The large indoor gymnasium was packed with students of various sizes, ages and colours, all staring at the giant platform flanked by large projector screens that were currently displaying information about the college they’d just joined. The Dean of the College was standing behind a podium, proudly declaring that over a thousand students from 65 different countries were present in the hall at the moment. I couldn’t hear the rest of his speech though. Frustrated, I repeatedly fantasized about turning to the three strangers sitting next to me, chattering away loudly, and screaming, “Onnu Mindathirikkada Ma-“
I didn’t. But why did I want to?
Was it just because their loud conversation in Malayalam was distracting me from relevant information about my new college?
Yes, yes, they indeed were distracting me.
But most of the information on the projector screens were also in the file and set of brochures they’d handed every student in the Orientation goody bag. Wait, had the college planned for this inevitability? Did they know students would be distracted by their fellow classmates talking loudly in their mother tongue?
Obviously not. But that leaves the question. Why was I bothered?
On the other side of the table was an English woman who’d warmly introduced herself a few minutes earlier. She was in her 30s, and eager to obtain an education in this Canadian college.
Why did I glance at her though? When the chatter about Nedumbasherry Airport and Santa Monica Consultancy seemed to peak from the three seats next to me, why did I glance to check the English lady’s expression?
And why wasn’t I surprised, and instead embarrassed, when her eyes widened a little at their hyperactive conversation that threatened to smother the whole table soon?
Every year millions of Malayalis go abroad for education, work or a combination of the two. What happens when they get to a foreign country? Almost everyone who’s walking through immigration check at Nebumbasherry, Kozhikode, Kannur or Trivandrum airport has the phone number of a relative, friend or distant acquaintance in their pocket. Someone who can either pick them up from the destination airport or at the least warn them about the expensive airport taxis they need to avoid.
An aspect of this phenomenon was highlighted by the current US Administration when they railed against what are derogatorily known as “chain migration”. Basically the concept where your uncle reaches New Jersey and five years later a quarter of your relatives are there as well. It’s not something unique to Malayalis, but PinkLungi is, so what happens when our comrades reach foreign lands?
Ideally, they’ll have temporary accommodation from their Malayali contact in the country. And when life kicks into full gear, they’ll find a place of their own. But who do they talk to? And what’s the danger of answering positively to their second and third question?
At the Orientation program, if I’d just leaned over and made a comment in Malayalam to my comrades, this is what would happen: They’d ask me my name, and “Nattilevideya?” (Where are you from in Kerala?). And then we’d quickly talk about how we got here, what we hoped to do and what it’s been like so far.
An hour later, when the program organizer enthusiastically declares it’s time for lunch, we’d get up. All four of us would move towards the buffet table, our heads bowed in earnest conversation, as though we were in an invisible car passing through a forest of foreign students.
Many of you must have already been abroad. What was it like? Did you quickly find a group of fellow Malayalis you could talk to? If so, why? If not, why not?
Let’s get the obvious and understandable reasons out of the way. Many people who go to a foreign country do not have a strong enough command over the English language, which others like me need to periodically remind ourselves, is more of a privilege than an achievement. They seek out fellow Malayalis because that’s the only way for them to gain social and emotional security.
The three guys sitting next to me didn’t fall in that category, though. When it was their turn to introduce themselves as part of the Orientation exercise, they did so effortlessly. And a minute later lapsed back into their frenzied conversation.
So what’s wrong in that, exactly? Why did it bother me so much that they were chatting so loudly that I couldn’t hear anything else?
It’s because I’d seen this done before, throughout my life. There are many Malayalis who actively choose to speak Malayalam the whole time. Not because they don’t know English, mind you, but because they simply prefer their mother tongue. I’m thankfully not an English Teacher at an elite English medium school in Trivandrum who wants every Malayali to converse with their fellow Keralites in the Queen’s English.
But what about the world around us?
More often than not, Malayalis who actively seek out their comrades in a foreign country, then end up having only them as their friends. After the lunch at Orientation, what would I be doing? Probably going grocery shopping with my new Malayali friends. Would we stop to talk to a Canadian guy or a Caribbean girl on the way? No, we’d be too immersed in our conversation to barely notice the pedestrian rules this country follows so rigidly.
Very quickly, Malayalis end up creating a self-sustaining ecosystem in the foreign country. I heard it from a guy at the Mosque in my new city, who pointed out where I could buy vegetables for Upperi (what some comrades call “Thoran” which restaurant has Puttu, Dosa, Idli; even the Facebook group for Malayali Youths in the city.
“Why?” I asked, unable to contain myself.
“Why what?” He looked perplexed.
“I mean, what’s the purpose of this group?”
He took it to be a genuine query rather than a veiled critique and explained eagerly. “It was started by a Professor at the college. To help Malayalis who come here. Because they’ll be lonely and suffering from homesickness. So with this group, they can make friends and do something constructive.”
And that, Sahodharis and Sahodharans, is what I lament.
Are you a crab Malayali?
I wish I could have asked this man who was about to show me the Facebook group on his phone. “Why would a Malayali feel lonely? Why would they not have friends? There are literally thousands of students in this city, all of whom are lonely. Why can’t they make friends through their college? There are sports activities, volunteer program…even a literal pairing of students from different countries instituted for the sole purpose of bridging the gap between cultures! I’m not talking about the Malayalis who face the communication gap, for whom, by the way, the college has free English tutoring classes (but that’s off-topic). I’m talking about the Malayalis who are perfectly fine with talking to immigration officers and Professors, but then unplug from Canada or whichever multicultural country they are in and meet their fellow Mallus like they’re in the Matrix and the sole Malayali restaurant three towns away is their Zion.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wearing a red hat, screaming for my fellow Malayalis to “speak the language or go back!” Because even if the former doesn’t happen, the latter never will. Most countries that encourage multiculturalism will not, I think, expel us if we stick to our Malayali circle. Because “integration into society” might be just an added bonus for the governments that require the manpower and economic boost we provide. But it’s we as individuals who truly lose out when we spend sweat, blood and money to come to a new place, only to avoid any kind of exploration.
The world is unbelievably vast, in terms of culture, languages, colour, climate, terrain, food and art. Which is why it breaks my heart when a fellow Malayali flies halfway across the world, only to behave as if he is a Smartphone with terrible battery and his fellow Malayalis are mobile charging ports that he needs to chase after. I can understand noting down the only place in town that serves passable Kerala Porotta, but why go there every weekend for the foreseeable future when there’s literally a Taco stand next to it? And a Jamaican restaurant across the street, past the Thai Diner?
I didn’t say a word to the three Malayalis next to me. Instead, I watched as they recruited more members to their tribe. They waved their hands in the midst of the orientation speeches, signalling for comrades they met at the airport or the bus station or the front lobby of the college to come over from neighbouring tables. By the end of the orientation, there were seven of them.
Three hours later, I was sitting at a bench outside the main college building, sipping my first cup of Tim Horton’s coffee and reading a book. A student walked up to me and asked something about a registration form. I told him what to do. But my accent betrayed my attempt at nationality ambiguity (Editor’s Note: Not sure that’s a correct phrase; Readers are welcome to suggest alternatives).
“Where are you from?” he asked like a poker player who was pretty sure of my cards.
“Ah…India,” I said, as time began to slow down. Think Marwan, Think!
“Where in India?” he asked, with slight impatience, because he already knew that. I knew what he was really asking. I wasn’t sure he knew that I knew what he was really asking.
“Ah…Coimbatore,” I replied, and instantly chided myself for simply skipping the Kerala border by 50 kilometres. Why didn’t I say Kashmir? But it would be fine, I thought.
“Ah! Coimbatore! Nariya friends irukk! Coimbatorille!”
Damn, he was probably from Palakkad.
But he was in a hurry, and his Tamil wasn’t as fluent as his mother tongue Malayalam, and so he didn’t engage me in a conversation. He was a Crab. And I barely managed to escape his claws.
Have you heard of “Crab mentality”? It’s a negative phrase, used to describe people who don’t allow others to progress in life. That’s NOT what I mean when I describe some Malayalis in foreign countries as crabs. All I mean is, either knowingly or more likely unknowingly, they tend to tangle you in their interests, activities and thoughts, all of which are mostly centred around Malayalam cinema, food, politics, troll memes and culture. Even when it’s out of genuine love and solidarity, they end up tethering you to their experiences. You can’t eat from a Polish restaurant tomorrow because the other four roommates are pitching in to make Mutton Biryani and Payasam. You can. But you’ll put off the Polish dinner and instead polish off that Biryani (Editor’s Note: Eh…seriously?).
Crabs are not evil. They are not bigoted. Not every Malayali exhibits crab-like behaviour, and even among those who do, there is a wide spectrum. It’s not bad to exhibit crab-like behaviour once in a while. Whether or not it’s holding you back is something you need to introspect. I obviously cannot, should not, and will not be telling my comrades what to do for the weekend when they are travelling to Toronto. I might sound like a snob, and if you don’t believe that I believe I’m not, at least trust me when I tell you I’ll be the first one to work on that defect if you point it out.
I’m not a crab. But as I walked away from the Mosque after talking to that Malayali and mentally checked on all the places where Halal meat was available, I saw a 63-year-old Canadian grandfather I’d befriended two days back. And when I went to greet him, it hit me.
I’m a chameleon. What’s a chameleon? You can probably guess. What’re their shortcomings? I’ll tell you soon, in the second part of this article.
Food for thought for all of us expat malayalis…
Such an engaging article. You should write a book about this. I would totally read it!