My friend and I like to swap stories once or twice a month. For awhile I was even making a list of encounters I’d had with Indian men in public spaces. Often they’re the standard stares and whispers, and not-so-subtle pointing. Other times, they are singularly unique stories that make you want to laugh and cringe in equal measures. When I was living in Korea, I was in a club for New Year’s Eve with friends when I was hit on by an Indian guy. He moved around the club as the ringleader flanked by two grinning followers on either side. After managing to wrest a name from me, (I’m pretty sure I gave him a fake one) he turned to his cronies and said, “This is your new bhabi (sister-in-law).” Over the music, he yelled in my ear about the difficulty of finding “good girls from India these days.” I wasn’t in the mood to ask him to define exactly what that meant; I was in the mood to eject myself from the situation. I didn’t even bother asking him how many bad girls from India he’d dated, danced with, or insulted and harassed in order for him to reach this conclusion.
I should also point out that I’m not from India and I’ve never been. Growing up, my parents never took us there, so I can’t speak about these bad girls allegedly taking over the country. My parents took us to Fiji because that’s where they were born. I met cousins who were in their teens and twenties and interested in all the usual things like studying, meeting friends, and American music and TV shows. I stood out because I spoke to them in Hindi tinged with an American accent and was furious with my mother when she wouldn’t let me sit in the living room with everyone else while wearing shorts which I put on because I wasn’t used to sticky heat. That was my mom’s world, what had shaped a huge part of her identity. I teetered somewhere between trying to relate to what I felt like was a previously undiscovered piece of myself, and thinking that here was a place where I absolutely didn’t fit in.
Now I’ve experienced an immigration of my own in moving to Germany. The city where I live is growing more diverse every year, but the majority of faces are still white faces. I’m used to being met with stares, comments, and questions. Some are born of curiosity, some from downright ignorance. A group of students in one of my English lessons concluded I was left-handed because Arabic, and the language of India (apparently there’s only one) was written right to left. I’ve gotten so sick of having to explain myself, in part because so many people will keep steering me towards what they’ve already decided in their heads. It doesn’t matter that I speak English with a distinct California twang, or when I say I’ve never been to India. What they see is my brown skin, they hear my name, and everything else I try to explain just becomes background noise. As frustrated as I get, I do acknowledge that instances like these are not maliciously meant. I try to think that apart from teaching the proper use of the past simple and present perfect tenses, it’s a small opportunity to widen a few points of view.
These days though, I feel even more isolated because I don’t have family nearby or a community of Indian friends. It often feels like I have to go the extra mile to prove that I’ve accepted and adapted to life in Germany. I’ve lived here and learned the language. I can cook a decent range of German dishes, and I married a German man. He has an absolutely lovely family, but at gatherings, I stick out as the clear outsider - not just in looks and grammar mistakes. I’m still something of a novelty, a slice of a world that they can’t quite understand. It’s probably that isolation which drives Indians to seek each other out abroad, and the good news is because we’ve landed in so many different places, theoretically, community is never far away. Of course this isn’t an exclusively Indian trait. I have friends of Greek, Korean, Polish, and Chinese descents who all say the same things about their respective communities, and of course they aren’t the only ones. It’s exciting to find people who share in your humour, enjoy the foods you grew up with, and can talk about similar childhood experiences. You can be yourself without feeling on display. On a flight to California earlier this year, I shared my row with a mother and young daughter. They were on their way back to San Francisco after a month of visiting family in India. Our chatter felt very easy; somehow we were joking around as if we’d already met. She bemoaned how her parents had spoiled their granddaughter with chocolates the whole month. During the long stretches we found ourselves watching movies together on one screen, and she kept telling her daughter to, ‘Stop disturbing this aunty. You’re driving her crazy!’ As usual, the Fiji correction to my heritage didn’t register, but at least she didn’t try to push my Indian connection in front of everything else. If my friend and I traded stories about encountering Indian women in public spaces, they would probably read as matter-of-factly as this airplane experience.
It doesn’t seem to be the case with Indian men in public spaces. Their reactions vary depending on age and the setting. Young men on the street will typically stick to staring and whispering, though I have been called out to on the street. When I walk hand-in-hand with my husband, the looks are definitely dirty. It reminds me of being harassed in a bar until the man finds out you’re with someone. Then they feel they have to mumble an apology to the man for his behaviour. When I walk by with my husband they don’t talk and point so freely. With the older men, it’s more of a fatherly approach. In restaurants or grocery stores, on trains, and on planes, the dialogue is usually the same.
Man: You’re from India. *Not posed as a question
Man: Where are you from?
Man: Ah ok, but your parents are from India. *A statement
Me: No, Fiji.
Man: Ahhhhh ok. Where is that?
Me: In the South Pacific region near Tonga and Samoa.
Me: Also close to New-
Man: But your family is Indian. *Again, not a question
The mere fact that we are speaking to one another on, or on the way to, soil that is foreign to both of us, should prove that we migrate. When we do, it adds a new dimension to our identities as Indians. A friend once asked me if I considered myself a ‘nationalised Indian’ or a ‘naturalised Indian.’ My writing has strong roots in my culture, I can say I am proud to be of Indian descent, but how can I be nationalistic about or even claim to be from a country that I’ve never been to? If I flipped things around and told people I was from India and then explained my background, would I then be labelled a hypocrite and a poser? Why are the Indian men I encounter - virtual strangers who know nothing about my history or identity - so hellbent to throw away everything that shapes me, and women like me. To drag us into the same group once they’ve figured out the connection to India. To hell with everything else, we’re all family!
Do men have similar stories to tell? I have my doubts. Men don’t usually stop other strange men on the street by calling out “Hey boy, are you from India?” They don’t sight you as their target at a bar or club and arrive with reinforcements like the high school heartthrob walking towards you in a nineties Hindi movie. Nor would they ever sidle up to another man on a bus or a train, violating their personal space and grinning like a creep. They wouldn’t walk up to them and ask them something in a language they might not speak, as in the case of my friend whose family speaks Tamil but constantly has men asking her if she speaks Hindi. Indian men welcome each other into their mutual space as equals. Indian women alone on the street are the wives and daughters and little sisters and sisters-in-law that need to be looked after (controlled). All of this under the guise of an ingrained cultural duty to look after each other.
I wonder sometimes if these feelings I have are an extreme reaction, if I should just accept it as culture? Being a fair-minded person allow me to present a different perspective. The supermarket that’s a five minute walk from our apartment is our go-to when we run out of basic necessities like fruit, eggs, beer, and wine. (Seriously, we’ve been known to venture out in rainstorms when there’s no beer in the house) Everyone working in this store is a white German, except for one Indian man. We’ll call him Saad. I don’t know when he immigrated, but he speaks perfect German with a thick Indian accent, and if I’m at his counter then we greet each other in Hindi and exchange small talk over the bar code scanner.
It took a few months for him to work up the courage to say anything outside of the usual German checkout related questions, until one day he asked me in Hindi “Aap receipt chahiye?” When I responded in Hindi that I didn’t need the receipt, he took that as a kind of acceptance. Nowadays we talk about the weather, taxes, and the sheer volume of paperwork one has to contend with when living in Germany. He asks me if I enjoy cooking, and if I’ve gotten my husband adapted to spicy food. (So far I’ve gotten him to medium spicy.)
Every once in awhile Saad ask me why I don’t go to India and bring the hubby along; as if it’s some sort of initiation for mixed race couples, and I’ve just been putting it off. Recently I watched a tourism commercial for India. It features a white skinned young woman travelling solo through the country and interacting with smiley dark-skinned Indians who clasp their hands and Namaste at her and wobble their heads in a show of ascent. She starts to feel so much a part of the culture she starts wobbling her head in her sleep and smiling. As much as I want to see India from top to tip, I’m sceptical about any potential Indian journey we make together and just how transformative it will be when scores of Indian men outside their country can so easily dismiss my personal history in favour of theirs. Saad however, is convinced that it’s an important step in my marriage; it’s important enough that he’s brought it up multiple times.
One day we were in the queue to Saad’s counter and there was an Indian woman ahead of us. As we approached and set down our items, she was packing up the last of hers and chatting with Saad about something. When he saw me, a big smile lit up his face as if his two favourite nieces were suddenly in the same room. He indicated me to the other woman. “She’s also from India,” he told the woman.
“My family’s from Fiji,” I mumbled with an apologetic smile, as though somehow I was sorry for bursting her bubble. She smiled and nodded in acknowledgement, and that was it. She packed up the rest of her items, waved us a polite goodbye, and went on her way. It took a minute to recover from the shock that she felt no need to have me elaborate or start comparing histories. Simple acknowledgement and then she moved on.
Depending on my schedule there might be a few weeks that go by before I see Saad again. I’ve explained to him multiple times that my family is not directly from India, that they’re from Fiji. I even took the trouble to explain where it was geographically. As expected, the first time he learned this, he nodded to digest the information. Still, his eyes glazed over with self-imposed ignorance, and as I slid my bank card from the reader he asked, polite and cheery as ever, “Receipt chahiye?”
Guest blog by: Priya Singh
Priya is a polyglot in training. As an aspiring writer, she wants to inspire women of colour to find their strength and to write their stories. When she isn't teaching you can fin her doing just that - writing stories based on her own culture and upbringing.
She enjoys hanging out in sunny patches of floor with her cat, and cooking with a lot of spices. These days, you can find her trying to read her way out of a wobbly fortress of books. @ladymastersomm