Australian Chinese Lost in Romanticized India

By Jocelyn Chan

I never expected to travel to India in the first place, and I definitely didn’t expect to be excited about an extended stay due to visa issues either.

Growing up in a predominately East Asian community, the ‘I found myself in India’ mentality was unheard of. This cliché that one discovers the meaning of life when seeing poverty, is offensive and unrelatable to those from recently developed or developing nations. In fact, for my Chinese parents and relatives, the thought of a young girl studying and travelling in a country they saw as unclean, unsafe and undeveloped was distressing and frowned upon. Despite this, when the New Colombo Plan (NCP) Mobility Program gave me the opportunity to attend the Indian Immersion Program at OP. Jindal Global University, I decided to go discover the truth behind these negative and romanticising prejudices.

At the Taj Mahal with UNSW students.

I remember arriving at Delhi airport, unable to find my pick-up but also scared to trust anyone for help. I remember my first time getting out of the car, staring at the road unsure how to cross. I remember us girls huddling by the police for safety during our first weekend at Khan Market. Our first bus trip that justified our extra insurance covers and introduced us to cows on the roads, and our first taxi ride that showed us the horn is superior to lanes and traffic lights. The concerns and warnings from home lingered in my mind at first, but looking back, I laugh at these initial fears, and realise my experience in India would not be as special had I not experienced them. A few weeks later, I found myself proudly crossing the road alone in the Pink City, catching the metro around Delhi- escaping to Khan market for quiet after bargaining away at the markets, and even befriending some taxi drivers and hair dressers.

My fears diminished as I remembered what my previous AFS exchange taught me: There is no right or wrong, it’s just different. From our perspective, it may seem like conventional traffic rules don’t exist in India, but they clearly have created their own informal system of interpreting honks and drivers that may perhaps even be more efficient in their heavy traffic. I adapted to the speeding, honking taxis on laneless roads by just accepting it as the norm. I realised this was perhaps why Indians seem very easy-going; to adapt and grow up in the chaotic, constantly changing environment of India, you can’t be apprehensive and uptight.

Jeep ride from the city centre of Amer Fort in Jaipur.

I was most surprised that this experience actually helped me understand my own identity, culture and political views as an Australian Chinese. India provided great comparisons and contrasts to my parent’s heritages. Hong Kong, like India, is a former British Colony, whilst China is similarly one of the oldest civilizations and a highly populated, developing nation.

It always bothered me that our idea of ‘modernity’ is strictly based on universalised Western liberal values. We have created a cultural hierarchy by accepting their systems as superior, but can we expect the same values to be adopted equally across such diverse cultures and contexts? As the World’s largest democracy, India is expected to value equality and uphold individual rights. Yet, as I travelled to rural villages, metropolitan cities, upper class neighbourhoods and slum areas, I wandered whether the two could really coexist together.

At Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi.

Due to the political incorrectness of such debates, it was unforeseen that a professor articulated these same thoughts during a seminar on spirituality and culture. Previously, I had only been aware of the universalisation of Western values from the abundant critiques for the Chinese political system. Considering India’s perspective helped me understand that much of the current knowledge that shape our beliefs are formed through colonial legacies and globalisation.

Last glimpse of the Taj Mahal at Agra.

Another highlight of my trip were the rich, cultural experiences I was immersed in. I loved that the Indians retain strong, proud connections to their cultural heritage, including specific regional practices and traditions. This includes the beautiful traditional clothing, lively dancing, beating music and dramatic Bollywood films, all of which overseas Indians continue to treasure. I found this to contrast East Asia, where pronounced aspirations for Western modernity put rich historical practices at risk.

Meanwhile, I also noticed that India’s democratic values have naturally become more similar to those of the West. Its diversity evokes more heated political debates and fluid identities than in the homogeneous, collective cultures of East Asian nations. However, recent domestic struggles in India highlight the difficulty in creating efficient policies that accommodate such diverse values and cultures. Tying this back to the conflict between individual rights and equality in India, I realised that the homogeneity of East Asia helped its rapid economic development, as there was a smaller scope of individual rights to consider. Overall, I’ve learnt that balance is the key- the rise of Hindu Nationalism has been a reaction to the immensely diverse cultures in India, as well as the fear for traditional identities being overridden by Western liberal norms.

A perfect frame on a sunny winter morning at the Baby Taj, Agra.

Back in Australia, I’ve noticed that second generation South Asian communities seem distinct to the East Asian Australian communities. They have retained stronger national identities whilst the rest have merged into a more mainstream, ethnically mixed community usually identifying as ‘Westernised Asians’. As we try to rebel (often unconsciously) against our traditional upbringings and heritages, and defy the stereotypes we faced growing up as the minority, there is a growing barrier between this latter group of Australian Asians and International students. However, on the Indian Immersion program, Indians from the local university and those from Australia seemed to have a smaller cultural barrier, forming close relationships.

Trying on a saari at a showroom in Jaipur.

This trip made me realise that as a Chinese Australian, I shared many cultural similarities with the Indian students. Whether we joked about strict Asian parents, shared some political beliefs, or related to navigating between the traditional and modern, our identities are shaped by a mix of Western and Asian influences. I never considered that being a second-generation immigrant would help me better understand post-colonial experiences, or that being from an minority ethnic group would evoke an immense appreciation for the coexistence of India’s strong and diverse cultural identities. As I sat with my new Indian friends by the sunset at the Taj Mahal, our connection reminded me of afternoons with my immigrant friends back at Bondi Beach.

Two months in just one country, yet India was plenty a reminder for the diversity of lifestyles and cultures that exist in our World; allowing me to reflect and better understand my own.

This article written by Jocelyn Chan, the APYouthS Ambassador of Australia, was submitted as a part of APYouthS’ Article Submission program. We are calling for enthusiastic and impassioned youths in Asia-Pacific who are willing to share their firsthand experience regarding youths projects and activities, volunteering involvement, conferences, exchange, and scholarship programs on the APYouthS’ website. Submit your article now through

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of Asia-Pacific Youth Service.

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