This article is second part in series Exploring India Through the Eyes of a South African.
My experiences in India
Indian hospitality is renowned. The significance of hospitableness in India has crossed generations and is not only cultivated but truly believed by all. The Sanskrit proverb, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” or “the guest is truly your god,” speaks of the respect granted to guests in India. Each one is treated with the utmost consideration and each Indian extends more than his hand to a visitor. India’s accommodation truly knows no bounds. For the most part this is true.
Having travelled to India on many occasions, and having lived with the locals literally – since my husband is Indian. I have seen India perhaps more clearly than the usual tourist, but not quite as transparently as Indian’s themselves. I have experienced both positive and negative experiences. Either way, I still love India. My experiences have not only shaped my perceptions on India, but have also shaped me as an individual.
I have noticed throughout the culture that many a times certain communities are more accepting than others – not only of tourists, or female tourists, but even of interracial couples. Certain people have seemed to applaud my husband for bagging up a “gorri”, as white woman are commonly dubbed. While others seem to be quite taken aback by us walking around together.
One thing I still have to get used to is the constant staring. According to my husband, many people haven’t associated with foreigners in certain regions and in some cases, haven’t ever seen a foreigner. Of course, my being married to an Indian gives people more reason to stare. I have experienced young people laughing and pointing at me, and I have also experienced elders who walk past me like I belong. I suppose a lot of the situations have been “time and place” type occurrences.
Some people seem to be trying to figure out whether my husband is either a. my tour guide, b. my friend, or c. my partner. The last option is always the most shocking possibility. I remember chatting to my husband’s nephews who are in high school and having them ask me how their uncle “got” me. I have taken these instances as an opportunity to ensure that it is explained that all over the world people are openly dating, and even starting families with people from different castes, religions, and races – and that above all, this is perfectly acceptable.
Of course, it took some time for my in-laws to get used to the fact that I wasn’t either uncultured, a gold digger, or even an alcoholic. As a Caucasian, many people assume certain stereotypes about me because of my skin colour, and also think I am either American or British. Upon finding out I am South African, many people still question how I am white. Of course, certain regions are more closed off from the world than others, so understandably there might be some confusion, when a perception that was thought to be true actually isn’t.
Clothing is another conventional factor that can easily become an area of dispute, or could warrant more attention than desired. Despite most Indian women cladding themselves in what is fashionably called “western wear” – whether revealing or conservative – it seems to be a point of interest when actual westerns wear it. Perhaps, because the assumption generally is that western women don’t wear conservative clothing. Of course, many Indian women have discovered that they feel comfortable wearing revealing clothes, and it is not so much associated with only Westerners anymore. Personally, I wear clothes that I consider more conservative in front of my family in Mumbai and when in Goa I do more beach-type wear.
On shopping experiences, many people have priced an item almost 5 times the normal price because it is assumed that foreigners are all very wealthy. Of course, skin colour has nothing to do with a person’s wealth, and normally my husband and I laugh it off and he gets down to bargaining with the vendor.
On one occasion, when I was shopping for an outfit for my wedding reception, the lady who owned the shop started a conversation with me – we were instant friends! We planned the pick-up of my outfit and we said our goodbyes, but upon collecting the outfit – the store manager came back with my outfit and a note from the owner. My reception clothes were paid for by her. I was so moved by this act of generosity and how kindly she treated me.
I have often been in public places with people who have brushed past me inappropriately, and on one occasion I was groped out in the open. Although, I am convinced this is a global epidemic that women face all over the world, and not necessarily because of where I’m from.
Indeed, we can say that India, like every country, could improve from a societal stand point, in terms of accepting outsiders and the differences associated with them. Despite the prejudice I have faced, it has yet to deter me from further exploring this country. I definitely believe the more tourists India sees the quicker it will normalize the idea of different races and cultures visiting and even settling there. One important factor to note here is that I have never experienced discrimination on a level that surely every person of colour has had to live with. Whenever people have been unaware about certain things, I patiently and respectfully explain the reality. This is how real acceptance will come about. I still have a lot to learn about India, and I am excited to grow along with her on my next adventures.
Watch this interesting video about how foreigners feel in India :
Part 1 :