I'm a celebrity!
On the street, heads turn wherever I go; in bars, patrons put down their glasses and look up at me. My presence sets women abuzz with chatter and invites men to look at me with bewilderment or smile with uncontrollable glee... To think that all this time, I only had to go 7000 miles from home to attain that much-desired ‘women want to be with him, men want to share a beer with him’ status!
The thing is, I’ve done nothing to warrant my celebrity status. I’m not a successful musician or actor, or even the Paris Hilton-esque ‘famous because I’m famous’. The simple fact is this: I am a white man in Kerala, or saip as locals would say in Malayalam. From New Zealand, via Japan, and settled here for the indefinite future.
Hold on, though. Plenty of foreigners visit these shores. In fact, tourism in Kerala is booming and has become one of the major contributors to the state’s economy. What makes me so special? Well, I am very white and very tall so I stick out in any crowd, let alone in a small town in south India. If you’re brighter than the sun and constantly banging your head on things, people tend to take notice.
The big difference, however, is that most foreigners who come here do so with the intent of drinking Kingfisher on the beach or practising yoga on a rooftop in the jungle. While I occasionally engage in both of these, it’s all too rarely as I’m chiefly here for a 9-to-5, 6 days a week office job. As such, I live and work much the same kind of life many Malayalis do, and my daily grind puts me in situations that generally only people from the culture experience.
For example, every day I have lunch with colleagues at a ‘hotel’ (actually a restaurant) near my office, order ‘meals’ (rice, curry, veg and pickles), and proceed to dig into it with relish, customarily using only my hands. Most waiters, who have generally only ever seen Malayalis do this, look on with astonishment – not because of what is being done, but because of who is doing it.
It’s the same when I travel my daily hour-long commute to and from work on the train. I look around and see plenty of other folks wearing business clothes and a shoulder bag as I do, but they stare at me as an oddity because I’m a foreigner, and foreign faces usually sport headbands, backpacks and a suntan.
This influx of foreigners and the money they bring is having a visible effect on the Malayali population, and from my vantage point as a supposed infiltrator, I’ll try to offer up some insight into how these new ideas of opportunity and otherness reconcile with the quite traditional local culture. It’s baffling, exciting, hilarious and maddening, often all at once, but every day there’s something to remember and look back on with enthusiasm. Hopefully, you’ll be as fascinated as I am...