I read an article this morning… It was an article about white privilege, and chronicles the life of a woman who had lived in India. I found it to be misleading, at least. To be fair, everyone’s experiences are different, and maybe the author’s experiences are genuine – it’s just obvious that she hasn’t lived in India for very long. I saw myself in her post, a very new-to-India and naïve me.
In her article, she tries to make a point about white privilege, but she brags about her privileges almost the entire time (a lot of which don’t actually have anything to do with being white, as much as they have to do with other privileges). She goes as far as to say that she feels safe in Delhi, safer than Indian woman must be, and yet describes an instance where she was mistaken for a prostitute and followed home. She simply told the man “Go, okay? Go.” and her description of the experience gives the readers the impression that she didn’t feel as mortified as it actually feels to be stalked – especially as a helpless foreigner in a foreign country.
She claims that her privilege grants her a lifestyle she wouldn’t otherwise have. I don’t know what kind of lifestyle she could have been awarded on the basis of her skin color – and I don’t know anyone who does. We expats figure she is confusing her privileges, such as the privilege of money, nationality, etc.
The entire article is rather cringe-worthy. But I can’t complain – some of my early articles were the same! I can’t even read my old articles for the same reason. I just didn’t know enough about India.
After talking with a group of girls, all of whom have spent significant amounts of time, live, or have lived, in India, we have come to the conclusion that her post shows her inexperience. I don’t want to say the author isn’t being genuine, but I would be lying if I said I am not a little disturbed and frustrated that such an unrealistic point of view could make it to major news websites. Maybe her privilege carried over.
Here’s a real look at what it is like to live (and actually live) as a white woman in India
Jhansi, living alone, 2014
Because all of my friends (male) were overly-concerned about my safety, all of them urged me to never go out alone. I listened, and when I needed something, they were happy to go out and bring it to me. Not because I am white, because I am a woman, and they do the same for their family. Although it was suffocating to not have any independence, and I started to break away from that. Despite uncomfortable stares from men and dirty looks from women, I walked to a nearby hotel restaurant for food every day. I dressed in long skirts or black loose-fitting pants and long tunics, and ultimately tried to be culturally sensitive.
Once, I took a friend with me to the hotel restaurant, when a man sitting next to us looked at me with disgust, and told my companion that if I planned to eat non-veg, I needed to find a different seat. He had no idea I was vegetarian.
Delhi, living alone, 2014:
I stayed alone in a girl’s PG in Delhi, I was catered to for the same reasons I was in Jhansi, but I found that my fellow PG mates, spirited young Indian women, would freely come and go (so long as they returned by curfew). I loved the freedom of going out with the boy I was madly in love with, who would later become my husband. My biggest complaints were being ambushed by the beggars. I also felt more pressure to assimilate and dress in Indian suits. Meanwhile, my Indian lady-friends were wearing jumpsuits, jeans, and crop tops – looking back, I wish I had their courage!
Delhi, living with my husband, 2015-2016:
When we lived together before marriage, we would go out together and bring groceries. We both cooked and cleaned. We went out often, especially when his friends were able to join us. Despite often not understanding the conversation, it was fun to spend time with a happy group of friends.
In our next apartment (2016), we took turns going out and bringing milk and juice or bread from the nearby shop – but it was still hard for me because I felt “othered”, and didn’t want to constantly be a circus attraction. We went grocery shopping together, and met my friends together from time to time. I also wandered out into the metro and crossed the city alone from time to time, meeting other ladies who were married to an Indian. Always cautious, but still free.
Sure I saw the sights from time to time, but I wasn’t living as a tourist – I was living like an Indian.
I never had any problems feeling safe in New Delhi – until I did. I felt lucky to have had such loving family and friends around me most of the time. See that’s the thing… I was groped when I was out with my husband, bundled up like a rug, in winter of 2014, in a quiet non-touristy Delhi market near our apartment. I was stared at with a look that could kill, by a man so obviously enraged and disgusted by my existence. When he saw me looking at my husband, he also looked at him with disgust. I was followed, starting in a metro station, when I was travelling with my husband and his sister’s family (post marriage). All these things happened when I was with a loved one, and respecting culture. I couldn’t imagine what life would have been like, were I alone and throwing caution to the wind.
People often took pictures of me without permission, and some of the bolder ones didn’t even try to hide it. Some asked, and sometimes I obliged, if they were kids or whole families. I was the topic of conversation no matter where I went, much to my utter embarrassment. Shop owners were eager to help me before anyone else, but I was eventually able to prevent this by sending my husband in first.
While some people thought it was pretty neat to see a foreigner, others were annoyed, crooked, or even unkind. Like the two Indian women dressed in sarees, on the metro train, snickering at me and making the classic stereotypical “pizza” and “cheeseburger” jokes reserved for white foreigners.
Or the aunties that stare in disbelief and disapproval, once they’ve put the pieces together that I’m married to an Indian. Or the young Indian girls who snicker and give me dirty looks for wearing Indian clothes. The rickshaw walas and shop owners that try to over-charge me because obviously foreigners are rich. Or the hotel that wouldn’t accept foreigners. While these are just a few of my experiences, this list would be too long to read if I added similar experiences of my peers.
According to stereotypes, people here expect “foreigners” are wild, drink, dress “indecently” and flirt with lots of men. (This is what my in-laws feared before they got to know me.) However, it’s also expected that foreigners respect culture. Women, while we are eager to live in a world where we don’t have to fear being attacked, we don’t live in that world yet; we have to express caution in the way we dress and behave in India.
(The good fight is being fought by India’s youth – let’s not get into this discussion.)
On another level, when you are married to an Indian, you might be expected to be more Indian, wear marriage symbols, and who cares about your culture? I have lots of expectations I’ve been rebelling against lately. But let’s not stray off topic.
No country is a playground for other nationalities, and India is no different. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Likewise, “When in India, do as the Indians do.”
Ask the expats! We have lived here long enough to know the ins and the outs, and we won’t leave you with delusions…
How does it really feel to be a white woman living in India? It’s a struggle! It’s unwanted attention, creepy advances, mortifying gropes, being afraid to be as carefree as some of the passing tourists, it’s becoming aggressive, learning to haggle and negotiate. It’s letting go of any sense of order and time. It’s hard, it’s isolating, but then again it’s rewarding, because India is beautiful, spiritual, and awfully welcoming. There are plenty of great things about India, don’t get me wrong.
And on the topic of white privilege, no one knows the painful realities better than those of us married to Indians who don’t have that privilege. None of us exploit our white privilege or passport privilege. I find that I couldn’t relate with that article at all, for these reasons.
Well anyway, that’s what it’s really like to be a foreign woman living in India.
So, what are your experiences in India? What can you add to this list?