Being “the Other” in India (and beyond)

February 26, 2013

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Looking different in India will get you noticed.

There aren’t many people who look like me travelling in India (my Jamaican-Canadian friend G, who is hosting me in Delhi, confirms this). Indians don’t see many black folks.  So far, when the locals lay eyes on me they stare, laugh good naturedly, and, if they are brave enough, approach me for a picture.  

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This mob of children in Jodhpur saw me taking pictures in front of the Mehrangarh Fort.  After some rapid discussion between them in what I’m guessing was Hindi, two brave souls approached me shyly, hesitantly.  I motioned for them to join me in the photo and before I knew it there was a whole crowd trying to get into the picture!  I felt a parting tug on my hair (they’ve never seen or touched anything like it!) before the gang dispersed. (Sidenote: Can you even spot me amongst the group? Funnily enough, I’m not that much darker than they are!)

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This sort of reaction is not exclusive to those of a chocolate hue, of course.   When you look different from the local population (whether it’s because of your race, hair colour, or stature), you will probably get noticed. Particularly in developing countries where inhabitants may not be  exposed to different types of people on a regular basis. In the overwhelming majority  of cases, this curiosity IS NOT hostile nor negative. In a previous post on the blog I wondered if I should be offended or annoyed that my “otherness” garners me so much attention, but I realize that in this sort of situation, curiosity is normal. In my opinion, these sorts of exchanges are a great way to connect with the local population in a foreign land.

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Have you ever travelled somewhere and gotten attention because of your anomalous appearance?  How have you dealt with all the extra scrutiny?

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Béatrice February 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm

très intéressant! I constantly get told I’m tall here in Singapore (in Asia). Really? I didn’t know! thanks for telling me. LOL

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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

lol!

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Kimvan February 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I totally understand I got the same reception when I visited a few years ago.
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Where did you go?

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Kimvan April 6, 2013 at 9:13 am

Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan and Chennai

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Sultana February 26, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Strolling through back streets in Nara, Japan, little old ladies were drawn to my long dreds like moths to a flame! Always got fabulous smiles & pics. And schoolkids become your best friends!

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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

The kids are the cutest! I love when they approach me!

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kay* February 26, 2013 at 9:36 pm

as soon as i saw the first pic SO MANY MEMORIES came flooding back! i even blogged my intital frustration with it and then, acceptance of it just being..for the most part…curiosity. Ugh, I’m so jealous you’re there now and only wish I was there to host you…along with G!
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Le sigh!! How I wish you were here!! We were just talking about you today!! Can you imagine us three black girls walking arm in arm along the streets of Old Delhi?! We would be a sensation!!

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This Battered Suitcase February 26, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Being blonde makes me stand out in a lot of countries, but, like you, I almost never find the attention hostile or negative. I’ve found that, in most parts of the world, people are just curious…and as travellers, isn’t that what we base our need to travel on? Curiosity?

Whenever I taught kids in Japan they ALWAYS wanted to touch my hair. I guess it was because it’s blonde and curly? Little girls went gaga for it…
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm

You also stand out because you’re gorgeous!

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Memoria February 26, 2013 at 11:50 pm

I am African-, Irish-, and Native-American but am perceived as only African-American. I am also a big, tall girl with dreadlocks (yeah, I get loads of unwanted attention even in the States). Anyway, due to my appearance, my experiences weren’t so positive in Madrid.

My first time in Italy, I received negative responses (e.g., was ignored or even feared) when speaking in Italian; however, when I would speak in English, they were eager to help me. I guess I was perceived more as a traveler than a peddler when speaking another language. I don’t know.

In France, I got a few stares, but they were very nice and didn’t treat me as inferior or weird.

In England, practically no one stared or treated me differently. That was a first for me in any country, including my own. It was a nice yet surreal change for me.

In southern Italy, where I reside presently, I get LOADS of stares. In fact, I get so many stares, that it pains me to walk out of the house sometimes unless I am with my Italian, White, short boyfriend (which equals even more stares haha). Although, the few friends I have made here love touching and inquiring about my hair, most of their questions are rarely about my ethnicity or size. Their questions are more about my country of origin. Here I feel like I am more of a USican/American than a Black person when I am with my friends. In Spain, however, I felt the opposite.

Thank you for this post. I am sure the others stare at you not only for your color, but also because you are so beautiful and have a lovely spirit.
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm

The staring can sometimes be disconcerting but I really have been blessed to not experience any negativity so I just roll on and keep smiling! In Italy I can imagine that the Casanovas stare because they find you so striking!

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Stefania September 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm

@Memoria: I am sorry you have had some bad experiences in Italy. Unfortunately, some people are prejudiced against Africans and Asians. I think that changes when they hear your American accent. We have still a long way to go regarding respect and acceptance for the “other”.

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Chewie February 27, 2013 at 12:37 am

I live in rural South Korea and teach English there. Most of the people here have limited experience in dealing with foreigners, but foreign English teachers have been here for a while. We’re like minor celebrities here because Koreans are generally amazed when foreigners take part in eating Korean food or speaking in Korean. This has resulted in getting all number of extra food in restaurants, and generally great treatment everywhere.

I knew I’d stand out here. Though I’m about average height for Korea, my features are not dark and my blue eyes tend to stand out. The students commented on them during the first few weeks of school. The beard I grew a few months ago made a few waves because few people have facial hair here, but it hasn’t garnered any negative attention.

I don’t mind the extra attention. It’s always better to smile, say hello, and simply roll with it then get annoyed.
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:44 pm

I found the Koreans in Seoul to be very nice but a tad pushy in the sense that they would actually grab at my skin and hair! Quite funny but annoying at the time as it happened often!

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TammyOnTheMove February 27, 2013 at 3:06 am

This is so funny and reminds me of my visit to China in 2006. That was before the Olympics, so people weren’t that used to foreigners yet. My hunny caught someone taking a photo of me in front of the terracotta warriors and when he noticed that my hubby noticed he was very apologetic. Chris being the polite Englishman said not to worry which the man took as an invitation to gather all of his friends to have photos taken with me too. They literally formed a queue. Our guide told me later that for people in the countryside it is almost like a status symbol to have a foreign ‘friend’ and that they will probably hang my picture up on their wall. I dread to think in how many houses my picture hangs. ;-)
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Hilarious! Liebling and I used to get a fair bit of attention, with me being black and him being so tall and white!

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Ekua February 28, 2013 at 2:36 am

In India, I got a ton of positive attention at historical sites in Jaipur and especially at the Taj Mahal. Everyone wanted to shake my hand or take a picture. Even though it was overwhelming at times, it was a welcome release from some other experiences I had like these: One day in Jaipur, I decided to wander around aimlessly and I was followed by a group of kids and one of them threw rocks at me. Another day I was stared at and followed around a train station in Varanasi for hours by an incredibly creepy man. Another day I was followed to my hotel room by creepy man in Jaipur. I would not call this attention NOT hostile or negative. I traveled solo in many places and I’ve never questioned my safety as much as I did in India.

I’m glad you’ve had positive experiences so far, but I think to make statements in bold or in all caps about what the attention is or is not based on your limited experience in a place is problematic, especially if someone wants to get the whole story on the situation beyond the big city of Delhi and the tourist sites nearby. Like I said, it’s great that you’re experience has been positive, but it just seems like it should be made clear that this was *your* experience in a bite-sized sample of a huge country. I’ve mostly been met with abundant friendliness on the road, even in places people warned me about. But still, when I am planning my travels, I find it helpful to know that there are many stories.
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Oneika February 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for your comment, Ekua! It’s unfortunate that you had negative experiences while in India, but I think you may have misconstrued my post. My bolded statements about the attention I’ve received being overwhelmingly positive in most cases was based on my travels in general, not based on my time in India. After having travelled to 61 countries and lived abroad for over 7 years (in Asia, Latin America, and Europe) I can honestly say that I’ve only really had one negative incident occur (in Morocco a couple of kids also threw rocks at me). This has also been the case of the majority of my traveller friends, which is why I feel confident in saying that most attention when abroad is innocent curiosity.

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Ekua March 6, 2013 at 8:34 am

I don’t think I misconstrued this post as I originally read it. It came across as one person describing what they felt were positive experiences in India as a way to segue into how others will also likely have positive experiences when they travel in India and elsewhere (as the title states). I don’t doubt your positive experiences, and I think a lot of people will have good experiences too. The main issues are that you framed this around experiences in a very limited part of a huge country and when it comes to something as sensitive and extremely varied as reception abroad based on race, gender, or other factors, an individual can’t say that their personal experiences (regardless of #s) on such a volatile aspect of travel are the experiences others will have.
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Oneika March 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Hi Ekua, I definitely see where you are coming from and agree that my experience in a particular place is not necessarily indicative of what others’ will be. However, I still stand by my assertion that most of the attention travellers receive in developing countries is positive and borne of curiosity. Whether my assertion, this is based not only on my experiences, but on the experiences of people I have known or written accounts by people I don’t know. All that being said, I don’t purport myself to be an expert or guru of any sort; everything I write is just what I think and feel. My blog is entitled “Oneika the Traveller” because it is exactly that — Oneika recounting her observations and opinions on her travels. Of course, I’m always open to other people stories, views, and experiences, even if they are contrary or opposite to mine. Chimimanda Adichie, whom I greatly admire, has spoken at length about the danger of the single story, so while I love to share my narrative I realize that it is not the only one nor most accurate one that exists. Thanks so much for your comment, you’ve given me a lot to consider!

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Triumphant March 7, 2013 at 2:08 am

Ekua,
I was actually surprised by the many positive experiences Oneika had. Many people of African descent have told me harrowing stories of being teased, taunted and discriminated in India. Some of this takes the form of groups of kids throwing rocks at them to being denied service. India is a country that is extremely polarized by color and Indians have told me so.

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Rene March 1, 2013 at 4:00 am

Long time lurker, but I had to comment given that I had a similar experience in India.

My family toured all over India years ago and boy did we have a ball. On of my best trips ever. We were pretty well traveled by the time we did our India trip, and started too many long conversations when describing ourselves as African Americans in some places. We learned to explain ourselves as Cosby kids. A lot of people around the world seemed to have the Cosby show in syndication (we’ve used other popular references too like Will Smith or Oprah). Or just say we were Americans. Some people seemed to understand that Westerners came in a mixed bunch.

We took pictures with strangers, were touched, stared at, had people ask for our blessings it was crazy. I had recently dyed my hair red (which I later learned was a popular color to some) thus getting most of the attention on our trip. You can tell that their stares were genuine curiosity, which didn’t bother us at all. People who spoke English often approached us respectfully. We had some people politely touch (never the hair though *lol*) but our arm or something as if to make sure we were real and usually with a smile.

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Dorothy March 1, 2013 at 7:11 pm

I’m very white (pale!) and very blond and when I lived in Ghana people would come up to me and almost pet me (which, admittedly, I hated). They wanted to feel white skin because they thought it would feel different from theirs. I understand the compulsion but I don’t generally like people touching me. Once I asked to have my hair braided and I had 7 pairs of hands all in my hair because everyone wanted to touch it. Small children would scream because they’d never seen a white person before (and because parents would threaten small children that if they didn’t behave, white people would come take them away). It never stopped feeling like I was VERY different even after 2 years.
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decoybetty March 3, 2013 at 2:21 am

I got quite harassed in India. Children would pull on my arms and beg me for money. I got a lot of stares. Like a LOT of stares. Pale freckled skin! Curly crazy hair! They just didn’t know what to make of me.
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Emily in Chile March 10, 2013 at 3:03 am

I admire your attitude on this. I always try to explain that most Chileans aren’t trying to be racist, they just really have very little familiarity with black people and are curious, but I’ve known some black people who’ve lived here and just found the attention overwhelming. I can definitely understand the frustration – as a tall foreigner, I’ve gotten my fair share of stares, and some days you just don’t feel like dealing with it.
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Melanie May 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

As a plus-sized woman, of Afro-Guyanese descent, with a mop top of coily kinky hair, I must have been a sensory overload to the Indians that I encountered lol. I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of attention that I received. Glad to say that it was all positive and most likely born out of general curiosity.
I was accustomed to the starring in parts of Europe with a low population of people of African descent. Anyway, how could I be upset with smiling Italian and Turkish men calling me “chocolata” ? ;o). I could’ve done without the “Obama!” shouts in the markets though…that did get old after a while lol.

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Keturah August 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Having gone to India twice, I must say the fascination with me as a black woman with kinky hair became tedious pretty quickly. I love the country on many levels, but being “THE EVENT” in everyone’s day every single day was a bit exhausting.

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Stefania January 13, 2014 at 5:42 pm

A friend of mine linked this article on fb. Among the countries which they consider the worst for black people they name all of Southern Europe, some countries in Asia and even Germany. They even write: “Africans and other dark-skinned people in Berlin, Wisner and other cities know certain areas in the eastern part of Berlin, such as Marzahn and Hellersdorf, are ‘no-go’ areas where they are CERTAIN to be attacked or killed”. I think this is alarmism, though I don’t know these neighbourhoods of Berlin. Even when they speak of Italy they exaggerate: from this account it sounds like half of the world is a KKK organization!
http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/01/08/8-worst-countries-black-people-travel/

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Caressa C. November 21, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Stefania, my dad linked that same article to me in a private facebook message. Honestly it was very upsetting because he knows how passionate I am about traveling the world. I know he did not send it to me out of genuine care and concern, but rather, to discourage me. So how did I respond?….I sent him a link to an article titled, “The 10 Most Beautiful Countries in the World” : )

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