Most of you reading this have probably heard of the word Manipur only through Mary Kom, India’s boxing champion who put this tiny state of India on the world map. I can also go on with more. Manipur is home to polo with the Mapal Kangjeibung standing as one of the oldest polo grounds of the world.
I belong to this ethnic group from the remote northeast part of India. Remote because the northeast, comprising eight states, is virtually connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land called the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ or the Siliguri Corridor. It is about 200 km long, 60 km wide and runs over the northern top of Bangladesh. Besides the geographical distance, what distinguishes north-eastern Indians from other Indians is that a majority of them look Asian.
And because we look Asian, sometimes even Indians mistake us for some other nationalities. Take my own example: a hotel in Mumbai once asked for my passport assuming I was a foreigner. A lot of time I am taken for a Nepali, Thai, Malaysian, et al., well… quite the universal Asian. An Indian in Melbourne once told me I spoke very good Hindi for a Chinese. Perhaps a lot of Indians are yet to come to terms with the diversity of their own country.
These confusions don’t bother me. I am comfortable in my skin and identity really is fluid these days. In Melbourne I just merge among the many Asians and Indians don’t ask me so much about my ethnicity as they do about my marital status or ‘issue’ meaning children.
But the coronavirus has suddenly made me reflect on my identity. It happened the day I woke up to the news that a Manipuri girl was spat at by a man on a motorbike in New Delhi after calling her ‘corona’. Similar news of attacks on Asian-looking people kept playing out in other Indian cities. Some shopkeepers even stopped young north-eastern students from entering shops and buying their daily supplies.
Melbourne didn’t lag behind. A recent report in The Age said more than 300 people from Chinese or east Asian backgrounds have reported being racially abused, assaulted or harassed in public. “People have been spat at and called ‘‘dirty’’, and blamed for the spread of COVID-19, according to research by an alliance of Asian Australian groups.”
Suddenly, if you are Asian you could be a potential coronavirus carrier.
It scares me to think that paranoia can overtake reason, that racism is the easiest tool to spread more hate and insanity in a world that is already reeling under so much crisis.
I can’t change the way people think and I can’t change the way I look. The least I can do is derive some humour out of the situation. So, I asked my husband if (God forbid) I was to get attacked walking down the road what would he do. Pat came the answer, “I would of course beat the hell out of the person and also take a video to put up on social media. But I will check with you first if the hair is OK and the clothing alright before I put it up.”
Like they say, ‘finding humour in a difficult situation, you win’.