Negotiating my identity as a migrant

By Indira Laisram
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Image used for representational purposes only. Photo by Amarnath Tade on Unsplash

This article is based on my personal experience of being both an internal and a transnational migrant. My initial decision to migrate can be largely drawn on the neo classical theory of migration where moving places meant getting better wage and improvement in my own living standards. In 1993, I left my hometown of Shillong in the remote north-eastern region of India in search of greener pastures to ‘mainland’ India. Seventeen years later, I migrated to Australia through marriage. I have used my personal story to analyse the processes of change or development—personal, social and economic—through that lived experience of migrating from one region to another in my own country and, finally, from one country to another. I find that one of the issues that I grappled with during those years and, sometimes, even now is around belongingness and identity, although there are many other tests that migration puts us through. Skrbis (2008) points out that the sense of belonging to the new place is influenced by the migrant’s emotional experience. It is also something that has rarely remained out of the general discourse in the context of labour outcomes of skilled migrants (Roberts 2011). This essay charts my journey towards what it means to belong and have an identity.

THE ORIGIN/BACKGROUND

I was born and brought up in Shillong, a town in one of the smallest states of India in the north-east region. The north-east is made up of eight states and is separated from the rest of India by what is known as the Siliguri Corridor, a stretch of land so narrow that it is also called the chicken’s neck. It is a region that shares over 90 percent of its borders with other countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, China and the Himalayas. Thousands of migrants from the northeast leave the region for ‘mainland’ India for work, study and refuge. In the past ten years, the region has seen huge migration of youth to cities across India to fill the labour gap in the service sector such as hospitality and retail (Karlsson & Kikon 2017).

This exodus of youth to mainland India can be attributed to a number of factors such as a stagnant economy, instability and insurgency in the region, reliance on subsistence farming, lack of educational institutions and non-functional governments (Rajan & Chyrmang 2016, Karlsson & Kikon 2017).

I left Shillong in the summer of 1993 soon after the completion of my Master’s degree in English from the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). My decision to move to Delhi, the capital of India, was driven by the desire to study further and work in mainstream media, an opportunity I could not foresee living in a small town. Migration to metropolitan cities in India at the time was not a new phenomenon. I had seen many other people migrate for better career choices, work or education, although the scale of migration is on a much higher level now as pointed above. I believe I was part of this trend to immigrate for my own development. As research indicates, individuals with higher education are aware of opportunities and tend to migrate as the education often becomes their tool for productivity (Mincer 1977, Da Vanzo 1981).

EMOTIONAL CHALLENGE

Migration has its monetary rewards but it comes with emotional costs (UNDP 2009). The emotional costs came in the way of leaving behind family and friends, familiar place, and finding a new identity. I was out in the big bad world as was seen then, particularly by conservative relatives, who scorned at the very idea of ambitious girls leaving home to chase their dreams. They believed it was a woman’s obligation to get married, raise children and settle down in the same town. My decision to migrate was purely based on self-improvement and productivity, the fact that I could study more and become an independent, working professional.

Delhi, the capital of India, is multicultural but the city poses a lot of challenges for new migrants. I was in a totally new environment where I did not speak Hindi, which is the main spoken language in Delhi. It is also one of the official languages of India apart from English.

I believe migration tests one on many levels especially when you look different and do not speak the common language. I say this because people from north-east India belong to the Tibetan-Mongoloid ethnicity and as such it is hard for the average Indian to differentiate a north eastern person from, say, a Chinese. It is important to note here that people from the north-east are often labelled as belonging outside the boundaries of India due to most part of the population being bracketed by ‘a racialized physicality’ (Duncan McDuie-Ra 2015). I constantly struggled with having to assert the fact that I was an Indian and not a foreigner in my own country. The instances are many but one that vividly stands out in memory was being asked to show my passport at a hotel in metropolitan Mumbai.

Marginalisation and being treated as outsiders by the host society is a common experience of migrants and one that I was subjected to in the beginning. But as Bauer (2006) observes, an immigrant has to learn to tackle situations that are not familiar thus leaving an impact on the way one feels or does things. In my case while the experiences did leave an impact, the negative experiences made me more motivated to succeed. It made me learn to adapt a strategy for survival and to integrate myself with mainstream society in order to survive and fit in.

I started with learning Hindi and completed a post-graduate diploma in Journalism. Within one and half years, I was able to grasp the opportunities that came my way. I landed with my first job at the Press Trust of India, the premier news agency of the country. It was the stepping stone into the industry I wanted to work in.

INTEGRATION, FREEDOM—A COMPLEX NOTION

While I began to feel the trickles of satisfaction professionally and financially, socially I still had to deal with a host of issues. I realised there was a sense of social distance as I encountered many incidences of prejudice and inequality. For instance, house hunting was never an easy task because of my gender and ethnicity. Landlords in Delhi are never keen on renting their properties to single girls and ‘north-eastern women’ are definitely in the ‘no no’ list because they are perceived to be women without any ‘morals’—they drink, bring boys home and go against the very norms of basic Indian values. The point to note here is that the chasm between mainland India and ethnic groups of the northeast is very real in the way north-eastern women are perceived. In my many moments of meeting landlords, I was often asked very blatantly if I ate ‘stinky food’ or ‘had boyfriends’.

As Duncan McDuie-Ra (2012) elaborates in his book, the experiences of migrants from India’s northeast in Delhi not only throw light on the degree of racism they suffer but also on what it means to be a part of an ethnic minority group in the 21st century. It also goes to show how race works within India at a time when public debate and academic research highlight how Indians undergo racism in other parts of the world.

But migration is a complex process and one that entails different experiences. Those like myself migrated in the quest for a better life and a sense of identity, security and space. Living in Delhi made me adopt a stronger sense of identity of being a woman within my ever-held north-eastern identity. Resisting the incidences of racism hurled at me such as being called ‘chinky’ (a collective derogatory term for north-easterners) while walking down the street, I also envisioned a life of harmony and equality—one that I experienced in my work space and environment.

Perhaps, one of the positive stories of my migration to Delhi was forming a network of friends—both from the host society and those back from my region who had also migrated. As one of the impacts of increased migration, I began to also have a network of friends who came from other parts of India for whom Delhi was not home.

These networks were mainly formed through employment, at the place of work. For a migrant, employment brings about financial security and independence, social interaction with members of host society, and renewal of self-esteem (Bloch 1999; Tomlinson and Egan 2002).

Consequently, migrants have to undergo the process of getting accustomed to their new socio-cultural milieu so as to be able to construct and re-construct their identities (Rapoport, Lomsky-Feder & Heider, 2002). In all, I lived for 17 years in Delhi my experience was about reconstructing my identity to integrate and assimilate with mainstream society. But as Roberts (2011) argues, research on migrants is dominated by economic discourse which fails to adequately capture the complexities of experiences faced by migrants.

MIGRATING TO AUSTRALIA

In 2007, I met my husband, an Australian citizen. Two years later, we were married. Moving to Australia felt like a major step in the beginning because I was literally moving continents. In my mind, I was just three hours away by flight from my family from Delhi but Australia meant moving further away from home. The sense of a new home meant negotiating an entire new world of culture and identity.

In the context of migration, moving countries is akin to arriving to a new place without one’s ‘history’ and ‘image’ where one strives to be integrated (MC. La Barbera (2015). In my case, this second phase of migration in my life did posit some challenges.

While I had the security of marriage, I was apprehensive about whether I could start myself all over again professionally in a new place after 17 years of having stayed put in one city and if my sense of identity would once again become fluid. On the personal front, I had established bi-cultural family ties with my husband whose family migration could be traced to as far as the late 1850s from England. I was welcomed whole-heartedly and I didn’t feel like a foreigner in a home full of Anglo-Saxons.

I do admit I felt a profound sense of homesickness in the first one year especially coming from an over populated country, and being familiar with a thousand sounds, sights and smells, I missed that air of familiarity. I also missed my local food.

The discovery of friends from my home town and some from the Indian diaspora over the years enabled me to establish a valued set of social networks and relationships. I found a job in the same profession I was in and came to the realisation that identity can be fluid and multiple in the migratory concept. I was a north-eastern Indian, an Indian and an Australian.

Interestingly, all the issues that I grappled with in the initial years of my stay in Delhi did not resurface as I believe I became just one of the faces that made up Melbourne’s multiculturalism. From my own experiences, I did not struggle with identity or gender issues as opposed to others who have told me they felt different here. But that’s the complexity of migration and every experience is different.

When friends asked me how life was treating me here, my standard reply was: “Haven’t fought with anyone.” That’s because life in Delhi was a struggle each day—you had to shout to get heard when at a shop, you had to berate the man on the street who is always trying to grope you when walking down a crowded street. The list is endless.

I did experience one incident of racism in all these eight years of stay. I was walking home one day when a group of Indians playing cricket in a field yelled the word ‘chinky’ not knowing I was a north-eastern Indian who understood Hindi very well. It brought back unpleasant feelings of racism in Delhi. Racism at the hands of my own so-called compatriots in a country like Australia came as a rude shock. It was one of the few times when my north-eastern sensibility was shaken once again.

Migration, like life, has its stories of loss and separation, of longing and belonging, but, most of all, of discovering and re-discovering.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas


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