What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see a person from the Northeast? Reservation, fashion, ‘foreigner’, ‘chinki’, momos and bamboo shoot? I am sure there are many more stereotyped images where those came from.
I come from the beautiful state of Arunachal Pradesh in North East India. We grew up listening to tacky Bollywood songs, cutting out pictures of Shahrukh Khan from magazines to paste on the walls, watching “Shaktimaan” every Sunday and gathering around the TV whenever “DDLJ” aired.
I still remember, vividly, my first year in Delhi. It was full of cultural and emotional surprises. The mention of my state did not really ring any bells for anyone. I spent my first few weeks helping people understand it is a geographical location within India. After many failed attempts, I succumbed to calling myself a “Northeastern” as everybody else in my position was doing. This was a big change in perception for me because people from the Northeast never originally identify themselves with that term. Growing up without internet, our connections to the rest of the country were mainly through television, old magazines, and newspapers that sometimes come weeks late, none of which had much to say about the Northeast states. We knew more about Delhi and Mumbai (or at least in the way the media presented them), than Mizoram or Manipur. However, once in Delhi, I was suddenly expected to know all about the other states of the North East – food, clothes, and languages. If I did not, I was often judged as ‘not informed enough’ about ‘my people’.
Well, speaking of my people, my state alone has around 26 major tribes in total, with each speaking different dialects, most of which are unintelligible to each other. On top of that, there is no guarantee that sharing the same tribe means sharing the same dialect. Just a few months ago, when I was at home for a few days, I remember my mom and me sharing a good laugh as we struggled to understand the dialect of a person who shares the same tribe as us, but belongs to a different village.
Every tribe has their version of food, depending upon the herbs and vegetation they grow in their regions. We have different local festivals according to our tribes. For me, the idea behind the phrase ‘my people’ was seriously disturbing and quite paradoxical, even.
So, there I was, identifying myself with a community I barely knew back then. I went from being a simple “Arunachali” to a very connotative “Northeastern”. I probably did not realize then the cultural influences it put me under. After all, what was just a geographical region for me, in the good old days, had just become an idea to adhere to.
Most of us don’t realize that there is a certain satisfaction in locating the recognition on people’s faces when they hear where you are from. It really is a luxury. We then go on enthusiastically to discuss more about our food, traditions, and so on. In doing this we assert ourselves, in a way, in the eyes of others. However, I realized that in my case there were too many expectations to conquer in order to have that luxury. So, the question “Where are you from?” became something that I would rather avoid, because how could I answer a question which already assumed to know its answer?
Women, in general, have enough stereotypes to deal with. Imagine another layer of ethnic stereotypes buttered on top of that. It becomes a distasteful mix. And I have had my share of that. Over the past few years I have not only been sexualized as a woman, but as a woman from the Northeast. Apparently, there are nuances to being sexualized depending on your physical features. When I went looking for flats in Delhi, I remember being gawked at by the land-lords, and the land-ladies resenting us for their other half’s behavior. I was faced with questions like “Are you going to bring men?” and “Do you have any African friend”. In the beginning, I did not understand what these questions have to do with the house, as long as we are fulfilling the legal requirements of a rent agreement. Those were my innocent and untainted days, I guess. It did not take me long to realize what was going on. I started to be self-conscious about the way I dressed, the way I walked, or whose company I was in.
Moreover, every so often I would find myself being judged for being in the same vicinity as other people from the Northeast. It was the kind of judgment which confirmed the stereotypes about us always preferring each other’s company.
Places like Safdarjung, in Delhi, have even gained the title of “Northeast ghetto” due to a majority of its population being from one of those states (which is wrong in many ways, but that’s an issue to be discussed another time). In order to avoid the stereotype of ghetto mentality, I started to dislike being in those vicinities. Wanting to disassociate from things or individuals that can remind you of how you are stereotyped is a way to cope with discrimination. However, I soon realized the hypocrisy of it. I was ashamed of myself because I was developing a kind of covert racism. I was not just a victim of discrimination now, I had become its accomplice, somewhere along the line.
Stereotypes, in general, have a way of gnawing even at the best of us. From my personal experiences, the biggest problem here is not the stereotype itself, but communication, or the lack thereof. It creates mental barriers, which makes both the parties seem unapproachable to each other. I was reluctant to speak about my personal conflicts because of this, something which I believe many students from Northeast have experienced as well. It is important that we bring awareness into how discrimination and stereotyping affect us on a more personal level, in order to break those barriers.
So, now coming to the question I began with—what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see a person from the North East? I hope this article has helped broaden the horizon to answer that.