Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Inside Or Outside?

Inside Or Outside?

August 14, 2009

Here in Kerala, I am a ‘saip’, or white man - and it looks like I’m unlikely to ever escape the outsider category.

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...


  • smitha
    22.10.12 09:53 AM
    Mr.Morris, it was really touchy and inspiring,reading what you wrote..i appreciate for learning our culture within a short span of time...are you still here in Kerala?I can help you out to reach lot many things on Kerala to explore...culture,arts,lifestyle,food anything as such...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    21.10.12 11:07 PM
    There you go, Sandra! I also found" rel="nofollow">this site for learning Malayalam, which is far from ideal but has audio clips of Malayalam phrases. Could be worth a try.
  • smitha
    21.10.12 08:45 PM
    Hi Sandra I'm from trivandrum and would love to help U learn Malayalam..u mail me at anybody out there,U too are welcome
  • Sandra
    21.10.12 07:15 PM
    I am a foreign women who is married to a Malayali =) I can recognize what you write in your article, both the good and the less good. At the moment my biggest challenge is to learn how to speak Malayalam. Been trying to find a course for foreigners but no luck, can anyone help me? Or a good teacher for private lessons? Preferably in Trivandrum area. Thank you!
  • smitha nambiar
    smitha nambiar
    02.01.12 04:27 PM
    hey,i am a girl from kerala in search of malayalam speaking foreigners/non residents of you know any non indian who speaks malayalam well and settled in kerala?
    i am working in a malayalam channel and would like to introduce such people on my show..kindly mail me.thank you
  • Bindiya
    09.05.11 02:57 PM
    I am a mallu girl.Quite happy to know about your interest in our place.
  • Madhu
    29.03.11 04:16 PM
    Congratulations on the courage it takes to live in a totally unfamiliar place! As a Malayali who was brought up outside and inside the state, and currently living in the US and Kochi, I find it hard to adjust to people there. The thing is that if one looks a mite different from a true-blue Mallu, it's enough to set off the curiosity wagon..... Regarding a relationship with a mallu girl, if you were her Dad, would you send her off with a guy who seems to have left a foreign land(where life MUST be better), to come live in Kerala?! Besides, marriage is not just between man and woman but the families.... And in a place where everything but the couple's personalities are matched, that's a huge not be on the same social plane. All the best and keep writing!

Leave a comment