Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fancy an Indian?


From the first point of contact with my new colleagues all the way back in June this year I apparently stuck out like a sore thumb…but not in a bad way. I distinctly remember reading a group email where one teacher had enthusiastically responded to my cyber introduction with ‘PATEL…THAT’S AN INDIAN NAMEEE!!!!!!!!’ Clearly she loved our brown race and that whole screwing the light bulb and patting the dog routine. But love was an underestimation. Apparently I’m exotic in France, one because I am very “bronzed” as described by one of my darling students and secondly because I can cook up some exotic culinary masterpieces such as Aloo Gobi. 

This particular teacher of mine, who might I add is the world’s biggest sweetheart, has spent the past twenty years in complete awe of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh etc. trying to travel back and forth every year with her family. She is most certainly a seasoned traveller and by seasoned I mean with a hint of cumin. She has basically visited the homelands more than I have which is quite ridiculous really, but it brought about some in depth observations on French society, culture and my own.

In France there are a number of expats, immigrants etc. a lot of who stem from old French colonies such as Algeria. One thing that has greatly struck me since being here and travelling to different French regions, is that to let go of your ancestral culture is a no-go. It is not completely abnormal to see a tow of thirteen cars that stop in the middle of the street and all the passengers spill out of the car to dance and sing in Arabic. Yes, Moroccan weddings look extremely chaotic and raucously fun all at once, despite them not even being held in Morocco!

Some may be quietly thinking about social and political issues in France such as laïcité and how that could affect the integration of cultures. And those who maybe aren’t so sure of what laïcité really is, it is in no way a racist ideology but more of a term which describes a secularist law. To put it simply, the separation of church and state and nowadays this can be understood as no religious interference in official and governmental matters. Even to the point where no religious symbols are allowed to be shown in school. This may seem harsh, but if followed and interpreted correctly, it can actually prevent racism and bring about an understanding of human equality, which is not dependent on your race or religion. Of course, depending on how the secularist law is understood, this ‘mélange’ of cultures and religions could be seen as a boiling pot for future upheaval or social divide. But by saying all of this I do not mean to write that I believe culture and religion is the same thing – it is most certainly NOT but that is a totally different subject altogether.

And a quick mention on the good old stereotype that the French are racist. In fact I have not heard or witnessed any of these so-called claims that the French are “racist”. Maybe I’m being naïve and deaf at the same time, but from what I’ve experienced, everyone wants me to teach them how to cook chicken curry and speak English. YES, real French people want to eat curry and genuinely learn how to speak the Anglo-Saxon language. Shocking, I know.

It is apparent that racism still exists in France AND all over the world but it is far outweighed by the desire of many who yearn for knowledge and exposure to other cultural practices. Another member of the faculty and her ten year old daughter are avid Bollywood fans (they however are born and bred French) and have invited me to a Bollywood night – who would have thought?!  It is those particular unexpected interests that allow individuals to connect and continuously discover things together that at one point were wildly unknown to any of them. 

As I write this, I’m realizing just how important my own culture is to me. Being in a place where I really am one of few, compared to London where I am one of the thousands British Asians, I have understood that it is imperative to grasp, accept and understand your own culture before you can learn to truly appreciate others. As humans, I guess we are all built up of different things and culture is an integral part, whether it be the culture that you have created for yourself or one that you have grown up with. It is definitely one thing the French have no trouble being proud about or talking about but it is has been charming to be acquainted with people who are just as interested in you as you are in them.