I am a NRI.
Before you conjure up an image of a south Indian software engineering geeky guy coding away to glory in the good old US of A, let me stop your mental machinations right there. Yes, I am a south Indian but the similarities end there. I am a banking finance professional (woman) based in Hong Kong (Yes, the one of which you read all those democracy protests about). If you are one of those who often fantasize about international travel, I am here to tell you not all is bright and shiny as it seems.
Over the course of the last decade, I have travelled across the southern and the eastern hemisphere quite a bit either alone for work or for “vacay” along with my long suffering husband. During my most recent trip to Harbin (a city in China located close to the north korean and russian borders), my husband and I travelled with a group of locals and 3 energetic 5-year-olds eager to experience the promised ice wonders in the city. The locals we met and our travelling companions were pleasant and quite enjoyed the novelty of two foreign looking faces who cannot speak Mandarin. Our English was conversational lessons to two of our travelling companions who spoke in halting terms. It was then that we learned the funky cultural cliches that Bollywood offered up to those outside India. I was dumbfounded when one of our fellow travellers (whom I will call J) commented that I looked exactly like a Bollywood bride in one of my social media wedding posts. I wondered if they had been watching 2 states, though I still cannot understand the comparison. My wedding was a traditional tamilian wedding and I am no Alia look-alike. But it’s a lot clear now why Justin Trudeau wore all those sherwanis on his India trip.
Another traveller hesitatingly wondered why my husband and my father in law were topless in the wedding photos, a question which I struggled to answer. Why do we have topless grooms in the tam-brahm weddings anyway? J admitted in slow and scandalous tones that she would flip her hubby for Hrithik Roshan in a heartbeat if he would have her. Ah, but I did tell her that 300 million Indian women have been trying the same thing for decades now without the slightest chance of succeeding. The tour guide was very helpful though we did have some trouble over the AI translation (since we cannot speak Chinese and the guide couldn’t speak English, the phone AI translation came to our rescue) which led us to dragging two bulky backpacks and two huge suitcases over four inches of snowfall while our travelling companions sauntered empty handed.
Back home in Hong Kong, I frequently visit a well known south Indian restaurant chain that boasts of side by side posters of MS Subbulakshmi and our dear old Thalaivar. Nothing evokes nostalgia for Chennai and home than eating a sambhar vada while the super star grins down at you from his lofty perch.
I almost always search for Indian eateries irrespective of the country I am in, which is why I had the novel experience of watching framed Modi photos all around me in a Phuket restaurant. My Indian face attracts an avalanche of Hindi pleasantries whichever restaurant I visit, only to harden at my English responses. Ah, but I will never get to live down skipping those Hindi lessons at school.
During my visit to Sydney, the immigration was surprisingly uneventful though my husband and I were slightly held up at the baggage retrieval arena. A customs executive sauntered to us with a form and demanded that we declare any food items we were importing into the country with our baggage. When we replied in negative, she peered suspiciously at us and pointedly asked “No pickles? No spices?”
When we shook our head, she looked dumbfounded at our Indian passports before flouncing away to the next passenger.
Needless to say, none of these quirky experiences have reduced my love of travel and in bidding adieu, what can I say but “Mera Bharat Mahan Hai”.