This it more often than not, one of the first questions one encounters as a foreigner in a new country (the first question anyways). I’ve gotten a bit tired of explaining because I’ve just lived for long periods of time on 3 different continents and 4 different countries that I can’t really identify myself with any one country in particular. I often get asked, what’s it like? I find this to be an equally challenging question primarily as I’ve never actually given any thought it. My subconscious however, has seemed to incorporate a bit from every place I’ve lived in. The US has by far had the most influence on my upbringing as I spent my “formative” years there. But then I can’t identify myself entirely with the American mentality (if there is such a thing). I came to Europe when I was 17 and fell in love with Prague, but again, I still can’t fully identify myself with the Czech or German mentality. My home city Hyderabad is equally a challenge for me to come to terms with, as by the time I left the place and returned to it temporarily after a decade, the city had transformed into a place I could barely recognise anymore.
In short, I’ve taken a bit from each place I’ve lived and identify myself as a global citizen. My mentality changes all the time and usually it’s a subconscious process: it can be very American, or at times Indian, and recently very often than not, even European (I can’t quite pinpoint it to Czech or German mentality in particular but you get the point). This also means that I’m much more open to people with equally well-traveled backgrounds and often even seek similar company. I feel like it’s much harder to related to folks who haven’t traveled as much, but naturally there have been pleasant exceptions along my way.
Having a Western last name doesn’t make things any easier. I’ve lost count of the number of times people ask my name and are amazed or confused when they hear my last name. It’s also amusing to hear people postulate different theories. In Germany so far, I’ve heard people either ask me or come up with their own justifications:
1. You must be half-German and half-Indian.
2. You must be adopted.
3. You must have English roots owing to your colonial past.
4. Is Peter really your last name? (as its often a common first name in the western part of the world).
5. Peter doesn’t really fit in with your physical appearance.
I have always been interested in learning more about Indian culture and it’s unique historical past, perhaps because I feel like an outsider to the culture yet have strong ties to the country and its culture. To keep it short, India is a place where a plethora of faiths are practiced and where people of different religions coexist: Hindus, Muslims, Sikkhism Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews, Buddhists, and yes Christians and their numerous denominations. So taking that into consideration, I’ve observed that Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, tend to have westernised last names for some unknown reason. For eg. Goans and Mangaloreans (people from the western and southern part of India respectively often have portuguese last names owing to their colonial past. Among christians from the south-western part of the country (Kerala), it’s entirely normal to have such names.
But this is just a general observation and there are as usual numerous exceptions to every observation. I’ve met families with western first names and Indian last names (often found in non-catholic denominations) or with both the first and last names being Indian (tend to usually be the converts) or just the first name being Indian (typical among Catholics in certain parts of the country). I think it’s hard in India because Catholics have traditionally stuck to biblical names but since India has it’s own ancient culture, they also want to preserve that aspect by giving their kids an Indian first name. And no, Christianity wasn’t introduced to India by the Europeans. It was rather one of the earliest religions that made its way into India (52 AD to be precise) and while they only represent 2,5 percent of the Indian population with catholics making up around 1,55% of the Christian faith, the community is very close knit and strongly hold on to the customs followed by their religion. This is slowly changing with inter/religion marriages slowly increasing, but that still has a long way to go. That being said, European missionaries did later on make their way into the county and converted many people.
On a side note, North-east India has the highest concentration of Buddhists as well as Catholics while Hinduism is most prevalent all over the country. Zoroastrians are mostly to be found in the north-western and western parts of the country (Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively) and Jews are concentrated in pockets of southern and western parts of India (often in States/Cities located along the coast line).
As you would have probably known, India is a country of stark contrasts and unbridled diversity. With so many waves of immigration into the country from all over the world, what else would one expect? But from what I’ve seen, despite the minor religious tensions that happen from time to time (especially in the political arena), most folks live together harmoniously and this is probably why India has, in the past, been a haven to people who were persecuted from their own countries on account of their religion. Contrarily India has also a very diverse colonial history as well as immigration of people for other reasons (Arabs, Persians, Moguls, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Tibetans and Africans). Theories have also been postulated on how the Indo-Iranian population have migrated to Europe and other parts of the world but I don’t want to get into this as it’s far too complex and relies on so many anthropological theories, none of which have come to a consensus.
Despite all the waves of migration, Indians have despite all the adversity, strongly preserved their culture, and even influence other cultures. But at the same time, living in a country with a sheer amount of diversity also makes the people very tolerant (albeit on a more superficial level.) I won’t get into the regional differences of the country because that would take a whole another blog post but if you folks are interested, I could do a post on that. Let me know.