So, here in Kerala, I am a ‘saip’, or white man, and will be that before anything else as long as I am here. Whether I’m tucking into beef curry for dinner, wearing a lunghi, sporting an impressive moustache or even someday speaking fluent Malayalam, I am unlikely to ever escape the outsider category I came with.
I experienced a somewhat similar phenomenon in Japan, my previous home. The Japanese approach to foreigners tends to be dominated by the dichotomy of ‘uchi’ (inside) and ‘soto’ (outside). As a foreigner, you are destined always to be ‘soto’, regardless of how Japanese you have become – even if you renounce your country of birth and take Japanese citizenship. You look different, therefore you must be different.
Where it was viewed largely negatively in Japan – foreigners commit more crime, do more drugs, slack off at work etc. – the inside and outside that I feel here seems to be much healthier in that it is based in curiosity rather than fear. Yes, I do regularly get frustrated at people’s lack of understanding, and often feel that somebody’s staring is literally sucking energy from my body, but I can get through it knowing that in the majority of cases, the person in question harbours little or no suspicion or deceptive intent; they’re just curious.
There are plenty of reasons why this is perfectly valid. For example, given my cultural background (and my present relationship status!), it is highly unlikely that I will ever settle down and have children with a Malayali girl. Quite apart from the deeply rooted of attractive ideals that have been bred in me from growing up in New Zealand that are not so common here – consistent communication, regular and wide-ranging conversation, even-handed decision-making – how could I ever convince a father that I was a good match for their daughter? It happens, a guy coming here and falling for a local belle, but it’s rare.
On top of that, there’s the language. Malayalam is, I’m told, the hardest language to acquire in India, and in nearly a year I’ve learned little more than the average tourist. What little I do know I can say rather convincingly – there have been plenty of funny looks at my asking somebody their name in slang fashion, ‘Perentha?’ – but it would take years of motivated study and practice for me to communicate anything like a local.
Still, as a ‘global nomad’ (as it was once put to me), I want to strengthen communication between cultures and break down the deep-seated barriers that keep us from treating each other on the same level. As such, I long for the day when I can walk into my neighbour’s home and not have everyone stand and offer to retrieve sweets and drinks, or for a walk to the fruit shop not to be accompanied by children running up to me and introducing themselves with beaming smiles on their faces. I completely understand why all this is, how ingrained it is in the culture, but we’re all red-blooded people in the end and I wish that could define us first rather than the colour of our skin.
Of course, there is a dark side. That curiosity mentioned earlier is not present in all individuals who cross my path. In fact, some have very clear ideas about what I and other foreigners represent, and these ideas are sometimes very unhealthy. We have a reputation that is hard to shake. More on this soon...