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A Hindu In China

27/06/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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"Am I a pureblood, Mama?" My Harry Potter-inspired preteen asked me recently.

My daughter, growing up in China, has asked me versions of this question since she was six years old. "What am I, Mama? Am I a Hindu? Am I Chinese? Am I an Indian? Why do I write Baba's surname and not yours?"

I grew up in India and the term "pureblood" has layers of implications attached. I considered my reply. I am a Rajput, her father is a Khatri. Does that make her a mudblood in Potter parlance?

"We're both from India and also from the same state, Himachal Pradesh," I replied finally, hoping to reassure her about her place in the world. A world that she feels uprooted from, having changed three cities in a foreign country by age eight.

A world that Rahul Pandita speaks of leaving behind at age 14 in his memoir about the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, Our Moon Has Blood Clots. A world that Pallavi Aiyar narrates in her latest book Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move. A world that many immigrant children in the West encounter in the terms ABCD (American born confused desi), ABC (American born Chinese) and FOB (fresh off the boat). This is also the world that some youth are perhaps searching for in their alignment with outfits like ISIS. A world where their self-identity is reflected back at them, shining bright and clear.

In a life of constantly morphing, nebulous memories, the colour of one's cultural blood takes on a new relevance.

I see this search for identity all around me, with mixed marriages becoming common. I see it also in the to and fro of people in China, economic migrants like us whose children are growing up away from home. Frequent relocations have meant our children repeatedly losing the only markers of their childhood memories -- budding friendships, the comforting bus route home, the old lady practising Tai Chi in the complex grounds every morning, the instant noodle shop down the corner, the cosy reading nook in a bedroom...

In a life of constantly morphing, nebulous memories, the colour of one's cultural blood takes on a new relevance. Yet, which culture should they adopt? The host country or home country? While on one hand our cultural legacy seems a tad remote for these children to bother with in this age of ubiquitous American pop culture, at another level its deficiency has the potential to incapacitate them where it hurts most -- at the core of their self-identity. And so, I struggle with how much cultural identity is "safe" to pass on to my child in these socially distraught times of racial and religious tension.

That last question leads me to renew my own acquaintance with my cultural identity. Unlike my younger self, I find myself dwelling on broader questions of my religion and culture. Is yoga Hindu? Is it right to impose food restrictions based on the majority's food habits? Are there benefits to maintaining one's caste identity? I come to realize that the concept of ancient India and Hinduism are inextricably linked in my mind. Where does pride in my cultural ancestry step over to arrogance?

I object to the obsession in the strident voices, yet find myself standing up in Hinduism's defense.

It's a strange time to be a Hindu. The Hinduism I grew up with is being questioned and defended from both within and outside the community. Nothing new there. Yet, the stridency of some of those voices drown out the rationality and gentleness that I was familiar with.

I object to the obsession in the strident voices, yet find myself standing up in Hinduism's defense.

An American friend who teaches English at an international school mentions her Korean student's essay on the Hindu caste system holding back the Indian economy. I can't resist sending her a long email with links showing how, for 1500 years until British colonialism, India held more than 20% of world trade. The issue becomes even more personal when my daughter struggles with her sense of cultural belonging by expressing outrage at the British colonialists and sadness at the poverty and cleanliness levels in India. "I want to be proud of my country, Mama," she cried out once.

I notice that Western school curriculums give much more exposure to ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks than ancient India. With my daughter's quest fresh in my mind, it's no surprise that I am drawn to the campaign in California to have ancient India and Hinduism represented more positively in school textbooks.

I have been accosted more than once by Chinese evangelists wanting me to find the love of Christ."Are you Christian?" No. "Why not?" Why not not?

In pursuit of building a strong core, I attempt to teach my daughter the best that I feel my culture has to offer -- music, food, language and spirituality. Among other things, I try teaching her to love god. So, naturally, at 10, she declares herself an atheist! As months pass, she changes her ideology with the situation often enough to be called an opportunist. She finally settles for being an agnostic.

---

I meet a rabbi on a train ride to nearby Guangzhou city, the capital of China's richest province, Guangdong. He's an Israeli immigrant to the USA. We both live in Shenzhen now. We share anecdotes about China. The Chinese are searching for an identity too, evident in their increasing disenchantment with material rewards alone that the past decades have given them. The costs -- personal, social and environmental -- are high. There is a spiritual vacuum, one often hears. More and more people are turning to religion. In the past year I have been accosted more than once by Chinese evangelists wanting me to find the Truth in the Gospel and the love of Christ, our Lord. "Are you Christian?" No. "Why not?" Why not not? A religious zealot on a communist Beijing street selling Christianity to a Hindu -- a delicious irony.

"So many Chinese ask me if they can be Jews so that they will be rich and intelligent!" the rabbi chuckles.

He is surprised that I know term like rabbi, Moshe, Torah and Talmud. He talks of god, but much like my daughter, I find myself finding holes in his religious logic.

"This cell phone has a creator," he asserts. "If you follow that thought, everything has a creator. So, who made this world?"

"By that logic, who created God," I give back.

"You don't believe in God?"

I wrote a book about my faith. "Not in that sense of a single judgmental person/entity."

I find myself at a loss to explain Hinduism. Do we believe in god? Yes, thousands. And also none.

He's never heard of Hinduism. I find myself at a loss to explain Hinduism. Do we believe in god? Yes, thousands. And also none. The simple question has a complex answer. Hinduism is an ocean that is difficult to bottle in a certain-shaped glass. My attempt probably falls short for he smiles at me and advises, "You should read the Torah. You seem like a very intelligent person."

Well, at least there's that!

"I will," I reply.

This search for knowledge is also Hinduism, I want to tell him but don't.

---

Speak Up. For those who cannot speak for themselves

Thus decrees the round, white pendant I bought for my daughter at an HK charity. She likes to wear it often, calling it her motto. She's starting to put it into practice by volunteering with an active animal rescuer in the city.

"Animals depend on us," she informs me in her infinite 11-year-old wisdom. "Renata is my role model, Mama," she tells me another time, referring to her new mentor.

I sigh in relief. With her country's culture distant and religion in an agnostic stronghold, she is discovering new pathways to her identity.

In the meantime, we've got a puppy home for her. In bonding with him, all of us are discovering new aspects of ourselves.

"Is he a Chinese gǒu (dog) or Indian?" I am asked often on the street.

He is Chinese but I speak Hindi to him. Khana (food), pani (water) and love are universal needs after all.

In researching dog behaviour I come across a video by Cesar Millan. In raising multiple breeds together he emphasizes letting them be true to their nature, with a caveat. They must be "a little dog, a little breed."

Maybe there is a lesson in there for us humans.

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