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A lady from Northeast India is called 'chinky noodle' in Delhi.
[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One day Ms Sonam Tsomo was the eldest BA-pass daughter of respectable middle-class parents (papa in fire brigade, mummy a housewife).
The next, she is in the capital of her country and ceases to be respectable. Instead, she's an easy catch, a "chinky noodle", a "Chinese", a woman who is asked her "rate" as she walks down the road.
Those slurs have nothing to do with who Ms Tsomo is – but what she looks like. Her small eyes and flat nose set her apart from the people of the city, and for them, her appearance is her CV.
"Each time people make opinions about me because of my racial features, I feel as if I don't belong to India," says Ms Tsomo, 30, who first came to Delhi 10 years ago, working as a receptionist, then a restaurant hostess, a television producer and finally a public relations executive.
"It hurts," she says, reaching out for her banana muffin at the Defence Colony Barista. We were sitting by the window-side. "But you try to ignore it, as you can't go around slapping those guys."
Back home in Kalimpong, a hill town in West Bengal, "where there are no opportunities" Ms Tsomo was just another face in the crowd. But she was worldly-wise and had a fair idea of what she was getting into when she took a bumpy bus ride to New Jalpaiguri, and from there a 16-hour train journey to Delhi.
"I knew we people would be teased as chinkies," she said, wearing a long flowing white skirt. "But I didn't know I would be treated so differently from other Indian girls."
She had never imagined she would be looked down as "a lady of loose character."
"Of course, it's not articulated in words when somebody thinks that we people from North-East are prostitutes but there's that hint in the air. I can recognise their prejudice."
Ms Tsomo recall instances when bouncers in nightclubs turned her and her friends away.
"They thought we people are too easy-going and would dance around with 10 guys and then there would be ugly scenes," she says. "The bouncer would lie and tell us that the place is already full. However, we would see that 'Indian' people who came after us would be let in."
Since then, Ms Tsomo, an Amar Colony resident, has grown used to insults targeted towards people from her region. But it still hits hard when her sister or close friends come visiting.
"I'm very protective about them," she says. "And it pains me when they have to undergo the humiliation."
Too bad she can do little except asking them to take proper precautions: don't look into men's eyes, don't smile at people, don't react if anyone calls you 'chinky'.
Once a friend of hers, fresh from Kalimpong, went shopping to Lajpat Nagar where a young man rolled down his car window and asked, "Chinky, what's your rate?"
The friend had prepared herself for the worst – eve-teasing, groping, and even rape-like situations, just like any Delhi girl – but she could not stomach this.
"She cried like hell that night," Ms Tsomo remembers.
Despite these horror tales, the lady is not giving up on Delhi.
"I have made many Indian friends … they call me `chinky' only pyar-se (affectionately)", she says.