“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part one

There are precisely three things that I don’t like about India.

The first is mosquitoes.

I’m heavily armed against them. I take a malaria pill every week. A mosquito net adorns my bed. In spite of the searing winter heat, I always wear long pants. But no matter how thick the bug spray in the air, how strong the waft of my repellant, or how fresh the GoodKnight plugged in the wall, I always seem to find my arms, ankles and neck in various degrees of bumpy, red itchiness.

I can get used to them, though.

The second is food poisoning.

My stomach had more trouble adapting to India than any other organ in my body. Every exchange student has had some kind of sickness since coming to India, and most of us have had several bouts. Even though I’ve rarely been sick for more than 36 hours, there’s nothing pleasant about the symptoms Pepto-Bismol is meant to cure. Even six and a half months after arrival, eating outside food remains a risky proposition.

I can get used to that, though.

Third is the blatant, shocking contrast of my appearance with every other person here.

It takes some getting used to.

Look. I stand out in India. I am six feet, three inches tall. My skin, though tan, pales in comparison to every Indian with unchanged skin. My hair, which was dirty-blonde upon arrival, has been naturally bleached a few shades lighter.

The sheer number of xenophiliacs in India amazes me. I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity, but most people who have seen or met me treat me as one. The vast majority of attention foreigners get is positive, but the pestering for attention never ceases to persist. Here’s a far-from-complete list of the reactions I’ve drawn:

– Several times, random passers-by have attempted to shake my hand – not with the mere extension of their own, but by shoving their appendage into my forearm. Arm contact without eye contact.

– Physical contact with strangers is otherwise rare, but the other day a man actually grabbed my arm while I was on my bike. He rode away after I shouted back in R-rated Hindi.

– A different man on a motorcycle once drove past me with each forefinger and pinkie extended downwards, an attempt of the American “yo!” (whatever that’s supposed to be). Fortunately, this man was not the driver.

– At least the aforementioned hand gesture is superior to one that requires only one finger. Although uncommon, I’ve seen it too.

– Many a hand has covered a mouth as groups of friends – usually girls – whisper, giggle and smile amongst themselves while foreigners pass them by.

– At the other end of the spectrum are the groups of friends – usually boys – who shout at me in me in rapidfire Hindi and laugh when I don’t respond. As my knowledge of the language has increased, I’ve become more aware of what they’re saying, and I’ve had to refrain from yelling my own choice words back at them.

– At least every other day, someone will ask me (in English) where I’m from and why I’m in India. The age of the questioners ranges from primary schoolers to retired old men, and the honesty of my answers vary depending on the context and my mood. At various points in my exchange, I have temporarily become Danish, French, South African, Liechtensteinese, Chinese and Latvian.

– Twice, men have started singing Sheila Ki Jawani at the sight of me, in particular the line “I’m too sexy for you.” I’m not sure if I should be more confused or amused.

– As I recounted in my tale of our venture to Kanyakumari on the South Tour, people are not shy about taking pictures of us. At least it’s harder to shoot a moving target, so photography is much less prevalent in traffic.

– However, no one has asked me for my autograph. Yet.

Mostly, all people do is look. And there are many different ways of doing so.

The Look-away
Probably the most common kind of staring is The Look-away. These people are intent upon looking at me, but remain too coy to make eye contact. Their heads turn with me: as soon as I look at them, they allow something else to capture their interest. When I turn back, their heads swivel towards mine again.

The Blank Stare
I honestly can’t fault anyone for gaping at me as if I were a green-faced three-eyed Martian with tentacles sprouting out of my eyelids. Given how many foreigners show up in Nagpur, I might as well be one! The Blank Stare conveys innocence – such lookers are simply shocked by my presence, thus they often aren’t intimidated by eye contact. I usually have no problem with it.

The Double-take
One look isn’t always enough.

The Triple-take
One look? Understandable. Two looks? Fine. But three looks? Keep your eyes on whatever it is that’s in front of you!

The Quadruple-take
I have advice for these people: pull over to the side of the road, make yourself comfortable, sip some chai, and stare at me for five minutes. It’s safer than trying to drive in my presence.

The Look Back
Passengers on the backs of two-wheelers have a tendency to swivel their heads quite unabashedly in my direction. The lookers may be in autos or on trucks, and sometimes even the drivers can’t resist turning around. Variations include The Look Back Double-take, The Look Back Triple-take, and the Look Back Quadruple-take.

The Rear-view Mirror
Not every moped has a rear-view mirror, but I’m often presented with a peculiar sight when such equipped bikes pull up in front of me. The driver – often wearing sunglasses – will be looking straight ahead, but as I look at the mirror, a pair of eyes will meet mine. I usually stare back until the driver realizes the subtlety has been lost and looks away.

The No-look
I can tell my presence has registered in the minds of these people by the intent with which they look away from me. They’re trying to be considerate, to show they could care less that a foreigner just pulled up next to them. Maybe they’ve even seen others before. But their attempts at normalization fail – they try so hard not to care about my presence that it becomes apparent that they do.

The Over-my-shoulder
I find it amazing and amusing that there’s always something interesting happening over my shoulder, and yet I’m never able to see it myself. There must be. Why else would Bharatiya eyes so consistently be fixed far in the distance behind me, everywhere I go?

The Dekho!
Dekho is the Hindi word for “look”. Thus it’s a word I often hear as I pass a group of people, usually school-age kids. At the sight of me, one will lean into another, and either whisper or shout the news that a non-Indian is present. Thus one dropped jaw becomes at least two or three.

But dekho is hardly the word or phrase I hear most often as I roam around Nagpur. That distinction doesn’t belong to a Hindi word like bapure (My God!). It’s not “Hello”, “Hi”, or “Hey dude whassup?” It’s not even the curiously ubiquitous “yo!”

It’s the word I’ve heard 512 times in the last 26 days.

“Foreigner”

🙂

To be continued…

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2 Responses to ““Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part one”

  1. Kelsey McFadden Says:

    oops I totally meant to comment on this post…
    so I’ll comment on both…
    CHRIS!!!! you’re blog is AMAZING!!!!!!!!!
    It’s by far the best I’ve read yet (no offense to anyone else). It’s all SO true, and funny and I don’t know… amazing. Seriously.
    I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of putting a link to it on my blog and advising my blog readers to take a look when they get the chance.
    I may have also quoted what you wrote on Nisha’s blog about Christmas a while ago…
    Anyways, can’t wait to see you in a few weeks!

  2. Tani Says:

    Those mosquitos are evil i tell ya! Every time i visit Bangladesh, whether it be summer or winter, i always end up with random bites all over my body no matter how sure i am that there can’t me any in a certain place.

    Indigestion happens more in the summer 😦 luckily i had no problem in the winter 😀 unless i eat out…

    and staring, my god that will never stop. THat’s hilarious. If i get the stares being a desi i can only imagine the how they react around you.

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