Unlike most foreigners, I have been mistaken for Indian more times than I can count. As with everything else in India, there are great contradictions regarding my presence on campus. Some students say that I am very clearly a foreigner whereas others, after having several conversations with me, ask “but you’re from India, right?” I have been told that people are asking the exchange coordinator why the foreign exchange student isn’t on campus (because I fit in so well). Others tell me that when I arrived there were rumours that I was the blonde white American teacher’s daughter.
My name reflects my mixed background: Vrindy (short for Vrindavana, which is a place in India) Spencer. Often when I say my name, I follow the confused expressions with “short for Vrindavan.” I gain immense joy when this brings clarification for many (although not all) as I’ve never been in a place where people know what Vrindavana means. Numerous people here call me Vrinda or Vrindavan in replacement for my name on a regular basis.
Others spread around that I am “guju,” which is a nickname for the people from Gudrat (a state in India) since my great grandparents are from there. On more than one occasion people have either asked me or others whether I have Gudrati roots. The idea of belonging to a group I did not choose to be in is harder for me to grasp (coming from an individualistic society).
The sense of belonging that came from being at Quest was more found through choice. I chose to be at Quest. I chose to be vulnerable and then I chose to connect with others. At FLAME, a sense of belonging comes from groups that I was born into. I’ve been aware of my mix-breed status my whole life. Even when I feel white, it’s hard to forget that my appearance indicates otherwise when I’m asked about my ethnicity on a regular basis and/or asked about India as if I know intimate information about the place I’d never been.
I recently noticed a habit of mine to compare my skin colour with others in the room. With friends it’s a joke about my “tanned” colour and in class at Quest it’s to think about the diversity in the room. At FLAME I do the same, however for the first time in my life I match the people I am with (I am the darkest even in my immediate family). That is incredible. So many things match value systems I never realized do not exist in Canada in the same way as they do in India. For example, vegetarianism here is part of many religions and so restaurants are “veg” or “veg and non-veg” and which one you are is a much more common question here.
(Indian store that depicts “you know you’re indian when..” statements)
The environment works so well for me in India. I love the food, the heat, the smells, the sounds, the crowds, and the people. I can talk to people about classic Bollywood movies, I hear the names of deities I learnt about in childhood, and I find the food delicious.
Sitting around a bonfire at 11:30pm last Wednesday, burning bush, listening to acoustic Indian songs (complete with a flute and beatboxing), and surrounded by caring people, I joined the contradictions of India and felt entirely at home in being entirely foreign.
I’m so grateful that I had the incredibly unique opportunity to be the only foreign student on campus. It gives me the ability to create my own placement on campus, especially with my unique ethnic background. (Some students joke that I’m more Indian than them, because I wear kurtis while they wear T-shirts and jeans).
While I am still unsure whether I could ever feel a sense of belonging in India, I certainly do feel a sense of something great that I never knew I was missing in Canada.