Caught between cultures: a review of No Country Woman

By Surya Matondkar | 10 Apr 19
Photo by Rahul from Pexels


No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging

Zoya Patel


Zoya Patel’s gorgeous book No Country Woman shines a light on an immensely personal, and increasingly relevant aspect of identity – the immigrant identity. Her story is the result of a great deal of soul searching, and it’s clear as the reader makes their way through her beautifully structured thoughts, that she’s still figuring her identity out as she goes along. Her experience is a testament to what Rafeif Ismail expressed as “caught between homeland and heartland, unable to distinguish which is which”. This “homelessness” of culture is something that’s explained with great effort and detail through the book.

So much of this book centres around discovering this identity, and yet the book itself is neither serious or sombre. Her style has copious amounts of wit and humour and the result is a gorgeous text that is likely to produce every kind of tear. The section titled “Chai is Tea and Chai Tea is Tea Tea” will have any Indian in uncontrollable giggles. It’s about time society at large realises the fact that globalisation is a power and, like all power, comes with responsibility. In other words, if they insist on borrowing an aspect from another’s culture they could at least try to get things right.

There’s so much in this book that society needs to understand and internalise. As a member of Zoya Patel’s “home country” I can honestly and shamefully admit that there are two ways of looking at an Non-resident Indian (NRI) relative – either they are put on pedestals and revered, or they’re shunned for betraying their “own” culture. The number of people that continue to believe immigration to a first world country solves a major chunk of a family’s problems is astounding. It’s a belief that many of us back home have had as well, as we watched cousins and distant relations with a green monster lurking behind our eyes, whispering that life could not be that hard when they had all these “foreign” chocolates to eat, such lovely clothes to wear.

She is right in saying that Indians often look down their noses at people that live outside India. In so many ways though, they do so because too many of them would cut off an arm and a leg to be in their position. Taking away the “Indian-ness”, as she terms it, of their foreign-settled relatives, is the only way they feel validated. For so many, the idea of building  a life in a first world country is the dream. Yet on reading Patel’s experiences – the struggle of fitting into a place that refuses to accept you easily, banished from the culture you once belonged to – the sacrifice behind that “dream” suddenly becomes very real.

This is the kind of veiled resentment that Patel often senses from Indians that view her as an outsider to her own culture. Too often people misjudge the sacrifices that immigrants make, we often underplay the difficulty of their lives. It is almost as though they never truly belong to either the new culture or the old, if anything they’re in a society-controlled purgatory of sorts. Patel describes the duality of her life, meditating on the “push–pull in my identity [that] has been a constant in my life. I wanted to take part in both halves of my cultural upbringing – the Australian and the Fijian-Indian – but neither wanted to muddy the waters of its essence with the other”.

While this book is in itself full of important lessons for every member of society, regardless of race, class or national identity, there is one in particular that will hit home for a lot of people. Patel describes a brush with racism that occurred relatively recently in her life and uses it to illustrate the ignorance or nonchalance that often greets the immigrant experience in a first world country.

So many barbs are thrown about easily, disguised behind “jokes”, like the curry-scene that she speaks of. A white person would perhaps see that as a small joke, a misguided attempt at humour. A person of colour would know, beyond doubt that it was a slur. A slur that will follow them throughout the day and randomly knock about their head at night, watching them, feeding on their confidence, their sense of security. That is what a small “joke” does to a person of colour. Zoya Patel’s story then is one small step towards changing that narrative, so that someday a person of colour will walk into a sandwich shop and walk out, unscarred by “jokes.”