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May 23, 2011

In Kerala, the sight of a white man (saip) often leads to shock and unusual behaviour...

saip, n. /sa?p/ Etymology: Malayalam derivative (properly transliterated 'sayippu') of sahib, Urdu/Hindi term meaning 'owner' or 'proprietor' used for white rulers Definition: A white man. Usage has extended beyond its origins as a respectful/subservient term; it now applies simply to all white men.

saip shock
, n. /sa?p ??k/ Etymology: Neologistic phrase coined in 2011 by Barnaby Haszard Morris Definition: A state of surprise induced by the sight of a white man in Kerala, accompanied by unusual/abnormal human behaviour. Examples of saip shock:


I was on the train one fine Kerala morning when a group of young male students took an interest in me. This is a regular occurrence on my daily commute. Most of these groups of young, confident Malayalis will simply stare, laugh or crack jokes, and even on occasion try to interact with me via direct questioning. I have come to accept these as standard and reasonable responses to my presence. This day, however, one of the group focused not on my face but on my right arm, where I had rolled up the sleeve of my shiny dress shirt to ward off sweaty cuffs prior to reaching my office. The young man instinctively reached out his hand and, in the midst of a crowded Indian Railways carriage, stroked and pulled at the hairs on my arm.


Without looking at my face, he turned to his friends and yammered a string of Malayalam which included one English word repeated many times: “soft”. The hair on my arm was “soft”. I soon got off the train at my regular stop. The young man did not once look at my face, apparently contented that his study of saips was complete.


The elevator at my office is at the back of the building
; to reach it you must walk through the entrance and down a long, wide hallway. One day, I came around the corner and through the entrance just as the lift doors were opening and two men were getting inside. I broke into a businessman's run, but knew I'd have to rely on the two men to hold the door for me if I was going to make it. Upon spotting me dashing awkwardly towards them, the two men did not hold the door. They stared in a stupor.


“Please hold it!” I called, hoping to jar them into action. The doors began to close, slowly and painfully obscuring their still-wide eyes from my view. Finally, one of them snapped out of it and pressed the button to open the door. I staggered inside, out of breath and smiling. Both men smiled and wobbled their heads in response. The doors closed again and we all carried on up to our jobs.


A new fleet of Volvo A/C low-floor buses was recently rolled out by KSRTC for the Trivandrum region with services running all the way to Varkala, from where I could now catch an 8:30am air-conditioned bus to work. Joy. I got on one morning and found a new ticket taker there to greet me. After a minute, he came to my seat and said in a loud, happy voice, “Trivandrum?” “Kazhakuttom,” I replied. His brow furrowed. Kazhakuttom, a bland outlying Trivandrum suburb, is not a regular weigh station for tourists.


“Kovalam,” he corrected me with a slight nod and a still-furrowed brow. I must have meant Kovalam, the more established of Trivandrum region's two beach tourism havens (Varkala being the other). “No, Kazhakuttom,” I said again with a smile. “No Trivandrum? East Fort? Pattom?” The ticket taker's tone became ever more incredulous. He was really trying to help, and I was touched in a way. But I didn't want to go to Trivandrum. “Kazhakuttom,” I repeated. “I work at Technopark.” His face lit up in surprise. “Oh! You work at Technopark! Ok ok ok ok.” He printed off a ticket and handed it to me with a beaming smile, as if to demonstrate his hard-won approval of my unusual destination. I gave him some money, and he returned to his seat at the front of the bus. When I eventually got off at Kazhakuttom, he gave me an especially grave and meaningful head-wobble.


A fresh-faced young man of about 22 years, D, joined our company
and was placed at a workstation in the same row as mine. Whereas the remainder of the row had become relatively accustomed to having a saip in their midst, for D it was something entirely new and unusual. If ever I had reason to look in his direction, the majority of the time I would find his wide eyes and blank, uncertain expression already fixed on me.


A friend spoke to him several times in Malayalam. “Never mind that he's a saip. Just let him be, man!” But D could not, for the life of him, stop staring. One day, another colleague - S - was sitting between D and myself and began to explain to me about something he was working on. The moment I looked up to give my full attention to this colleague, D also looked up and gave his full attention to me. By this time rather weary of D's frequent gaze, I ducked my head back a little so it would be obscured from D by S's head. A moment later, D's head popped out from behind S's head like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, his line of sight to the saip once again correct and present. I bit the insides of my cheeks to hold back my laughter. One day, my friend and I spotted him at a cafe and sat with him. We all spoke in clear, friendly English, even though D and I had never before spoken. He came to know me as a person, not merely a saip. And after that day, he didn't stare at me any more. Well, not too many times.


I woke up one morning at 6:15am, standard for a weekday, and staggered into the bathroom in my lungi to have a (cold) shower before work. I wanted to be clean and dressed in my shiny dress shirt and pants before my girlfriend finished preparing my morning chaya. I looked forward to breakfast at my usual Varkala hotel, my old favourite: masala dosa. Before performing my ablutions, I switched on the bathroom light...

...and there, in the mirror staring back at me, was a saip.



  • tomsj
    14.12.14 10:43 AM
    sayippu is racial term..dont think its for respect but cracks uncle is a white man and he never likes him to be called as sayippu..he got more experience in India
  • Kimi
    17.01.14 07:41 PM
    Hahaha I can just imagine that! We just can't help it. Well, I guess we can since I have been trying to stop staring and have mostly succeeded . But we are just..curious. We usually get over it after sometime. (I think)
    I hope you had a good time :)
  • Emily Verrinder
    Emily Verrinder
    16.01.14 10:40 AM
    I just discovered your website via I have a good friend who is from Kerala and I love the language and would love to visit the beautiful south someday soon. I was wondering how you started your learning of the language? Malayalam is very difficult to find with learning programs.
  • jerrin jose
    jerrin jose
    28.04.13 02:11 AM
    i'm living in tvm at the moment and we have an american in our building who for some reason has taken to the idea that sayipu is a racial slur,almost everybody in the building tried to convince him it's not and he has a new complaint that we mallus talk loudly and it disturbs him,i mean we are a bunch of bachelors in a building,what else should he expect an environment to meditate?
    he really thinks we all should be behaving as americans,where do these kind of sayipus come from
  • Santosh
    13.04.13 01:54 AM
    Was funny reading your post. I think the word Saip or Sayippu comes from the Hindi word Saheb meaning Sir. When the British ruled India all those white gentlemen where called Sir (Saheb/Sahib) and to Keralites it became Saip or Sayippu.
    I am a Keralite born and raised in Chennai now living in Canada.
  • Mathew
    15.12.12 07:09 AM
    Oh my god, I have tears in my eyes laughing so hard imagining the situation. Nice description
  • Fabia Postel
    Fabia Postel
    28.09.12 07:25 PM
    love the ending !!
  • Kerewin
    11.09.12 09:10 AM
    Lol great post! I get Asian shock all the time when I see my reflection. Everyone I've ever told thought I was nuts lol. I'm glad I'm not alone in this phenomena
  • suresh
    01.06.12 09:42 AM
    This was so funny but I can picture it so clearly in my mind. I get the feeling this is so uniquely Indian. Other culture don't stare like this. I have been to thailand many times and they don't stare at people from other races like this. As a Indian I am not sure what we are thinking when we are looking at other races. Its almost like the expression we have when we are at a zoo or encountered a new animal and curious if it breathes through nose and eats through its mouth just like we do.
    Its a primal feeling and only when the beast is peeked.poked and fed does the staring stop.
  • Aman
    10.02.12 02:24 AM
    Good stuff Mr NRI.
    Btw, I s'pose you'd've observed that the 'saip shock' is a pan-India (if not multi-national) phenomenon.

    In fact, as a somewhat 'fairer' Northie, I stand out of the crowd down South (no offence meant) almost, nay (who am I kidding here), a bit like 'firangis' :D

    And yes, subjected to stares, may I add, feels good when it's the ladies as the starers and me as the staree.
  • Jonny
    10.02.12 02:16 AM
    I can see why this is the most article you have.
    Love your writing style and sense of humour.

    Whilst reading this, I couldn't help wonder how I would be treated there.

    Also, it would be great to get some Malayalis' point of view of what is going through their minds till the moment they get <>

    There I was, minding my own business with my colleague in the lift. Suddenly came running a beast-like creature. Its hair, white and probably soft, shiny dress shirt as if trying to blind those around him, worse when paired with his skin colour. Its eyes, the moment its eyes met mine...


    I froze in fear.
  • beena
    10.02.12 12:23 AM
    Excuse me Reshmi, malayalees do not stare? im not sure what ur experience has been like but im not a Saip or Madhamma, but an NRI who lived in india for a good 10 years b4 mopving on again...and i must say- i hve often wondered how our people can stare so bluntly, wthout a single blink...its so in ur face...i first wondered if it was coz i ws funny looking or errr ugly...but as i grew up, so did my vanity and i kinda shrugged off the attention!! but it still is quite unnerving. i now try rolling my eyes in return or making funny faces or just imitating the stare but with my jaw dropped open and a bit of saliva drooling down...if u cant beat em, join em- Proud Mallu.
  • Bronwyn
    10.02.12 12:08 AM
    Thanks for re-posting this! I love the blatant SAIP SHOCK!! that butts in to every part of life.

    I obviously understand the attention that foreigners receive from Indians, that other Indians don't seem to believe/understand (case in point: Keralite girl above.) It's just another one of those circumstances where two people can be living in the same space, but having a completely different experience of their environment.
    Fun post!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    09.02.12 11:27 PM
    Hi Reshmi,

    The picture does appear to be from North India, which is admittedly not ideal, but it is the best image we could find to run with the post. I do feel it conveys a little of the sense of standing out so boldly that I felt so strongly in my life in Kerala.

    I'm saddened that you take offence at the content of the post. I can only tell you that every single one of the above experiences is absolutely true, without embellishment, and that they are the tip of the enormous iceberg of constant daily attention I received while living in Kerala. Even the last example of <> is true: I eventually became shocked by my own appearance!

    The point of the post is not to make gross generalisations about Malayalis - I know not all Keralites stare openly at foreigners (though I assure you, a majority do) - but to share what it feels like, in the specific context of Kerala, to receive so much attention from strangers.
  • Reshmi Menon
    Reshmi Menon
    09.02.12 10:05 AM
    Accidentally I came across this blog.I am a Keralite girl and I should say that this pic is a total bullshit.First of all look carefully at that pic,those people are not Keralites at all.Instead they are North Indians.I dont think any Keralites wear that sort of costume.Whoever have visited the place can easily say that.Those people are from remote areas of India (may be Bihar).I dont think any Keralites stare at Foreigners as you say.In face I really feel offended by reading your post.Infact foreigners visited our land since time immemorial and I dont think our people are that curious and excited to see a White guy/girl.
  • sunith
    06.12.11 09:28 PM
    fun post :) The incident on the train seemed so unbelievable! The word saip seem to have stirred a lot of conversation in the comments. Let me get my two bits in. I lived in Kerala for around 20 years. Saip is generally used to refer to fair skinned foreigners, the country of origin really doesn't matter, its similar to the word gora in Hindi. With the high number of NRIs in the state, you get to come across a lot of instances where the locals tease the NRIs with the Saip word, sometimes in jest, sometimes with a negative intent.

    I had a different accent while speaking malayalam, partly due to my mom being brought up outside Kerala, and a bit of the gulf influence on my dad. My classmates used to tease me saying I talk like a saip.. Most of the NRIs kids who come down for visits to Kerala go through the same routine, where their cousins would taunt them on their inability to speak malayalam fluently and say they are trying to act like saips. This holds true for their lack of tolerance for spicy food, intake of booze etc. The meaning of the word changes with the intent it is spoken with and the context it is used in. This is applicable for most words in any language. On a generic note, if a white is called a saip, don't take offence to it, its just the local lingo not any simmering anti colonial frustrations :)
  • Fire Crystals
    Fire Crystals
    04.12.11 03:25 AM
    Your post just cracked me up :)
    Loved it. As a Malayalee who is working in technopark, I can understand how weird it must feel to be stared at, pulled at etc. In fact, it is not just sayips who face that in Kerala. A North Indian would also be looked on with as much curiosity, and especially more if their eye and hair colours were different from black.
  • Jennifer Kumar
    Jennifer Kumar
    20.09.11 12:34 PM
    Barnaby- Great.
    I am an American.. now living in Kochi.

    I have been to TVM and Kazhakootam and Technopark. I stayed in the Sainik school there several times.

    In Kochi a few weeks ago two young girls walked by me and jumped up to grab my pony-tail. They really pulled my hair. I thought it was gonna come out!! My family (all Indian) were with me. I told them about it after the girls left. They said they'd given the girls some talking to if they knew that's what they did. So when I read the arm hair pulling thing....hhmmmm? How do people learn/think about doing this? That's what I wonder. I'd never consider touching a stranger.

    Especially their hair!!

    So...saiyappu... I liked reading all the thoughts on that.

    Ginu and 2nd gen
    Could saiyappu also have a similar meaning to the Hindi word 'pardesi'...?

    So a Trivandrum person is a saiyappu in Kochi? That's also true. A Tamil a saiyappu in Kochi. ...

    I can see how it would be derogatory and I can also understand how this word is taken offensively for Keralites who move abroad and come back.

    That being said- it begs a question. Kerala has the most number of residents abroad- so there is a NRK (non-residents Keralite) association even set up by gov't of Kerala- NOKRA Or NORKA I believe. So there'd be a maximum number of saiyappus in Kerala visiting at any given moment. NRKs from Gulf, States, UK, Australia, NZ, China and so many other countries- how does a Malayalee deal with the fact that when one goes abroad they will have to adapt to particular things to be successful? Do they try to avoid becoming a saiyappu? If so how does this conflict with adjusting, being successful and feeling comfortable abroad? How does this interfere with questions of identity?
  • 2nd gen
    2nd gen
    25.08.11 04:38 AM
    Hilarious article, and so true.

    I would agree with Ginu though, that Saipan does not have the same connotations as Sahib, which implies some reverence or deference. . Saip often carries a smudge of derogatory undertones, and is sometimes used as an outright insult. As a second gen NRI who can't speak Malayalam well, I often get called a Saipan dismissively, as if I am trying to ape the white man. If only I could master the head wobble I'm sure I would fit in better.
  • white karnatakan
    white karnatakan
    01.08.11 10:18 PM
    This is great! In Karnataka I'm just called "foreign!"
    I live in a small city in northern Karnataka and can especially relate to your story #3. Coming on the bus or train from Mumbai or Bangalore, everyone 'helpfully' tries to put me on the bus to Goa. When I insist "Hubli", then then send me to the Hospet bus. I spend half my time of finding the bus just getting people to believe that I'm going to Hubli.

    When in Kerala with a Malayali friend, he noticed that a bunch of teachers-in-training were commenting on my pale, ghost-like skin and other teasing. He quietly taught me to say "I know Malayalam" in Malayalam - I turned to them and said it, calmly and they turned bright red and ran away.
  • Tarun Elankath
    Tarun Elankath
    17.07.11 03:08 AM
    Believe it or not there is brown shock too. I was in Bulagaria a few years ago and lazily walking down Vitosha Boulevard on a Saturday evening. People were literally turning heads and staring at me, men and women both. I actually didn't at first think it was due to my color, I thought maybe I had my fly loose or something. But a quick check in a restroom confirmed nothing was wrong.

    Many also smiled at me, quickly recovering from their "WTF" moment. Bulgarians are quite hot, so I didn't mind the smiles. :)

    A colleague at work later told me they might have thought me to be a Gypsy. But another disagreed saying I don't appear to be one. So, I am putting it down to brown skin.
  • Sijith
    28.06.11 10:48 PM
    Nice post.. I was in search of the origin of the word "Sayippu" and google guided me to here.
    Even during our childhood picnics, whenever we spot a "sayippu" on streets of Cochin or TVM..we used to get that <>. We will used to bet each other to see who will go and talk to the Sayippu :).
    Thanks to IT, days have changed and people would have more cross-cultural experience than before.
    I will bookmark this blog.
  • ajithprasadkc
    28.06.11 11:56 AM
    nice saip..........kudos for posting your experience in kerala....
    slowly people getting out of the colonial hangover
  • Swapna
    21.06.11 04:25 PM
    Excellently written! Hilarious :)
  • Lakshmi
    21.06.11 01:09 PM
    Barnaby eagerly awaiting more blogs from has been long since you've put up something interesting :)
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    Ginu Tharakan George
    16.06.11 01:31 PM
    Nobody else would be referred to as 'sayippu' if you are around? Most likely, bub. It would seem logical too but from my experiences and of what I have learned of Kerala, I would put it down to a very simple statement. The term 'sayippu' is truly relative. It could be used to describe the person who is most 'foreign' in the contextual vicinity. If somebody seems more alien than you do and is in the same surroundings as you, I truly believe that you may escape being the target of this label.:)
    Another thing I would like to add is that the origins of the word 'sayippu' might come from the word 'sahib' Persian-Sanskrit-Hindi vernacular language group. However the origins are just about the only thing common with the two words. The semantics differ quite lot. It is definitely not a term of respect anymore or rather I would say that 'Sahib' is now a racially neutral word in hindi indicating deference; while the Malayalam word sayippu is all about "foreigner/alien" with no deference attached to it.
    Sorry for the clinical dissection..Force of habit I guess. I really do like your work though. Entertainment through verbiage is a rarity in this age. I have a Kiwi for a flatmate here in London. Trust me, he does not have the eloquence of prose that your work conveys. Good on you mate. Thank you for the smiles..keep writing.. :)
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.06.11 09:57 AM
    @Ginu - Very interesting! I had no idea - probably because if I am present in any place in Kerala, I'm the one who's going to be referred to as a 'sayip', not anyone else. I'll keep an eye out for this phenomenon.

    Thanks everyone for your compliments - I think this has been my most popular article so far.
  • Nishanth
    16.06.11 12:35 AM
    Hello Saip!!!
    Thanks for sharing these awesome experiences with us. Love ur write up!

    This is what we are, but that staring and direct questioning were not part of any rude of arrogant behavior. It is just the way we are.

    -Another staring Malayali!!!
  • Jojy John Alphonso
    Jojy John Alphonso
    15.06.11 10:50 PM
    Wow! You sure do know a lot about Malayalees than we do! I love your writing style and I will look forward to more your writing.
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    Ginu Tharakan George
    15.06.11 10:41 PM
    Well written prose, mate. It has elements of a very evident cultural shock you will no doubt be a recipient of. However I do have to tell you that 'sayippu' does have a lot of other implications today. It has a derogatory meaning too..often used by the youth of Kerala to refer to someone they consider to have "foreign" cultural expressions. For example someone who is a Keralite but not well versed in Malayalam. Sayippu is a term sometimes used to refer to the 'spurious' heritage of anglo-Indians common in Kerala. Again it is also used to describe someone who is unsuccessful at achieving a cultural alignment with Keralite culture. This can get so silly sometimes with the term being used for someone who abhors spicy food for instance. Hence 'sayippu' is a very multifarious term. Sorry if this seems to be riddling holes in your brilliant work. Just felt that you ought to know the complete picture..After all, you are a 'Sayippu'.. :))))
  • NNNiiiXXX
    15.06.11 02:09 AM
    Readin u for the first time... I am from kerala and i am really surprised that u had to go thru these really weird incidents. But U sure have written this in a way that has not hurt anyone's feelings. Superb!!! Keep writing...
  • Prithvi Mithun
    Prithvi Mithun
    15.06.11 01:08 AM
    Yep!! This saip shock happens to all the whites who come here! So in short, you're not alone! At times, experiences can be worse. Anyway, nice writing and happy to know that you work in Technopark. We work there too!! :)
  • hakuna matata
    hakuna matata
    14.06.11 02:13 PM
    hey, reading u for the 1st time... that arm hair thng reminds me of smethng... m an indian gai and i had this german colleague who had hairy arms.. and man i cudnt take my eyes of thm!!! in sunlght, they actually seemed golden!!! well, i nver got an opprtunity to touch thm :( :( ( ur train guys were lucky). btw, keep on writing! n njoy india! bonne chance!!
  • S Chakravorty
    S Chakravorty
    12.06.11 12:19 AM

    great Saaip shock..

    Good one Barnaby..
  • Red Handed
    Red Handed
    30.05.11 11:46 AM
    Lol...its not just the SAIP SHOCK....but also the story of the north Indians who come to Kerala.

    btw only an NRI can write for this site? i would love to..
  • D
    28.05.11 12:47 PM
    Very amusing post. Enjoyed reading it!
  • Rajiv
    26.05.11 08:49 AM
    And here, return of saip shocks. Nice post Morris. :)
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    26.05.11 12:21 AM

    That was h.i.l.a.r.i.o.u.s. And kudos on the seriously impressive foot work on the cross cultural sticky wicket. A lesser saip would've turned the arm hair yanking incident into a story on the evening news for sure.

    I've tried explaining the idea that "personal space" and "boundaries" are radically different in India (and elsewhere) to some of my saip buddies but they can't even conceive of it. I'm sending them your piece right now!

  • Shaila
    25.05.11 06:51 PM
    Very nice post! It is good to hear your side of it and glad to know that you did not take offence! Loved the ending! Wish you many more entertaining years is the God's Own Country!
  • EM
    25.05.11 04:47 PM
    Malayalis always referred to me as "Madamma" (foreign lady). Every time I heard people saying that word, I knew they were talking about me, but I couldn't understand anything else they were saying. Once in Kovalam, a little girl asked me for my autograph. It was endearing, but weird at the same time.

    Love the ending, by the way!
  • beena
    25.05.11 12:46 AM
    tis is so spot on...all in good taste...inoffensive. hilarious! but the hair stroking was rude..weird...u sure u wernt travelling thru calicut?
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    24.05.11 11:10 PM
    Thanks for sharing that, PIJ! I'm so glad you mention cultural exchange. It's one of the biggest reasons I'm here, or anywhere other than my homeland.

    Let me state very clearly here that I see nothing negative about the above episodes of SAIP SHOCK, or about SAIP SHOCK in general. No judgments were made and no feelings hurt. It was just curiosity, plain and simple - perhaps lacking empathy in the case of the hair stroking, but utterly harmless.

    And anyway, after nearly three years here I probably feel SAIP SHOCK as much as anyone!
  • Poor In Java
    Poor In Java
    24.05.11 08:52 PM
    Nice post Morris. Reminds me of my childhood days when I was in 5th-6th grade and used to study in a school built inside a palace premise. The premise always was full of foreign and domestic tourist. My friends and I used to sneak out of school during our lunch breaks to the palace to converse with them. It was fun to learn and know people from around the world. Though, there were some who were generous to share cultural information and be polite and friendly and then there were some who ignored us as if we were bothering them.
    Life plays funny games with you some times. I moved out from India quite some time and I can see back in past where I am standing on the other side and people are anxious to know more about me :)
    At times, I too get SAIP SHOCK
  • Malayali-in-US
    24.05.11 07:07 PM
    Oh My God!.. really really funny!.. I can totally see these happening!.. :D :D
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    24.05.11 06:10 PM
    Thanks, guys!

    Eon, seriously? I thought that was a one-off!
  • Eon
    24.05.11 03:25 PM
    LOL at the arm hair story. I've had the exact same thing happen several times!
  • Noel
    24.05.11 01:41 PM
    nice one mate :)
  • Sacha Gomez
    Sacha Gomez
    24.05.11 11:21 AM
    Thoroughly enjoyed this one Barns! Especially the last bit!
  • Anita Govind Bhatia
    Anita Govind Bhatia
    23.05.11 11:40 PM
    oh god, aren't u cute?!

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