully one way or another. The best way I can describe it, is like I’m stuck midway between the two countries. I feel a magnetic pull from both countries, yet I cannot associate with only one country.
People in Dubai say that I’m Indian because that’s my passport country. However, when I visit India, it’s a whole another story. Since I don’t neatly fit in the box of a typical Indian, I’m a foreigner.
I’m a tourist in my own country.
I have never lived in my home country, but I usually visit India once in a year. Unfortunately, it can be a long time before I visit “home.” The last time I visited India was in 2011–five years ago.
Every time I visit, “Indians” detect that I’m only a visitor. I have no idea what gives it away, but they always know. Maybe it’s my accent? Mannerisms? Behavior? As a result, these create cultural and behavioral differences between them and me.
In case you didn’t know, the UAE is home to many Indian expats. This may be confusing if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but there is a difference between NRIs and the Indians living in India.
Although I have Indian friends, all of them have grown up with similar childhood experiences. Many of them were raised in the UAE just like me. Because of this, we are malleable to the diverse environment, unique experiences, and multi-cultural residents all around us. We soak everything in and they become a part of us: helping us evolve into better humans.
However, in India, many haven’t even traveled outside the country. And for this reason, this sets us apart from the local Indians. They notice it. We notice it. As much as we try, we never will fit in. We cannot completely dissolve into our environments and blend into the homogenous society like how the local Indians do. No one bats an eye when they walk around. However, when we do, there’s always a second glance, a surprised face expression from hearing our international accents, and more questions asked about our life abroad. As natural as this may be, this always reminds us that we are visitors.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all of my local Indian friends. It’s nice to finally connect with Indians over our nationality, culture, food, and struggles. But yet, since I’m only a visitor, I realize and notice that the way they behave and interact is quite different from how the Indians do so in Dubai. And they’re such little things, but to me, they’re a huge deal because I’m not used to them.
Thus, I present you with my list of things I noticed about India and Indians when I was on my trip to India as an NRI. Again, this cannot apply to every Indian in India. These are just some things I noticed.
1] They use politically incorrect terms and no one bats an eye.
One of my friends insulted another friend by calling him a n**ger. Put it simply, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I heard. How would my African/African-American friends feel? I couldn’t imagine myself uttering such words. I felt the pain for them. Another complained how she was so depressed. Sadly, such words are fair game.
When it comes to word choice, Indians don’t really worry too much how their words are affecting others. For them, actions speak louder than words. In India, there is an expression called chalta hai.” Literally, it means it walks. The real meaning “it’s okay, it’s chill, whatever. Whatever happens, happens.” To elaborate, there’s a nonchalant attitude towards everything. It’s one of the reasons why there is so much corruption.
Anyhow, in other parts of the world, many are much more careful, and they filter what comes out of their mouths. They’ll make sure it’s not culturally offensive. From the way I look at it, Indians don’t have to worry about upsetting anyone in a racist or cultural way because nearly everyone is an Indian.
Since I’m a TCK, one of the things I’ve realized is that, I’m very culturally aware of the world around me. I understand the nuances of how the world works and the histories of each culture, which is difficult to attain if one lives in a mostly homogenous society.
The way I see it, there is no way in Dubai one can use that word and get away with it. Another example would be the word retarded. Since mental health in India is almost non-existent, this word gets thrown around without Indians thinking about the context of this word. It only trivializes and increases the mental health stigma.
2] Food is ridiculously spicy.
No kidding, Zoey. You’re in India. What did you expect? Bland food?
Yes, I know India is the land of spices. But in the UAE, everything is catered to the international crowd, so the amount of spice is much less. It’s almost bland. That’s what I’m used to. I’ve forgotten how spicy food in India can get.
In India, bland food is nonexistent. Even if you ask for no spicy food in restaurants, the type of food you will get is mild. Over there, no spicy is equivalent to mild. But even mild is too much for me. I have to gulp large amounts of water and eat yogurt to lessen its intensity. I’m not sure, but I might be somewhat allergic to chillies, as my tongue starts burning like crazy.
Frankly, if you ask me, Indians love their chillies a little too much. Seriously, they put chillies in everything! It’s so annoying. There was this one time I went to a family friend’s house, and I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to deal with chillies in the salad…except she decided that salad needed chillies as well.
Yes, I’m Indian. And no, I don’t eat or love chillies. You all can laugh now.
Every time I went to a guest’s house, I hoped that the food wasn’t spicy to the point where I wouldn’t have to swirl the food around on my plate and pretended to eat. Surely enough, my body had enough…and it revolted with stomach aches.
Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about chillis in salads anymore.
3] They have a very informal and indirect way of talking.
So you know how I said Indians use politically incorrect terms? It also turns out they also have a very informal way of talking. To the point where it can be a surprise to those who aren’t used to it.
I’ll give you an example. So, my friend was at my house, and I asked her if she was coming tomorrow to hang out with me as well. And she said, “Are you mad or what?” I was really shocked! I found it so rude!
But really, she didn’t mean it in the literal sense. She wasn’t saying are you crazy/have you lost it? She was indirectly saying “Are you kidding me? Of course, I will be there!”
It took me a while to get used to that.
4] Asking people personal questions is perfectly acceptable.
As an Indian, I know this is a social norm. But when you’re not used to it and don’t have to deal with it every day…it’s pure torture. Every time I met someone new, everyone had a list of questions to ask me before we could do anything else. And what was even more annoying was that they were in the exact same order. Come on, at least you could shuffle the questions around.
It always went something like this:
*Note: questions are in dark red. My answers are in green.*
Adult: What “standard” are you in?
Zoey: 12th grade.
Gosh, why do Indians use the word standard? It’s so weird! It makes me cringe every time I hear it. Can’t you all say grade? Or year? I can’t stand that word used that way.
Adult: Which school?
Zoey: ” ****** ****** International School.”
Some asked this question. Some didn’t. I can’t write the full name down due to privacy reasons.
Adult: What stream are you in?
Zoey: I’m not in any. I’m in the American system.
This one riled me up every time. I had to go into a long explanation of how I’m in the American system, and how kids choose their “major” in their second year of college. Not in 10th grade. Makes sense right? No.
Instead, they gave me puzzled looks. Even when I met kids my age, they were genuinely confused that there were systems that didn’t function like the Indian system! Really, by the end of two weeks, I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide because I was so fed up of trying to explain to how my school system worked, as some people didn’t understand that the rest of the world functioned differently because they haven’t seen anything else.
A: What subjects do you take?
Z: I take all of them.
A: What do you mean?
Then, I have to explain exactly which subjects I take. Because that’s not enough. Others were very confused as to why I had to take all. They thought I was in a very strange system.
Oh, and try telling Indians how you take Arabic instead of Hindi like how kids do in India. And how you cannot read or write in Hindi, but at least you can read and write in Arabic. For example, I was eating pizza with my friend and her family. There was Hindi written on the box, and I made a joke how I couldn’t read it.
One of them said, “Why can’t you read Hindi? Are you not an Indian?”
Really, the worst thing you can tell Indians as an Indian is that you cannot read or write in the national language of the country. It’s not that I’m not interested in my passport country language. I just never got the chance to learn it in school.
She saw that I was hurt, and she apologized and told me not to take it seriously. Well, too late. The damage was already done. I felt horrible that day, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’m not really an Indian. And how I struggle with my identity as an Indian.
A: So what do you want to become?
Z: I don’t know.
Can you please leave me alone? This question is stressing me out big time. Seriously, don’t ask college-bound kids this question. Anyway, so after I tell them I don’t know, naturally, they have to try to be career counselors and try to figure out what I could be. I get it that they mean well, but it doesn’t work. I don’t know what they get out of it. Maybe they can go and brag to others about how they were so helpful about someone finding their dream job?
A: So what do you like to do? What are your interests?
Z: Read, draw, listen to music…I don’t know. Many things.
Okay, now you are getting on my nerves. This is like a job interview. What, is this your idea of fun? For most people, they only have one or two things they like. When it comes to me, I have the opposite problem: I have too many. I can’t specialize or narrow it down to one job. That is the exact reason why I haven’t chosen one yet. Obviously, I can’t list all the interests because that would take too long. But since I’m-on-the-spot, I have to answer there and then. So I blank out and try to think of hobbies that I like and that would please whoever I’m talking to.
5] I’m very sensitive to rain.
It barely starts drizzling and I immediately perk up while no one seems to notice. I assume it’s probably because we rarely get rain in Dubai.
6] Sometimes, they don’t understand my accent. Vice versa.
Do you know how hard it is to have an American accent in India? No one understands you. I know my friends do. But other than that, those who aren’t exposed to the accent, don’t. You have to speak really slowly to get your point across. Most of the time, I gave up and expressed it in Hindi to avoid repeating myself. Or I toned it down and said it with the Indian pronunciation. It’s the only way you can survive. Trust me.
And what was even more embarrassing was that I had a really hard time understanding their accent at times because I don’t hear it on a regular basis. Or I heard what they said as something else.
7] They don’t like talking about their feelings.
Feelings? Nah, we don’t have them. We’re tough and strong. You never talk about the bad stuff. Never ever. It’s so society-driven that everyone wants to avoid judgement.
8] Saying thank you is rude.
They say one of the best ways to insult an Indian is to say thank you. After my friends treated me out for dinner, I thanked them for the lovely time. All of them gave me weird looks and said, “Why thank you? We’re friends. That’s what friends do.” The reasoning behind this is that you would only say thank you to a stranger. But because they’re friends, we know they will do it for us. There’s no need for formalities.
Although I understand the reasoning behind it, not thanking someone makes me feel so uncomfortable. Cultural norms can be weird if you’re not used to them.
9] Many think Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the same rules. And that they’re only divided by country. Also, having warped ideas of the world.
I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain that in the UAE; I’m not forced to wear an abaya. I can wear whatever I want as long as I’m modest. And I normally dress in jeans and shirts that cover my shoulders, so I don’t feel restricted. Shorts aren’t my thing anyway. Nor do they have any clue that the UAE has 7 cities, and Dubai just happens to be one of them. Well, the most popular one.
10] They get shy around older people and become very self-conscious because they want to create a good reputation.
For some reason, youngsters suddenly become very quiet when older people are around. And they become ridiculously shy around extended family members. However, the moment they go away, their whole facade disappears. Their real crazy self shines through. I think it’s the idea that they have to respect the older generations, so they don’t want to do anything that will upset them. Even if it means they have to suppress their true self around them. When they see an elderly person approaching them, they whisper warnings, “Watch out! Auntie is coming!”
11] Many of them complain about the cultural norms, but they don’t realize how much it rubs on them.
It’s hilarious to me how they complain about how restricted India can be in their way of thinking, but what they don’t realize is that the kind of statements that come out of their mouths sound bizarre to outsiders.
I had a conversation with one of my friends, and he suggested the idea that I should become a doctor because I was “smart.” I was stunned. Why should I become a doctor just because I was supposedly smart? It didn’t make any sense.
Intelligence is not only required in the STEM courses. It’s required in the liberal arts too. However, I do know why he said this statement. It’s because only the ones who achieve the highest grades are allowed to study STEM courses. As a result, the Indian kids are brought up believing they’re not smart if they do anything else.
Heck, intelligence and art have no correlation in India. And that’s because the ones who receive the lowest grades are the ones who go into the arts. Which is why it is so highly underappreciated. This is devastating to hear because everyone has different types of intelligence.
To me, everyone works just as hard as doctors or engineers. So I don’t see why they’re the only ones who should receive respect.
12] India is a very society-driven nation. This mindset affects all aspects of life leading to many worrying too much about what others think.
I don’t worry too much about what others think of me. I know it’s none of my business, and people make assumptions on their limited amounts of information. In India though, people like to poke their nose where it doesn’t belong.
If I said a mildly controversial statement, everyone was terrified as to “what the older people would think.” All my friends were actually terrified for me that something bad would happen. Like maybe banished to the underworld. Who knows.
Look, I didn’t really say anything bad. I can’t sit in silence when I feel something isn’t going right, unfair, or is a hopelessly archaic statement like “dark skin isn’t beautiful.”
India is a wonderful country with all its ups and downs. I don’t think I could ever live there, but for a visit, it’s a great adventure. Visiting India helps me stay connected to my roots and where I’m from. But I’ll always know in my heart, I’m a tourist in my own country. But that’s okay. Because everywhere and anywhere could be my home.