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.