A Chinese in Mumbai
Sketch: A Chinese in Mumbai
Mumbai, 18 August 2006
Life had a funny outlook for Hong Xiao. She had come from Guangdong to Mumbai in a destitute period, and had worked her way into a life of comfort. She could have returned to her people, but she had grown used to Mumbai, and would not contemplate life elsewhere. It was a just a minor inconvenience that Mumbai hadn’t quite grown used to her. And that, to a large extent, provided her with the adventures of life.
It was time for the restaurant to close. Her daily duties were over. They comprised nothing more than standing at the door in a heavily embellished ‘traditional’ Chinese dress and greeting customers as they walked in. She would also have to occasionally put on a smile and intervene in disputes between customers and waiters. Doing that for six days a week for several years had provided her with a suburban house and steady income. She slipped out of her uniform (which for all its fanciness was hot and uncomfortable), removed her make-up and slipped into her workaday slacks. Customers who lingered were being gently hushed out, and the cooks and waiters were washing up.
Hong Xiao had trusted her face to get her a job, for she was by the standards of her country, very pretty. She also had skills in stenography and computers to do her job, but none was coming. Her oriental looks weren’t quite welcome in this country, whose standards of beauty aligned with its erstwhile colonial mistress. Luckily for her, Mr. Patel thought differently. Her presence on the floor of his ‘Chinese’ restaurant was just what would give his place an air of authenticity, more than all his decorations.
The train home would generally not be very crowded, for at 11:30 in the night, ‘respectable’ women aren’t supposed to be out of doors. But today the ladies’ compartment was empty, except for a group of shady-looking men playing cards in a corner. Before she could step out however, the train had moved. As the men gave her crude smiles, she knew what would come.
Being oriental in origin, Hong Xiao was treated very differently by Mumbai. Folk assumed all sorts of things about her. She was used to questions about eating snakes and drowning babies, but she also knew that she and her folk were considered a bit ‘loose’ morally. That created several uncomfortable moments to live with, but over time she had a method to deal with them.
The men rose and approached her. She jumped, and put her hands forward in an aggressive posture. Holding out her palms flat and fingers pressed together, she contorted her face into whatever expression of ferocity she could manage, simultaneously yelling “Hee ya!”. That did the job. At the next station, the men hurriedly got off, mumbling incoherently about being no good against ‘Judo-Karate’.
As she fell into the arms of her waiting husband at her home station, she thanked the Buddha for some of the assumptions people made about her.