My First Racist Experience


Indira Laisram

My friend's 16-year-old daughter asks me, "What does chinky mean?" Not a great idea to be Facebook friends with children who also become witness to 'auntie's' rant and antics on the social network. The question was a surprisingly difficult one to answer. Not the explaining bit but difficult because I wonder if I was convincing enough. For someone like my young friend who is from the northeast but not lived outside the region and came straight to Australia at a young age, this is a word that would have little or no resonance.

At last I have something newsworthy to report. Walking back home from seeing the doctor after a slight problem in the left ear, it was ironic that I had to hear something clearly for me to react. I was taking a short cut through a field where four Indian men were playing cricket and speaking in Hindi. They looked at me, started the 'chinky' jibe in Hindi and laughed. I wanted to walk away; I had not fought with anyone since having arrived in Australia (this happened almost every other day in Delhi on the same issue). My north-eastern sensibility took hold, even on a foreign shore. So I turned back and gave them the choicest of abuses in Hindi. Shocked, they apologised, a scenario completely different from what would happen in India. As I yelled at them, a few non-Indian men came out from the pavilion wondering what was happening. I left but regretted that I did not make a further hue and cry. These Indian men were perpetrators of racism but cry about being victims of racism in Australia.

My friend Samrat, resident editor of The Asian Age in Mumbai, clearly justifies in that Indians are the biggest racists in the world. It is a fact that every northeasterner will also second given their experiences in mainland India. The debate on racism is clearly one that has no end because maybe we all have a strand of it – we can go from being a casual racist to the most caustic racist. And maybe the fact that I retorted 'these mencome to Australia to build ghettos and spoil this beautiful country' is racism too. But they brought out the worst in me that day.

This 'chinky' thing makes me livid. I am happy to know there is a law in India now that could put a person behind bars for using it. No doubt there will be far more offenders than one can imagine. It's a different question whether there will be some teeth in the new law. In my countless arguments with people (educated and otherwise) over the use of that word, I have been given counter arguments that we tease 'sardars' or south Indians or Biharis too. So why was I being so sensitive?  What they don't get or don't want to look at is that when people make 'Surdy' jokes or call all south Indians 'Madrasis', there is no sense of the other or the outsider. But the word 'chinky' has always had outsider undertones.

My own experiences of having lived a great degree of my life in India's northern belt make the word an ethnic slur. It comes with emotional baggage. It is about them versus us. The way we look, dress, eat and live life is all defined with that one word. At a hotel in Mumbai I was asked for a passport; at a fort in Jodhpur I was asked to pay in dollars; at a Southall paan shop in London the guy muttered something in Hindi not expecting me to understand it; at a tea shop outside the Times of India office where I once worked someone muttered yet again something! Indians have no idea that of the one billion people, more than 35 million are Asian looking people who also happen to understand and speak Hindi. We are quick to extrapolate stardom from the likes of Mary Kom and yet even biggies like Amitabh Bachchan tweet Kom is from Assam. So much ignorance about the region.

In an interview with the Intelligent Life magazine, Mary Kom says when she walks the streets of Delhi with her fellow northeastern athletes, they are sometimes mistaken for Nepali domestic help. "I tell them we are not Nepali, we are Manipuri, so don't speak like that, this is very bad manners… Something ching ching ching ching they start speaking, I don't know what. Even they don't know what! We are feeling bad. We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian."

Here's the other real thing: Some men will date 'chinky' women but never marry them as their families won't accept 'fast women'.  I know women who have been told verbatim by their spineless boyfriends. These are not elite men in any way, of course, they just have a veiled racial bias which is entrenched in their roots.

When I went ballistic on Facebook, some friends who for some reason don't want to be public with their opinion asked me privately why I am letting this bother me? I think they just move on with their lives irrespective of anything bad happening around them. I can't be a silent spectator of life, I am normal, I react, I over react. I won't tolerate such jibes.

I am surprised the issue is still gripping me now compelling me to write about it. It's reached the point where I can't stand it anymore; I want the conversation going. I want to tell these men that my culture of food or lifestyle might be different from yours but I have inherent goodness such as love, kindness and respect towards human beings. That is better culture than being conventional and pretending to have the skills and fundamentals to live in a diverse community with that veiled prejudice.Yes it is not a good feeling being called a 'chinky' because I am not an outsider. I am not cheap. I sing the national anthem. And I don't want to battle with everyone who uses the word.