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Global Tamilian: Bye-bye ethnicity, hello face mask
Despite being settled overseas, the Tamil diaspora loves to recreatethe life they left behind in India. Here’s a glimpse of their lives, celebrations and struggles on foreign shores
The new norm of the COVID-19 era as we see the world over is the ‘face mask attire’. A plain white cloth mask or those handwoven designed cloth face masks tied around the ears does cover one’s face completely, giving it the protection that is most required to arrest the virus spread. While as much as it does the job assigned to perfection, it has also done the wonderful job of making the differences in facial features void, making everyone look alike now.
Be it your spouse, child or your parent, if you are not remembering the outfits they own and wear that very day, it is not a guarantee that you will identify them from a distance behind the face masks.
“Guess who’, is the new quiz for us waiting on the roads now,” says Anirudh Bhattacharya. “Walking past my friend in the park, I failed to smile as I missed to recognise him with his mask on,” he added. While another had a bitter experience of saying ‘hi’ and asking about the wellbeing thinking he was talking to his good friend, but ends up ruffling with the wrong guy. In another case, an exchange of friendly smiles was not acknowledged at a grocery store as the smile was buried under the mask. The only visible part of the face, namely eyes, was not good enough to express the affectionate gesture.
Clearly, there is no need for any lipsticks for the women or the clean shaves for the men that used to be a compulsion in self-grooming in the modern world. All our beauty is hidden behind the mask, along with it goes the natural differences that make our faces unique. Thus, another gift from the pandemic driven learnings to mankind underlines the long-stressed norm, that all men are really equal.
Be it the park, restaurant, grocery shops, petrol fueling stations, wherever people have to go, they are seen wearing the protective gear, namely the facemask. One can find this trend in the US across ethnicities and ages. On a serious note, this is helping to hide our differences in a society of multi-ethnic inhabitants.
For the many Indian immigrants in the US, it has been really challenging to recognise faces and associate it with names, particularly in less interacted instances. This is a very common challenge at least in the initial days of immigration. And for such people, wearing face masks is a respite not just from the virus but also has additional benefits.
Actually, it is true that in our minds we have a set facial design associated with different nationalities. It is no wonder to find all Americans with Chinese origin to look the same as do all Italians and the British or the Germans or the Africans. Many times, ‘I have felt embarrassed when I am not able to say for sure if the man next to me is Bob or Tom,’ is something commonly felt by immigrant Indians. ‘More so when both are of similar height and both smile so intensely on seeing me’.
While this is so true, the converse is shockingly true as well. A Chinese friend confessed that she was not sure to have recognised me, and checked with me if I was the same lady as she was thinking me to be. So are my American neighbours with Italian and German origin feeling about me. ‘You all Indians look alike’ is another general comment that is prevalent.
Clearly, there is a typical stereotype look for people from the same origin mindset that is quite difficult to be erased. Even with two or three generations of stay away from the home country, it’s hard for immigrants to erase the genetic looks that the ethnicity brings with it and often this adds to a predetermined character attribute that gets associated with origins.
Lifestyles could make closer interaction and intermingling opportunities a reality but the genetic framework portrayal seems to be hard to be erased. This perhaps is keeping an artificial line of separation active in the mindset. One can feel the diversity more pronounced in a country like the US with immigrants from across the globe flocking. It may be hard to erase the ethnic differences we carry because the face still etches them over generations making it more pronounced. It is said that the face is the index of the mind. With the masked face now we all do look the same. Could this be the new norm that the pandemic is thrusting on us?
The predetermined expectation patterns in behaviours are expected to fade as the face is masked. The ‘men in masks’ seems to be the only identity left in us as our emotions, smiles, grudges or fears, anxieties and love are all hidden under the face mask guarding us against the virus.
Certainly, there are many lessons learnt from the pandemic and one for sure is masking our differences as that alone can guarantee the longevity of mankind particularly true today. Sadly, great lessons are learnt at the gates of the graves. Sure, it is better now than never!
Interestingly, face masks help solve the practical problem of Indian Americans. You can now conveniently blame the mask when Tom’s identity is mistaken for Bob and Bob’s for Randy. Same is true when Shyam is recognised to be Somu and Renu is called Rekha.
— The writer is a journalist based in New York