31 January 2005

A Chinese Lotus in an Indian Swamp

My name is Laileen. It means "beautiful lotus." I was born in Jamshedpur, a steel city with a population of two million, in the state of Bihar, not too far from Calcutta. Both my grandfathers came to India around 1911 from Guangdong Province.

My paternal grandfather was from Shunde. He first worked on the railroads allover Northern India. While there, he was introduced to a Chinese family in the Nainital area, and a marriage was arranged with my grandmother around 1925. She was born in India. Her father, my great-grandfather, was one of about ten Chinese tea experts that the British brought to India around 1890 to grow tea. We still have a picture of him in his pigtail. He went to different parts of India before he found the perfect soil for the Dumlot tea in the Kumaon region in the foothills of the Himalayas. He settled near Nainital, and owned some tea estates, walnut groves, and farms. His wife, my great-grandmother, was from the nomadic tribal people along the India-China border. We were told that she wore a long dress in the Tibetan style. Although not a Han, she was Chinese because her daughter, my grandmother, used kinship terms according to the Chinese custom....

India and China had been bickering over the border for some time and they actually went to war in 1962.... The war and the restrictions really affected me. I was a lost soul at that time. I think as a young person I hated that I was Chinese. I was the minority; I stood out. I could not speak, read, or write Hindi as well as I thought I should. The Indian girls could talk about Hinduism and living in India generations upon generations, but for me only my parents were born in India. Even though it was a private school, kids still picked on you if they did not like you. It was bad enough being teased about your flat nose or slant eyes, but being considered the enemy was very scary. When the war came along, I wished I could just blend in with the majority. I wanted to disown my background....

There was something, thank goodness, that kept us reasonably sane. I remember one incident when I was in grade seven or eight.. I could write an essay in Hindi but did not have the floral characteristics of someone who was conversant with Indian literature. I wrote an essay on Prem Chand. He was an Indian who wrote about Hindu and Muslim conflicts. I guess he hit a nerve, and I took to his books. I sort of purged myself of all the hurt by focusing on the issue and relating to it on a personal level. When I wrote, something simply flowed through me. My essay was so good that the teacher read it to the class. My classmates were incredulous that I, a "foreigner," a "pugnose," and a "nobody," could write so well in Hindi. The teacher, Miss Lily--I'll never forget her--told the whole class: "I know you are all amazed that a student can write Hindi this well even though it may not be her first language. You may think that this person's background is not like yours. But sometimes the most beautiful thing is found in the most unexpected place. If this surprises you, just remember that you can find a lotus flower even in a swamp."
"Lotus in the Swamp," by Laileen Springgay, in Being Chinese: Voices from the Diaspora, by Wei Djao (U. Arizona Press, 2003), pp. 83-88

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