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Generation: NOW

By Brinda Khandwala, March 3, 2020, Categories: Cover Story

Freshly into adulthood, the current lot of young ethnic expats of Hong Kong, seem to be making the most of both – their traditional values and modern lifestyle. Brinda Khandwala finds that this new generation of ethnic-origin global kids show amazing amounts of clarity and control over their lives.

With all the coordination happening over a WhatApp group, I half expected these never-met-before youngsters to either show up late or not at all on the day of this chat. While I was prepared to wait and maybe having to make a few ‘chasing calls’, I was surprised to find a group already waiting for me at our decided place, couple of minutes before time!

Between the ages 18-22 years, this group of six – five of Indian origin and one of Sri Lankan, there are those who have been brought up in Hong Kong entirely, who have moved here some years ago.   

Ethnic Home in Global City:

Manasvee Sharma

“I have a very Indian home,” says Manasvee. The chatty and opinionated young lady, as I find later, explains, “We are Marwaris from Jaipur. My parents had an arranged marriage. So, it’s a proper traditional Indian household.” Finding a fine balance between the traditional home and her modern outlook, Manasvee is quite outspoken and often uses her candid approach to bring about new changes in their lifestyle.

Prasheena Ganglani

Her close friend, Prasheena adds, “My home is pretty traditional too. We follow the usual customs. Though my mom grew up in Taiwan and dad in Hong Kong, they have been following religion and rituals quite strictly.” She feels language, religion, customs and culture must be passed down generations to keep them alive.

Sanil Chandiramani

Sanil, born in Singapore and raised in Hong Kong also lives in a fairly traditional home with great influence on grandparents. “My mom has lived in Hong Kong most of her life, and dad in Singapore – the cultures of both cities, being global Asian cities, are quite similar. So, they already have a modern outlook. But they have always followed all rituals and customs.” 

Piyusha Dongre

Moved recently to Hong Kong from Pune, Piyusha says her home is ‘very Indian’ too. “Having lived in India for 14 years of my life, we carried the same traditions here when we moved. My parents too had an arranged marriage.” Quiet and observant, she took her time to find her feet in the new city adding a unique flavour to her lifestyle with her traditional values. She shows maturity beyond her age.

Ayush Shetty

Ayush, too, has experienced life in India (Orissa) and Hong Kong. “In our home, my mom is the most traditional – she does all the poojas and rituals. She will even call up relatives back in India to ask exactly how certain rituals are done. In that senses, dad and I are a little less religious but we follow when mom tells us to do.” Having friend in Orissa and in Hong Kong, Ayush feels at home in both places. Respectful of his culture, he thinks independently with high regard for his parents’ thoughts – even though they may be different sometimes.  

Himeshika Samaradivakara

The most rooted to her Sri Lankan culture, Himeshika surprises me with her strong traditional values and just as strong modern thinking. “My dad is traditional and my mom is modern. With her the communication is a lot more open. Dad is stricter – he will as which friend I’m going out with or if there will be guys where we go, he will remind me to put my jacket on… and his last line is always, ‘don’t make your mum worry’.” She is extremely close to her parents and remain mindful of their feelings in everything she does.

Language and culture:

“My parents made it a point to speak with my brother and me in Marathi,” shares Piyusha. “And having studies in a local school in Pune, I have formally learned the language so I am fluent in Marathi – reading, writing and speaking.” In fact, at community events, Piyusha finds that from their generation, her bother and she are the only kid who are fluent with the language.

“When I was new here, I felt that my accent was different from the others and maybe if my parents had spoken to us in English like all other Indian parents, I wouldn’t have an issue with the accent,” she recalls. “But now I look back and don’t see it as an issue. And I am glad I know my mother tongue.”

“I wish I did!” says Prasheena. “I think it is very important for parents to pass on their language and culture to the next generation. As a child I may have resisted but now I wish my parents had forcefully taught us Sindhi and Hindi – it would give me a deeper understanding of my culture. Sindhi is a dying language. Not many references can be found online either. I still do try to learn it. But my brother can’t tell the difference between Sindhi and Hindi. I tell him, ‘that is how disconnected you are to your roots.”

Manasvee is very fluent with Hindi and English alike. “In fact, I can even speak English with the Indian accent. When I visit family back in Jaipur, I switch to that accent and it lingers for a few days after I am back. So, then I switch back,” she laughs.

From all of them, Himeshika speaks the most languages. To my surprise, I find that Cantonese is her first language! “Yes,” she laughs. “Though my parents spoke to me in English and Sinhalese, I think in Cantonese first because I have studies in local school all my life. My mom used to criticize my English accent, but it was the same as the accent of my teachers. I have also learned French and Mandarin.”

Sanil speaks basic Hindi with his Indian helper and has started picking more of it from some friend and films. “But the home language is mainly English,” he admits. “I feel learning the mother tongue, Sindhi in my case, or learning Hindi is important for staying connected with your people. I also speak come Cantonese. I learned it myself by observing my friends. It’s very basic though – good enough for surviving here!”

They all unanimously agree that they feel the language barrier the most when they have to get a cab!

Of course, the Hong Kong culture is very ‘mind your own business’ kind, a sharp contrast to the ethnic cultures of close-knit communities.

“The older Chinese people are very warm and greet you well,” Ayush points out. “But yes, the younger ones who go to work are dead silent. They don’t even care to give a stare.”

Ayush enjoys the contracts and switches back and forth from the culture differences with ease. “In India, my friend and I planned and punctured a fellow’s car tyre simply because he was dating some girl one of our friends liked. I can’t imagine that happening here.”  

I can relate to this – I share a story of when my friends and I had punctured the bike tyres of our Hindi professor in school because he was rather partial to a certain lot of students.  

Himeshika marks another difference in the cultures. “Though I’m not expected to have an arranged marriage, its all about caste and class in Sri Lanka. We are from the upper class. If I were to marry someone from a lower class, it will be like – ‘why would you ruin the family balance’! Thankfully my parents have been here long enough to understand that class isn’t more important than the individual.”

While the youngsters don’t understand the logic behind some customs, rituals and superstitions, they don’t mind participating for the sake to continuing traditional practices and staying connected to their culture. But some things sure amuse them.

“Like why can’t we cut nails after dark?” asks Piyusha.

“Yeah! I’m pretty sure that made sense in the past when there were no lightbulbs! But there is no logic now,” Prasheena adds.

“And the spitting!” says Manasvee. “Everytime I gather my fallen hair, I have to spit on it and then throw. They say, it will grow back if you do that.”

Superstition or not, I am going to try that one because I am losing a lot of hair!

Culture, they all agree, should be passed down generations. However, they all feel there should be some logic or explanation over certain religious rituals. Like pouring milk over the Shivling and immersing the Ganesha idols into our water bodies can be differently now that the environment is getting affected.

Its nice to know this generation is mindful of the environment. Prasheena is vegetarian out of choice for ten years because she feels killing an animal for food isn’t ethical.

“We don’t bring meat at home but eat it outside. Once we had cooked it at home and I was sick for a long time. So, my parents co-related the two and believe that bringing it home was a bad omen so we stopped,” says Piyusha.

Dating, relationships and marriage:

Of the six, only two admitted they are dating. While one of them hasn’t informed the parents yet since its too soon, the other has kept the parents in the know of the three-year relationship but the extended family and community isn’t aware – because the partner is of another community.

All of them aren’t in favour of casual dating. And they prefer if they were to find someone from their own community simply because the cultures match.

Not disclosing names but this is some of the things this group has said.

“Arranged marriage is good backup option. Its nice to have that in case you don’t find anyone.”

“I agree, but it would make a very boring ‘how we met’ story!”

“Its not about whether I would marry within the community or not, it’s more about compatibility for me – whoever it is.”

 “I think before you become sexually active, you definitely need to be educated about it. It’s all okay as long as you are aware of what you’re doing.”

 “Yes, we have sex education here. And it’s fairly well explained. But they don’t discuss different sexual orientation.”

“My dad thinks homosexuality is unnatural. And mom feels its all in the mind – all you have to do is think ‘straight’!”

“My dad thinks men wearing pink ‘looks gay’.”

“One I told my mom about a friend ‘coming out’. And her response was like – you aren’t allowed to be homosexual.”

“I think schools need to be more responsible towards teaching about different sexualities so that students are sensitive about it. My school had a gay girl and she faced a lot of bullying. She had a tough time. In her senior year, she set up a club for gay people and now the environment in the school is better for them.”

“Its sad, but my parents are really close-minded about it. For them, it’s supposed to be like Adam and Eve get together and they make children – and that’s the only way. But are in denial of homosexuality.”

“No one in my family knows that my cousin sister is gay and she has a girlfriend. There is no way they would understand.” 

Drinking, Smoking and Drugs:

“My parents know I drink. And they know when I go out with my friend for drinking but we don’t say it to each other. It’s like they know and I know they know… All I will say is ‘I am going out’.”

“I started drinking with my parents. I guess they wanted me to try in their presence so they know how it affects me.”

“Personally, I don’t like going out much nor do I enjoy drinking. For me, sleep is more important than a night out. My parent in fact insist I go out with friends and even try a drink but I don’t feel like it.”

“I have tried drugs – both here and in my home country. It was more potent there. Of course, it’s not an addiction at all. Just something I tried with friends.”

“People can take drugs but not abuse it. Marijuana can help people with anxiety so it should be legalized for such use. Sometimes you need a certain push and if that helps you then but don’t binge it.”

“I don’t smoke. I have friends who do vaping and shisha. I don’t do that either.”

“I am comfortable talking to my parents about everything – drinking, smoking or drugs. What I had and how much of it. I like that we have that open communication.”

“I think my dad didn’t have open communication with his parents and he and his buddies may have overdone some of the indulgences in their young age. He didn’t want the same with us, so he prefers keeping it all open between us.”

It doesn’t seem like the youngsters give into peer pressure over drinking, smoking, drugs or anything else. They carefully choose friends who match their wavelength and the peer group in fact becomes more of a support than pressure.

Education and career:

Its amazing to find, all the parents, especially their mums, are very invested in their education.

“My mom does it in full Indian style,” says Ayush. “She will give me a task, then come after 15 minutes to check if I’ve done and then set another task.”

Manasvee points out another very ‘Indian thing’ desi parents do. “They pressure you indirectly. Like if someone mentions their child’s good grades or achievements, they give this little side glance to us as it saying ‘see, you should also get such grades’!”

Himeshika seems to take it upon herself to take the pressure. “I screwed up in high school and it was the worst feeling to see my mom disappointed and crying. I am proud of myself that I am now working hard for my education. She’s my guardian angel, I do everything for her.”

“I set my own goals as well,” Ayush adds. “Its not pressure but its self-motivation to do well.”

“I’m lucky my parents don’t pressurize me,” says Prasheena. “But then its all the Sindhi aunties who feel like ‘why are you doing arts?’ and ‘why not business’. They feel like arts is not serious enough.”

Mananvee agrees, “Many people confuse arts with painting and designing. Like that’s all there is to it. And then the gender norms – likes its assumed my brother will run the family business and I will occupy some cabin, designing something.”

Being small close-knit communities, we all experience the aunties and uncles having a say in our lives. “It’s funny how we are known by the businesses out fathers run. I’ve noticed that in Gujaratis and Sindhis. Like if I talk about some friend – my grandparents will be like ‘he is so-and-so company’s son’… How can someone be a company’s son?” While Sanil would like to explore his options in the corporate world, he knows friends who assume that will be taking over their parents’ businesses by default.

 “I’m not saying its not great. Our parents’ businesses have provided for us and it’s the thing that has given us the education. But we live in a global city like Hong Kong, we should make the best of opportunities and get our worth in the corporate world,” he adds. 

Stress and mental wellness:

They all agree the primary reason for stress in their lives so far would be studies.

Himeshika speaks passionately about it. “The problem is the education system. If you fix the syllabus you won’t have as many stressful people. Why do local school students commit suicide? Because of their educational system, because it’s that difficult. Kids are cramming to learn three different languages. These kids deserve to have a proper childhood. It starts with education, teacher training, culture sensitivity.”

Speaking of culture sensitivity, “There is some amount of racial bullying as well,” Piyusha shares. “When I was new here, I expected to be friends with the other Indians here. But there was this one Indian girl next to me who asked me to change me seat because she wanted her ‘personal space’. She was rather nasty about it. But with time you find like-minded people and make friends.”

“But I agree. Often its Indian kids bullying other Indian kid,” adds Manasvee. “I get flak from Indian kids who have come to universities here to study. They come at 8 am with full makeup, dark kajal and their Gucci purses giving a judgmental look because I have come to class in sweats and sneakers.”

But its all in good humour. They are all smart enough not to take the stress of social pressures.

We briefly spoke about the young Indian girl who went missing and the message went viral on all the WhatsApp groups. The group knew the girl and everyone’s reaction was of concern rather than judgement. They knew the incident worried their own parents as well and are very conscious of the consequences their actions can have.

We go on to discuss their personal struggles and those of their friends. “Its not only depression and suicide,” says Manasvee, “There are many other forms of mental stress. I feel as long as you have someone to share with – a parents, a sibling or friend, you will be okay.”

Himeshika agrees that if she were to have thoughts of suicide, the first person she thinks about is her mom.

“I had great support from my mom as well. When I lived away from home, for studies in Canada, I had a hard time. And it was mom who helped me through that,” Prasheena shares.

Adulthood and independence:

Speaking about living independently, Prasheena speaks more candidly about her experience in Canada. “I was only there for three months. There were some issues with my roommate. And to add to that, Vancouver has a very depressing environment. It’s a city of retired people. Compared to the buzz we are used to in Hong Kong, the cold and quiet winters add to the gloomy mood. I felt very lonely there. That experience made me realize I am a very family-oriented person. I like to have my people around me. I am happier living with my parents and having the extended family closeby.”

Ayush also experienced living independently and learned that it makes practical sense to live with parents. “We were three friends who moved together in an apartment. We bought all the furniture and set it up. Then one of the friends got an offer from another city so he moved out. My other friend and I couldn’t find another flat mate and we couldn’t afford to keep with the rent by ourselves. All this began to affect my studies. It was then that I realized its better to stay home with parents or in dorm rooms.”

“My parents would take it as offence if I were to suggest living independently,” says Manasvee. “They will be like, ‘are we not giving you enough space in our house that you have to spend on living elsewhere?’. It’s not even a matter of discussion if I am in Hong Kong. But I have gone as an exchange student to Australia and had the experience.”

 “I don’t feel we need to live away from home to have independence. If the home environment is open and communication is free flowing, you won’t feel the need,” says Piyusha.

Himeshika enjoys a similar home environment. “They know my circle of friends so they are okay with me being out till late with them. They call to check in if I am okay. There is more trust because they know what I am doing.” She continues to feel a sense of responsibility, not only towards her parents but also the extended family.

They are at an age when parents become friends and communication opens up. “While I like that my parents are open minded and we talk about everything, I am happy that they are a mix of being friends and parents towards me,” says Ayush. “I think that authority is needed to keep us on track. Some parents go all out in being friends and their kids may end up losing focus.”

“I think we will all learn to live independently and take on that responsibility when it’s thrown at us. Right now, even if mom says, learn to keep your room clean and do your own work, we won’t because we know there is a helper do pick up after us,” says Sanil. “But later, when we have to, we will learn with our own experience.”

Our chat went on for hours… we spoke about everything from music, movies, friends, food and more. This interview extracts a few conversations amongst so many that made me realize that this generation of ethnic expat youngsters are firmly rooted to their culture and show great promise for the future.

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Brinda Khandwala

My move to Hong Kong, though sudden, was a smooth one. Essentially a SoBo girl, my desi ties are wrapped quite tightly. But the warm vibe of Hong Kong, it's buzzing nights, the multi-cultural influences and of course, so many Indian friends made it easy to call this home. I’ve been writing all my life – on fashion, lifestyle, entertainment, art and just about everything that infuses colour into my life. Joining the A-Desiflava team is yet another excuse to put together all these passions for sharing with my fellow Hong Kongers!

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