Is it Possible to Become Indian?

by Sharell शारेल on August 12, 2011

in Adjusting to India, Culture Shock in India

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Assimilating to life in a foreign country can be hard, especially when the way of life is so different. India is a prime example of this. It seems though, that there’s a common scenario as far as many foreigners who come to India are concerned. And my experience has certainly fitted into it. It goes a little like the stages of having a relationship with someone.

First, there is the falling in love stage, where everything is interesting and wonderful. Then, there comes the criticisims. And, after that (hopefully) the acceptance. Yet, there’s one crucial omission in this comparison: the longingness to belong.

Many foreigners who come to India really do want to fit in here. We go out of our way to adapt and be Indian. Yes, you could call us wannabe Indians!

Like these foreigners, I’ve gone through the stage of passionately trying to become Indian — in my dress, mannerisms and habits. Admittedly though, it was initially forced upon me. When I volunteered at the women’s centre in Kolkata, I was told I had to wear cheap salwaar kameeze to lessen the division between me and the women there, and help them feel comfortable in my presence. I sat on the floor, ate potato and rice for lunch with my fingers, and became familiar with the infamous Indian squat toilet. I was also encouraged to start learning Bengali.

Since then, I’ve learned Hindi, wrapped my own saris, visited temples, participated in pujas, cooked Indian food, and touched the feet of elders (and even my husband!). I know the etiquette for mixing with people from all levels of society, and know how to behave in traditional as well as progressive homes. My spiritual beliefs are aligned with Hinduism. And I’ve no doubt seen more of India than most Indians.

But ultimately, the majority of people will look at me and treat me as a foreigner because they view me as one (although I, of course, view myself as white Indian). And heaven forbid if I dare say anything bad about India. What right do you have? You’re NOT Indian! If you don’t like it in India, go home!

So, foreigners like me eventually give up. We think “stuff it”. We start eating what we want, dressing how we want, and doing what we want. If we’re going to be viewed as a foreigner, we might as well behave like one! I’ve come to realise my white skin gives me certain power in India, and now I know how to use it to my advantage. If something is bothering me, I know people will listen when I complain. I know they will be less likely to brush me off, or give me the run around.

But all this is leading up to a very interesting article in Open Magazine, which I was recently interviewed for. It deals with the question: is it possible to become Indian? The answer it seems, is a resounding “no”.

And perhaps, there’s a good reason for it.

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© Copyright 2011 Sharell शारेल, Diary of a White Indian Housewife 2008-2014. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.

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{ 889 comments… read them below or add one }

bluemirror February 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm

I dont see why foreigners cannot be considered ‘indian’ or assimilated in ot the indian society. Essentially, all indians you see , except for the adivasis / tribals/ austaloids are foreign to india.

Jews / syrian christians , who were fleeing religious persecution in their home lands many centuries back, were allowed to settle in kerala , and had essentially become part of the indian society, without sacrificing their culture/ individuality. They have since returned to their home-lands, but this is just to point out that foreigners can indeed be part of the society.

Racially, india is the most diverse. Indo-aryans up north ( kashmir) , the veddoids, the australoids, mongloids, dravidian / tamils( who are dark skinned caucasians) , people of semitic origins , tribals/aborigines ( the true natives of india ) , the tamil siddhas who are negroids.

india (or more accurately, indian subcon) has been multi-cultural for through out its known history, and has atleast 3000 different ethnicities, and has always functioned as a collection of regional states/powers, that were , at certain points in time , unified politically ( not culturally / ethnically ) to form empires. The reason this has been so like this is quite interesting but not relevant here.

You dont have to change yoru beliefs or culture to be indian. Just ask the parsis of mumbai. Just respect local customs, interact with the local population , and take part in their daily acitivities. No need to bend over backwards to adopt local culture


Sharell शारेल February 6, 2014 at 1:56 pm

I think it comes down to appearance — the Parsis look quite Indian (albeit usually fair). People from north east India don’t look Indian and are often treated as outsiders and face discrimination, despite actually being Indian. I don’t think there’s much hope for white foreigners unfortunately. :-(


shibu February 10, 2014 at 7:38 am

Being north Indian myself, I think northies are more racist.South Indians are more caring and loving. Just my experience. Still I think ,its just a beginning. When in near future, economy would flourish, more people would become educated, more cultural awareness would occur ,more interaction between immigrants and local would be there, life of immigrants would be much better and hospitable in India. Glad to see that many foreign girls are making their way to Bollywood off course. But, still I think that it would take minimum of 10 years for our current society to accept immigrants. We still are not that multi-racial like Brazil or USA ,but i would love to see it one day.


shibu February 10, 2014 at 8:14 am

Since white immigrants in India are very few and are mainly confined to places like Bangalore,Goa,Delhi , so obviously people would think that you have come here as a tourist. But, I think people generally stare at you out of curiousity. This trend is more common in remote village areas and slums. This shouldn’t be taken negatively.Even if I as an urban Indian when have a visit to my village,get stared by people,Cause my looks, styles etc. are different. But, trust me, they are one of the most friendly and caring people.They would be ready to help you, even in their hostile condition.


Anjani bhardwaj February 10, 2014 at 11:54 am

Hello Sharell.This is a very interesting blog.I almost read all the articles one after another.How beautifully you have summed up all your experiences.You truly have embraced the chaos that is India.I must say you are a very strong woman.I only have one question,After going through all this,was it worth it?If you knew what was coming would you still have gone ahead?


Sharell शारेल February 11, 2014 at 10:38 am

Thank you so much! :-) I would have to say, yes, absolutely. Even during the difficult times, I’ve learned a lot. Plus, there were many amazing wonderful times along the way too. The end result is that I’m a much better person, and a much more fulfilled one, so I wouldn’t change anything. I needed those experiences, both good and bad.


Khanum February 19, 2014 at 8:20 am

I am a woman from india who has made Melbourne her home. My children are proud to be Australians and so am I. A few days back i was in the park chatting with the parents while the kids played after school. The flies were bothering a lot and it was very annoying.. I complained about the flies and one of the fathers there took it offensive against australia. He told me in front of all the other parents “you are from india and you should be used to flies. If it annoyed you so much just go back to your country”. There have been many more incidences like these where I have been reminded that i don’t belong here.


Sharell शारेल February 19, 2014 at 9:07 am

That’s a disgraceful attitude, which I can’t stand. Wish I’d been there, I would’ve reprimanded him good and proper for you! What a moron.


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