Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Depends from where you look.....

I've just had a great time reading through this and this post .

About perceptions that people in western countries have of India. Even perceptions that folks with Indian parentage but born-and-brought-up-abroad continue to have, about India.

Sometimes these perceptions have an envelope of "class"; Which is not to say, that there is anything classy associated with the perception. It is to say, that the perceiving individual is a class conscious individual, that gives him a slightly altered view.

We spent a year in Germany in the very early nineties. Lived in what the Germans call a "village" (and we would call a small township) outside Karlsruhe. The children were very young, and both of them (12 and 5) picked up German very fast, with the younger one even learning the finer points of the local dialect, possibly because she tended to fight in the local language with the big boy in their kindergaarten class who didn't believe in sharing turns on the slide and swings. I learnt sufficient German to allow me to get along.

Two instances.

Shopping at the smaller local supermarket, my clothes, language, and predominantly vegetarian shopping in a country bathed in beer , meat and potatoes, always drew attention. One day, I heard someone call out and ask if I was the "lady from India", and I turned to meet a cheerful lady who, it turned out, was part of a German ladies group that met once a week to practice their English. She asked if I was interested in joining, because she thought my English was very good, and they wanted to practice with someone. Of course I was interested, because it introduced me to the local folks, and I loved to make friends.

The most "accepting" of our differences in culture, were those ladies that came from academics, and those whose children had travelled to third world countries, and maybe some ladies who had travelled in Asia as part of their Church groups . I was never , ever asked about snake charmers, elephants, et al.

One day, as was usual on weekends, I was at the Spielenplatz (Play-Park) near the University, with my daughter, who was having a grand time swinging, running, and sliding across stuff, whooping it up, while I waited on a bench, for her father to join us from an errand. My saree would often attract curious stares , and one hefty looking mustachioed person got into a conversation with me . Me in broken German, with a fine random attachment of my own words, possibly killing the grammar, and he being very nice, about talking slowly in German, so I could understand.

He wanted to know if I was there under "asyl" something. I realized, that he was asking whether we were in the country under some asylum deal. (The newspapers were full of it). There were strong views on this in the country.

His attitude was a kind of demanding demeanour mixed with a be-polite-to-the lady type thing. Naturally, besides, shaking my head, and answering calls from my daughter, I explained to the chap that the husband was on a visiting academic assignment at the "Universitaet". ("Besukhen Professor" was what I said. Later on found it was the correct phrase.).

There was a sea change in the attitude of the chap. Academics are highly regarded in the western world (More about what happens regarding that in India, in another post). He was suddenly all proper and respectful, smiling at the daughter, complimenting her about her German. He was even more impressed when I told him that we would be returning within a month, on completion of a year long assignment. I often wonder , what the person's attitude would have been, had he found out that we were say, a family of plumber, or electrician, or a mechanic .

Back in India, "class" as we know it, takes a reasonable back seat, once the person is perceived as having an amazingly fair complexion.

In the early seventies, I returned home from graduate studies in the US , and before beginning work, went on a trip to North India, with my old American roommate from the University , who was visiting us in Mumbai, with her husband.

Indian woman of marriageable age, wearing pants, and travelling with a foreigner looking couple, and folks in smaller places, including trains would get curious. Delhi was without too many episodes , but we visited Agra and were supposed to fly to Jaipur in the evening.

Flying wasn't as common then (1972) , and airports were rather small. At least at Agra. There was actually a regular fruit stall inside the airport, with stuff displayed in descending layers, the bhaiyya sitting in the middle etc. I went by to buy some fruit as the flight was delayed . (!)

The bhaiyya, kept alternating his look between me and my friends and the conversation went something like this.

"Who are these people, of yours ?" His friends, fellow fruit sellers,hangers-on are all agog.
"Friends. From college."
"In Amreeka ? (the west is always amreeka).
You went there ? And made friends ? wah !"
"Yes. They are here to see all the wonderful sites."
(Looks them over, then looks at me in a confidential way)
"Are these two married ?"
"How many children ?"
"None so far "
"How come ? don't their families ask ?" he is really worried.
"In their country , this is decided by the two of them; no one else."
"What does he do ? Does she work ?"
"He works for a company, and she is a professor"
"Arre, then they must be earning a lot ? How much ?"
"You know, I don't know. And I wouldn't ask. In their country you don't ask questions like this. It is impolite. Bad manners."
"Just asking, sister. What a shame they have no children !"....
"Where are you travelling now?"
"Jaipur.. So many wonderful things to show them. "

My friends were watching us during this conversation, and were curious about all the looks and stuff they were being bestowed with . I bought some fruit to take with us in case we reached Jaipur late , naturally bargained nicely with the guy regarding the price, now that he and I were "information friends" .

And my friends were totally amazed and entertained to hear how a random fruit seller in a random airport was seriously interested in their status and details.

This, enquiring-after-the-familial/single/married-status-of-foreigners-in-India, is very common, even in educated urban families. (And I am not including in this, the type of visitors to India who flit from one five star to another five star place, and return without ever seeing an Indian style toilet, or eating with their fingers).

This is our form of asking about snake charmers and elephants. An average westerner , sometimes even in proper towns, is not very well informed on non western countries. By contrast I find that folks even in small towns in India keep themselves well informed on worldly things.

The point about Westerners coming to live in India and being called "expatriates" ("expats"), but Indians going to western countries to live being called "Immigrants" is something that had not occurred to me . It is so true.

But maybe I am thick skinned. More likely thick-eared.

Way back in the early eighties, after a summer assignment at one of the US's famous private universities, an offer was made to us requesting us to stay on and continue on a regular basis.

We were honored, but we said, No, Thank you ! and refused and came back home at the start of Fall.

At that time, after we returned (and in some cases, by fellow countryfolks, even before), we were called DUMB and STUPID.


And so I don't worry about things like immigrant and expat anymore.


  1. What a very interesting post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  2. That was so very interesting, and your observations are so apt. We have the same inquisitiveness that someone abroad might have, especially when it comes to the unknown. I was going to say that we( as in Indians) might be less condescending, but then realized that even that is not true. There are plenty of people who believe in our superiority over other races/countries.

    And the class thing you mentioned - that is so true. You can sometimes see people reassessing their opinion of us when they know what we do :)

    Loved, loved this post :)

  3. Loved your post, Suranga!!! This is what struck me the most: #An average westerner , sometimes even in proper towns, is not very well informed on non western countries. By contrast I find that folks even in small towns in India keep themselves well informed on worldly things. #

    Thank you for linking back to my post.

    I find it very strange and true all the same. Some 'highly educated' people have no clue as to what the world outside their state/country is. They live in an image that they/their ancestors have conjured up 100 years ago. In contrast, poor 'uneducated' folks keep abreast of world affairs, and know what is going on seven seas away!

    Obviously, 'English' language is no indication of a person's education or sophistication.

    As for the 'class consciousness', I completely agree. It would have been interesting to find out how the guy would have reacted had you been 'an asylum-seeking family'.

    And yes, in India, what counts most is being 'fair, slim, and beautiful/handsome'. After that comes money and class. You know sometimes I think the western world is more tolerable.

    Atleast they give some place of pride to how educated one is, rather than how fair one looks!!!

  4. Lovely post as usual :) I think I can keep this as the first line to every post of yours..

    My dad is a slightly darkish guy, not very tall and often is mistaken for a professor (He is one now :))

    This happened when he had gone to the US for the first time when I was about 4 years or something..

    The security guys at the New York airport looked at him and asked him as if he was a kid saying 'Do you speak Eeengglish?'very loudly attracting a lot of attention so much that people around stopped doing what they were and stared at dad and the security fellow

    my dad looked at him for a second straight into his eyes and said 'Probably better than you'

    and the entire place was shocked and stunned at this...and dad just picked up his bag and walked away!

  5. It does not bother me either about immigrant and expat..
    For I have tried that when i wanted to go back and stayed for some time back home
    I know this will sound horrible but somehow I was made to feel that i dont belong back home now since i chose to come abroad ..

    and Here in uk I have never ever felt or been shown that i not wanted, Rather most of hte INDIANS here are more like who am i why am i , etc etc ..

    Pardon me for saying but this expat and immigrant is more in our Indian mentality , maybe other has experienced otherwise not me , I have had a lovely life here so far and i am happy ..

    I do get the occasional how cum you speak english etc. other then that never and moreover this country gave me everything I am what i am because i came here friends, house, honour, respect and all and this is Far more than what i got in india.. for a change I would never have been able ot buy my own 3-4 bedroom house on a proper salary ..

    The people who said otherwise to me are the same ones who ring now ot help there son or sibling etc to come abroad...

    excellent post

  6. Delightful account. Lovely experiences.

    The account of the German man wondering about your residence status shows an inherrent fear of being overrun by 'less educated' immigrants who might or might not bring in a certain kind of problems, not very different from the fear (though considerably less) of Bangladeshi (often illegal) immigrants to India.

    As for 'expats' and 'immigrants' differentiation, I think it's got to do with the numbers involved, of the majority or near majority of folks going to the US of A ending up staying back or wanting to stay back in the USA. And many would not expect the same of foreigners travelling to work in India.

    More than class, though class too is an issue, if of the inherrent fear of the supposed 'underclass' around issues revolving around crime, and 'harm' one might be open to, and in some cases not without some basis. Fear drives many things. Fear of being overwhelmed, of being harmed, of being displaced among other things.

  7. Interestingly when I was travelling to Caribbean islands, a local friend accompanying is asked a person of Indian origin [also a local settler] whether Indian people look down upon them. And he said 'Yes', much to my discomfort!


  8. I didn't realize that the west too was class conscious. I mean where a butcher, barber and baker don't feel that their job is in any way less important than that of a college professor why would it have mattered if you had been a plumber's wife? May be professors are more respected that's all. Or is it?