“Where are you from?” is a question that has become an integral part of the small talk toolkit we carry at NYU Abu Dhabi. Indians in particular make up one of the largest demographic groups at NYUAD and in the UAE writ large. So how does the identity question express itself when you are an Indian on campus?
India has a population of 1.324 billion people in 29 states, each with their own distinct cultures, traditions and official languages. It has 22 official languages with over 1000 additional languages being spoken across the country. Identifying as an Indian in general is equivalent to detangling a spider’s web. First off, there are divides of identity within India, some of the big indicators being language, region, religion and politics. The very cultures of the north, south and northeast Indian states are different from each other, often resulting in conflict. Northeast Indians, for example, often face racism
when traveling in other parts of India. The north of India often clashes with the southern Indian states on political practices and language imperialism. These divides travel beyond India, often accompanying Indian diaspora abroad. Spread across Saudi Arabia, Nepal, the UAE, the U.S. and Malaysia, among others, the Indian diaspora are often legally categorized into various levels of overseas citizenship. The UAE itself is home to 3.3 million Indians
, making up approximately one third of the UAE population. With all of these considerations in mind, Indian identity seems like a white light scattered through a diamond, one color forming different unique individuals and experiences through the lens of life.
Students pointed to a variety of factors that define their Indian identities. According to Hanaan Shafi, Class of 2021, a big part of being Indian is having her cultural traditions pervade her day-to-day activities. To Shafi, these traditions manifest in her campus life in various ways, such as unconsciously removing footwear when entering the dorms.
Food is another important measure of identity. Umang Mishra, class of 2021, jokingly defined being Indian as having “a high tolerance to spices.” The Indian community of both local Indians and non-residential Indians often comes together to agree that Dining Hall food doesn’t exactly have the spices and flavors that give Indian food its distinct taste. For a large number of students however, language stood out as the most defining factor of their Indian identity.
Language in India has always been a contentious issue; since the linguistic reformation of Indian states after independence, conflicts rooted in language have continued to pervade the country. For example, there have been several issues against one language like Hindi being considered the national language due to the diversity of language across India. This is particularly big in the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu.
Doovaraha Maheswarasarma, Class of 2020, along with Praggya Jeyakumar, Class of 2021, and Sangeetha Mahadevan, Class of 2018, all spoke of their mother tongue Tamil as a major part of their Indian identity. Again, these experiences of Tamil are different for different people. Jeyakumar especially felt that she started connecting more to her Tamil and South Indian roots after coming to NYUAD.
“I was in an international school when growing up in Abu Dhabi. Being the only Indian in my high school class, I didn’t have much exposure to a lot of Indians around me. I only ever spoke Tamil to my mother. However, a semester in NYUAD changed that. Speaking to Doovaraha and Sangeetha in Tamil was a unique experience as I never had Tamil-speaking friends for a long time, so forming that kind of connection now had a lot of meaning. Until high school graduation, I always thought I was a mix of two cultures that didn’t have a name but now I can say I connect more to India, especially being Tamil. I also started listening to more South Indian songs,” she said.
Mahadevan agreed, saying, “Tamil was initially given to me by my family for me to be able to communicate with people back home … it became a way of always remembering my roots back in India.”
Maheswarasarma, despite having a Sri Lankan passport and a document that labels her as an overseas Indian citizen, identifies herself as Indian because she speaks Tamil and is immensely proud of it. She’s especially glad she chose NYUAD to study in because she feels safe and at home due to the large Tamil population of Abu Dhabi. Maheswarasarma, president of TASHAN, the South Asian Student Interest Group at NYUAD, added that representation of India’s different faces is an issue on campus. A lot of international students are only familiar with Hindi, Bollywood and particular cuisines, which often leaves out the other cultures and cuisines of India.
“It’s especially hard navigating being Indian on campus because you have to deal with stereotypes that naturally exist. It’s figuring your way in and out of those stereotypes that is the challenge here,” she added. Many are comfortable with completely identifying as Indian, regardless of whether they live in India or not.
Professor Deepak Unnikrishnan noted that although his first language is Malayalam and his parents are from Kerala, he prefers to identify with the cities he grew up in and connects to.
“I never grew up in India so it would be factually incorrect to call myself Indian. I am from Abu Dhabi because it makes sense. I’m from New York and Chicago and it makes sense.” He did agree that saying you are from Abu Dhabi is not the same as being a local. He deals with that particular aspect of being a non-residential Indian in the UAE in his writing, particularly in his book Temporary People.
Some other non-resident Indians find it more difficult. Abdul Kareem, class of 2021, and a non-residential Indian originally from Delhi but brought up in Abu Dhabi, was unsure what being Indian meant anymore. “If you ask an Indian who I am, they’ll say I’m almost Arab. If you ask a Emirati, they’ll say I’m Indian. I can speak both Hindi and Arabic but I’ll consider myself more Indian since we don’t receive permanent citizenship in the UAE. It [is] an identity crisis,” he said. Neha John, a Class of 2020 non-residential Indian from Dubai, added, “As an expat in the UAE you are constantly taught to consider the temporality of your life here, a strange and sad reality of life.”
Nandini Kochar is a non-residential Indian from Botswana. She also experienced a mixture of cultures that many other non-residential Indians struggle to navigate. “Growing up, I couldn’t be fully Indian. I would be Indian to justify my ethnicity in Botswana, where I was different, but it never really justified who I am,” said Kochar.
Unnikrishnan noted that he eventually became more comfortable in his own perception of his identity, but he attributes that recent development to being older. He likes to call himself a “cultural mercenary,” a term that takes into consideration how your identity slightly shifts around your environment. “When I am in India, I am not really allowed to be anything else, especially around relatives. If it were elsewhere with someone else, I could have a more nuanced discussion,” he said.
He acknowledges how NYUAD students often struggle with the notion of identity. “You are in an environment where you are supposed to embrace diversity and it isn’t as easy as most people make it out to be. Then there is that hesitation, because you don’t want to leave [behind] things important to you like language, identity … nationality … it’s a process. It’s a very nuanced and complex experience. Everyone’s entitled to their own journeys.”
Aathma Dious is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.