Austrian Brown Girl and Bi-Cultural Struggles
Updated: Feb 17
I was born in Vienna, Austria. My parents migrated from south India to Austria almost 40 years ago for economic reasons. Therefore, I was raised bi-cultural, which means that I was simultaneously experiencing the Indian and Austrian cultures to the extent possible and also learnt my mother tongue, Malayalam, and German. Here, we have a little Indian community and therefore celebrate several festivities, such as “Onam” (a harvest festival), on a grand scale, practice traditions and rituals until it almost feels like a different world. I went once a week to an “Indian school” to learn the dances, such as traditional Bharathanattyam or modern Bollywood, and to write and read my mother tongue for six years. Later, I taught dancing in this very same school and got my first job there. I can call myself lucky that I had the chance to see the best of both worlds. However, bi-culturalism comes with waves of identity crises because it seems like everyone around you knows where they “belong” and who they are. I had to define this throughout the years, how to balance these two sides of mine. How can I be an Indo-Austrian girl cherishing both cultures and coping with those issues at the same time?
My entire schooling, from preschool to university, was in Austria. In my classroom I was always one of the few or the only person of color (POC). Having an ethnic background wasn’t ever really a problem in these official settings because in Vienna a lot of migrants and first generations meet and my classmates were more interested in my second culture. Nevertheless, as I am visibly different from the majority of Austrians or European migrants’ children, you experience a lot of prejudices in public spaces.
I received lots of compliments which are not compliments such as ‘Your German is great and without any accent!’ (Keep in mind that I am actually Austrian and even have an Austrian citizenship). Another prejudice I often experienced is that for some reason, people assume that I must either be a Muslim or a Hindu, which isn’t an issue for me however, the question associated is ‘You eat meat? But no pork right? Or no beef?’ The truth is, I am catholic christian, like the majority of Austrians and do not follow any restrictions. So these assumptions seem very weird to me. Also, when I enter a more rural area in Austria, people look at me because I am different, because they don’t get to see many POC. With this phenomenon of the unknown which I apparently represent, I experience an inherit mistrust. In these situations, this so-called bi-cultural struggle appears again because I should consider myself Austrian, but others do not. When I go to India, people recognize that I was not brought up there and they do not consider me “really” Indian. However they are very much surprised that I can speak my mother tongue so well. So, it is very confusing for everyone, but that is who I am, an Indian - Austrian girl.
Speaking of experiences abroad, when I lived in the US for a year I noticed that people are more used to seeing POC. So I wouldn’t get the looks but the prejudices were still there even though they couldn’t tell from my English that I wasn’t American. When I lived in Peru for half a year, I blended with the locals and spoke Spanish as they do so that was one of the few times I didn’t experience any prejudices. However, I did experience people reluctant to believe I was an exchange student so they didn’t handle me with kid gloves like other foreigners. They were not understanding when I didn't get something right away or when I entered the university, for example, I always had to show my ID whereas other exchange students could just go in. I luckily know how to deal with such confrontations and haven’t really experienced any extremely bad situations so far.
In conclusion, I have gotten used to this behavior so much that I do not realize every situation of racism or the questioning of my identity anymore and I just learned to accept it and cope with it. However, you get tired of it. Of always explaining why you look how you look, why you are able to speak the language well, etc.,
Besides all these negative experiences, I have met a lot of people who were interested in knowing more about my culture, upbringing and my personality. I truly appreciate this and am always happy to share. I can also say that you can always tell whether someone has a good or bad intention behind their questions.