Monday, July 29, 2013

Thoughts on being a lifetime "foreigner"

(Will I always be seen as a foreigner? Delhi, 2010)

India has the only country I have ever visited where I've never been treated more as a "foreigner" Yes, I now refer to myself as a friggin' "foreigner". What the hell.

I have visited/lived in so many different countries but only in India do we have so many different names for "an outsider" - Foreigner. Gori. Firangi. Outsider. Westerner.

I started calling myself a foreigner because as the only non-Indian member of our big fat Indian family - that is what I'm referred to. Not the Canadian girl. The "foreigner". I don't exactly think it's a positive word. That word is like being called a stranger, or somebody who is a constant ignorant tourist, a visitor. Not someone permanent. Nobody in my family calls beloved husband-ji "a foreigner".

This is what Urban Dictionary said:

"An alien or person that has different customs, comes from a different country/territory, and is different from your own diverse culture, religion, or maybe race."
The foreigner could not understand the directions to get to Bounty Street.

But wait a sec, don't I do nearly everything the Indian way? Wow...I feel so at home...with a culture where I'm ALWAYS going to be considered "the token foreigner".

Maybe I'm more sensitive to this because I'm Canadian, and immigration is really welcomed here. Everyone is welcome to be Canadian whilst at the same time they are encouraged to preserve their own culture too. But when you get your PR card, and when you get your citizenship - it's like you're one of us. You're a resident of Canada. And when you marry into a Western family, you're part of the family...not like Indians who "belong" to one family or the other.

I guess I've been thinking about this because I'm currently in the process of waiting for my PIO card to come, and I was so excited about it's arrival because I thought it would be a really "desi moment" for me. Finally, another notch on my acceptance from Indians. Sometimes I feel like I've had to overcompensate so much in order to be accepted - to go the extra mile - because India & Indian mentality is so jai ho. From learning how to cook Indian food, wearing Indian clothes, getting to know the culture inside out, following the customs, religious customs...everything!

I mean, to be honest, we are dealing with a notoriously non-mixing culture here. With many Indians even living in the US - it's like they feel like they need to limit their exposure to non-Indians in order to preserve their culture. A relative of ours who I wrote about in this article will not even let their children socialize with non-Indians. And they live in the US. In fact, 99% of the Indians we know in the US only socialize with other Indians. When husband-ji went to college, he made lots of friends - Indian, Black, White, Hispanic, local Savannah people, everybody. And my FIL did the same when he went abroad. But I'm starting to admit to myself that a lot of the non-mixing Indians are discriminatory "foreigners"...

After 7 years of being part of an Indian family, (or 6 years of "trying" to break the brick wall and then being publicly accepted) I'm starting to wonder if I'll always be seen as a foreigner...? And what about my daughter? So much of our Indian family goes on and on about how she looks like a foreign baby. Will she ever be accepted as a Indian, in India? Or will she be just another gori like me?

(Will Maya be seen as a foreigner? On her 1st birthday, wearing an Indian lehenga)

I recently got into an excellent debate over at my blogger sister's White Indian Housewife blog. She wrote a post and she was outraged that at private hospitals in Mumbai - they are charging the "foreigner price" or as I like to call it, the "foreigner debt" to (white) women who are residents of India and have PIO's. The comments were getting really heated and it was basically like a back and forth - desis vs. the foreigners battle.

Westerners love to debate. We like to find out all the WHYs culturally. It can get really annoying for Indians to explain these customs when they themselves had never had to explain them. I noticed that the Indians were getting extremely defensive about "foreigners" critiquing the way Indians do things. One foreigner was getting really pissed off about it, and this is what I said to her:

Hi Rebecca,
I really can understand your anger and frustration with a lot of the things you have said regarding being discriminated about being foreign. It raises an important point – are we being discriminated against because of the British raj and all the awful things they did, and Sonia Gandhi, etc – like a subconscious debt that we will always have to repay? It’s hard to say exactly.
I went to school with many Jewish kids who had grandparents who were in the concentration camps and their whole family killed, and because I heard so many awful things about what the Nazis did, I still have trouble with my bias towards Germany…I will avoid even transferring through frankfurt airport because all I think about is concentration camps. I literally have to stop myself from feeling weird about anyone who is German, even though WW2 happened over 60 years ago. One of my white American friends who was dating an Indian guy said that he said that he could never tell his parents about her due to the fact that it'd be too close for comfort with the British thing (with all the bad stuff that happened during the British raj).
I think the reason why people are getting so mad at you and deflecting it away, is that Indians really don't like to admit the bad stuff to people who are considered as outsiders. Even in Indian family dynamics – I’m allowed to complain about family members to other family members, but I'd better not complain to someone outside the family; and someone outside the family better not complain about us – type of mindset.
I think Westerners in general have less shame for these type of things and are more open about our defeats. For example, the in the US the Trayvon Martin case is an absolute tragedy of justice. If any non-American complains about it, we will also complain about it and ADMIT that “Yea, it really sucks.” Same with the Italians as well – my dad can go to any Italian restaurant/cucina and say, “Berlusconi sucks” and they'd totally agree, and they'd complain together.
In Indian psyche, it’s like a separation thing – my family vs. the outside – kind of like the reputation, caring what others think, etc. – a very Asian mentality. So regarding any complaints that we foreigners have about India, it’s automatically the desis vs. the foreigners (even though they may even agree with us).
But India is like that…it is what it is…there is lots of unfairness, inequalities and corruption, and even the Indians have accepted this, so we have to accept it too. Even though it’s wrong. Even though it’s unfair.
Regarding the constant injustices, even Indians themselves have many difficulties. One of my favorite Indian authors Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said, “only the most fortunate and most well connected people get the best of life in India”. My husband (Tamil guy) says you can get better chances (either through bribing or connections) with school admission, getting a job interview, ANYTHING to do with government paperwork, traffic police, airport customs, getting into seeing a doctor quicker, and even in temples getting closer to the shrine. So Indians also have this problem too with the corruption.
But I guess we're not allowed debate about certain things because we're foreigners…even though Westerners enjoy the process of debating because we want to find out WHY (culturally), I think to Indians it is seen as “pointing out the dirty laundry” type of thing.…so…it is what it is. It’s part of the deal, even though it sucks. I can relate…but I have to keep my mouth shut, to an extent!

I guess the bottom line - where it really matters - is that on a day to day basis with my husband, I never really notice that we are an intercultural couple. But whenever I visit India, and a lot of the times with his family, I do feel like "the foreigner".

What about you, dear readers? Are we as foreigners paying a "debt" to India when being overcharged (in India when visiting monument sites, etc), due to all the atrocities by the British Raj/Sonia Gandhi?
Do you find that when you criticize anything to do with India, Indians can get really defensive?
And most importantly, do you still feel like the foreigner in the Indian family dynasty?



  1. There will always be a way to infiltrate, find your own place, own community and relinquish the foreigner title - if only for a short time.
    Especially in metros the notion of a foreigner is not so relevant, as there are so many foreigners living and working in India and being accepted by those around them
    I am often told that I am Indian now that I have married my husband, and being a regular around here makes things easier!
    I also have friends who are working towards bettering India and our city, in line with Anna Hazare and other anti-corruption movements...
    I always say that true Indians want India to prosper and many modern and educated people can see where the fault lies.
    Even though there were massacres by the british in the North and heavy resistance to the british in Punjab including infamous freedom fights people are still well connected to the outside world.
    Many families in India will have a number of members abroad and know of so and so who married someone outside of their race.
    In our extended family (my husband's side) we have non Indian Christians, Indian Christians, Sikhs and Hindus - including a girl with an Indian father and Swiss mother. We have relatives in Canada, USA, Australia and NZ!!
    ...Regardless the staring never stops, but it helps to negotiate like your MIL. :)

    1. 100% agree.
      I am also told I'm Indian, but I wonder if people would feel the same way if I had not made such an effort for their culture...?
      Unfortunately, although we have many family members abroad, I'm the only non-Indian in the entire family. Everytime any of our unmarried relatives go abroad I always (selfishly) hope that they will bring back a non-Indian too, so that I'm not the only one! But maybe it is a blessing in disguise, as they would probably compare us too much! lol...

    2. The same people who say "oh, no no, you are Indian, you married an Indian" are also the same ones who point out your foreigner status at other times though. We are not expected to be Indian (nor should we be - we were acculturated differently) and we *will* always be foreign. Learning, acculturating, but foreign. And there is nothing wrong with that. And even when and if our family accepts us as family, you just have to step out of the house to have to prove yourself all over again. So why prove? Just be yourself. Acculturate as much or as little as necessary and desired, but we are who we are, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

    3. @Andrea..... SO TRUE........I agree completely...

  2. "Foreigner" is not a good word, I agree with you on that. It is quite commonly used in India to refer specifically to White people. Perhaps the roots are in the country's colonial past? I don't really know. That said, it's time to get rid of terms like that in this day and age. News flash to old Indian Aunties: it is NOT a term of endearment.

    Having said that, there's another word that I dislike even more that's applied to brown people in the US - "alien". Though technically being a citizen, I am neither, I'd prefer "foreigner" to "alien" any day. However, there's an important distinction, at least for Indians - the term "alien" is mostly confined to legalese i.e. anything to do with immigration paperwork. But if you look Mexican, then you get an extra credit. On top of being an "alien", you are now an "illegal alien" by default, whether in fact you are Mexican-American or not.

    1. Hi DH,
      I only recently realized through writing this blog that being called a "foreigner" bothered me. It makes me feel separate.
      But...what to do...I have to accept it, as the only foreigner in our entire Indian family.
      And yes...ugh..the word "alien" is even worse! So offensive. I would also prefer to be called a "foreigner" rather than "an alien" as well.

  3. I don't see what's wrong in being labelled as a foreigner, when you are one. I really don't care how people call me, and paying a tourist price as a tourist doesn't bother me at all.

    On a day to day basis, being married to an Indian who lived all his life in India, I do feel like an intercultural couple. We've had to talk a lot, but with time I realized that there's no use in pretending to be an Indian wife, because I'm not Indian, and if he wanted an Indian wife he would have married one. So now we have a very relaxed relationship.

    There is a saying that familiarity breeds contempt, and I believe being seen as a foreigner is a way to keep respectful boundaries. (Padparadscha)

    1. Hi Padparadscha,
      Thanks for adding to the discussion and adding your experiences. That is definitely food for thought.
      It's kind of hard to explain, but I don't like the word "foreigner" when it is coming from one of my family members. I would rather be just simply called "Alexandra" or "Madhavan's wife" or even "Westerner" or "Canadian". However, I don't care when it's a stranger calling me that. I feel like when it comes from a family member, it feels so separate and that I'm not considered as part of the family. But I didn't even realize that it bothered me so much until I started writing my thoughts on this blog.
      It is not their fault, they are not saying it maliciously at all, and I think they are just saying it to identify me, maybe my name is too tricky? And I'm also the only non-Indian member.
      I think Indians tend to say things more bluntly, so it just comes across as harsh-ER. My MIL says that she has had a tough time with wording things to me because she feels that with Westerners, words have such a deeper meaning, and oftentimes she has trouble using the right words when explaining things, or telling things.
      Anyways, it's ok, it's all a work in progress and it's nobody's fault. But I still don't like the!

    2. I see you mean. Traditionnally in France, families would refer to the spouse as an "added piece", which can be hurtful I suppose, and they would always keep a certain distance with the spouse.

      I like the comment of your MIL - I will keep that in mind ! (Padparadsha)

    3. Names are sometimes also tricky. No one in my husband's family calls me by my name except for him and my in-laws. I'm 'bouma' or 'boudi' to everyone else. And to someone whose native language is not English 'foreigner' may have a different connotation to them than it does to you. I've heard many a white girl bandy about the term 'gori' not realizing that when it refers to a Westerner it has a lot of really negative connotations. So 'foreigner' may hurt to you, but they don't see that because to them, it's just another word. You may have to explain that to them somehow.

    4. Yes, I think "gori" is worse than "foreigner"...can't stand it...sounds awful!
      I think also I'm called "the foreigner" because my name is so difficult to pronounce for some. "Alek" comes out instead of "Alex". It is getting less and less though, thank god. Standing the test of time here, woo hoo! ;)
      I really like it when my hubby's sisters call me Vadina or Bhabi. I think it's really sweet.

  4. Yeah, it must really suck to be labelled as a foreigner. I think that's something that happens in all Asian countries though:even in china and makaysia, if you do not look Asian, you are automatically a foreigner and you are charged much higher prices than normal people. I guess part of the reason is that people are resentful of how generally white people get favorable treatment in airports and shops and everywhere. Colonial hangover I suppose.
    Oh and don't get me started on those American NRIs. Indians living in America are frequently more conservative than their counterparts in india,

    1. OMG no kidding - "Indians living in America are frequently more conservative than their counterparts in india", ain't that the truth!
      I think the word "foreigner" has such negative connotations for me. To me, it just sounds like some daft person who doesn't know left from right!
      I wonder a lot about the colonial was only 60 years ago. So many Indians say, absolutely not...but I think it is. The image that the British left with was not so favorable - boozing, women, rich, etc. Which just so happens to be the stereotype of Westerners - boozing, divorce, no family values, promiscuity, seems connected in some way.

  5. Your daughter looks VERY desi, I don't know who told you guys she looks foreign. Don't worry, she won't be labeled as an "outsider" or a "gori". In fact, she will most likely blend in with the desi crowds everywhere she goes, but not so much the white crowds (as she looks foreign to them). I guess for a south indian, yes she looks different as they are usually pretty dark, but in terms of an indian identity as a whole, she is a desi baby by any standard. And don't feel bad you are called a foreigner, because technically to indians you are one. Its the same thing that NO MATTER how americanized we people of color get, we are always labeled as "immigrants" and people always ask us where we're from (even though we are born/raised in USA/Canada). Its just the fact of life, don't let it get to you, especially since you chose this path- it wasn't an arranged marriage. You are as foreign to your desi family as they are to the country they reside in.

    1. Hope she can fit in everywhere & anywhere...I have heard from both sides that she looks foreign. The Western side thinks she looks Indian, the Indian side thinks she looks foreign...the only thing is her skin color sets her apart. I'm glad she looks like both sides...
      That it true what you said about being labeled an "immigrant", I suppose I identify with that more due to my travels and living abroad. In that way I am more sensitive to my Indian family's struggles when abroad.
      Despite our struggles, I am glad to have them as my extended family. I wouldn't have picked any other :)

  6. I relate to what you're saying as well.
    No matter what you do, you are white, WAÏTE ! That's it. Doesn't matter ihow hard you are trying : you are wearing jeans : you are undecent, you don't respect the country. The girl sitting next to you in the train, Indian, wears shorts, who cares ?

    Also agree on the unsaid scars of colonial past. I've had my boyfriend reproaching me, that all I hate about India, is because of me/us (by these words pointing at the whites, the foreigners who looted their country). What can hurt more in a couple to suddenly lose your satus of beloved individual and have to carry the burden of a colonial past you have no responsability in ? And in the end you are the only one tagged for being sort of racist on top of that because YOU don't like the country.


    1. The colonial thing really irritates me, especially since none of my ancestors were involved in anything like that. Some Indians can be really racist and they think that every single "white" person is British!!!!!!!
      You should see the latest jerk commenter, on my saree post, mentioning colonization and that I should not wear the saree.

    2. In Europe, we also had a big trauma some 60 - 70 years ago. French and of Polish origin, I should hate Germany ?
      I actually learnt German before English, in "European classes" that means I also had classes of History taught in German, for a total of 7 hours per week or so, for 3 years. I've been on school exchanges several times. I even worked in Germany.

      And it is not that the young generations don't know what has happened in the past. Neither have they forgotten. They are so many war movies (even recent ones), and computer games... you know very well "who is the good side, who is the bad side".
      The history is taught at school, and I had the chance of having both versions taught : the French one, and the German one. What I get out of it is how easy it is to manipulate people using hate and very basic judgment. There was a movie on that recently : Die Welle (German movie). It is not that they have forgotten or stopped asking themselves questions.

      And of course, any situation is always very complex : you get forcefully enrolled in an army, what is your responsibility? My grand mother (who lived during the occupation time) told me once there was a German soldier who spoke French very well, and told them he was sent off for fight in Russia and knew he would never see his mom again. She said "though he was German, I felt bad for him". That is being human. They were Germans in the Resistance, and they were French collaborating. Clichés are always too simple too be true.

      Same thing during the French Revolution : we cut the heads of most people from the nobility, because they were oppressing the people. Some of them were in favor of suppressing their own priviledges. Some of them (Lafayette) went and help US to do their own Revolution.

      Now think about the environment thing. There is a general consensus about "we want to let the world beautiful for our children. They are not responsible for our crap". Now go to colonisation and wars topic : there the children should take the burden or being responsible for what their grand-grand-grand parents MIGHT HAVE DONE ?

      I hate when people talk without knowing. I strongly believe the only weapon against that are eduction, knowledge, and thinking on your own, not based on the prejudices or brain-wash of TV, culture, or family.


    3. @AJ - 100% agree, very well said...

  7. One of the things I am more concerned about is actually whether our future children will be seen by his family as being "only" Indian (since the children are considered to be carrying on the bloodline of the father - no contribution from the mother's side, eh?). I am sure there will be some issues regarding whether our children are going to be using a spoon while eating or eating with hand, whether they will constantly need to have black dots on their foreheads to drive away the evil eye and so on. These are not things I would mind at all, but there will have to be some understanding and acceptance for both halves of our children's background without it turning into something that makes them "foreigner only" or "Indian only". My in-laws are not that conservative but their other DIL is, and she has already managed to make me feel quite upset with some of her comments, such as that I should now be following Hinduism after my marriage into the family. I think it's about a very exclusive, binary way of defining people's identities, loyalties and belonging.

    I also have PIO, and last time we were in Hyderabad we went to visit a museum where the person checking my ticket could not make any sense of my PIO. He actually very sweetly told my MIL that "she does not look Indian". My MIL eagerly defended me saying my marriage to an Indian surely makes me Indian, too. Eventually, I did not have to pay the Foreigners' Fee after they had sent my PIO card to be checked by their boss. As far as I understand, persons with PIO/OCI do not need to pay the higher fees meant for foreigners when visiting sights maintained by federal or state governments. Sometimes this will be explicitly stated ahead of the purchasing of the ticket.

    1. Usually in Hindu families, the mother is seen as the carrier.
      But with my daughter, my inlaws go between thinking that she is an Indian girl to a total foreign baby. They are
      They think she looks like an Indian girl but with foreign skin tone. And I think they see more of the Indian girl in her in times like when she is eating (she loves Indian food and anything spicy) and when she dances.
      Although I have noticed that both my inlaws are becoming extremely protective of her, typical desi-parents style!
      Ugh, with SIL's it is so hard, there is always a feeling of competition. What does it matter to her if you are following Hinduism? God is god...all religions are the same...
      I am not sure what the extended family with think of Maya since we haven't brought her to India yet. We will see. They are more conservative so I'm sure I will have lots of stories...I haven't yet used my PIO in India, but can't wait to....I have heard from other Firangi's that they have had tons of problems with it, constantly being overcharged etc. It seems people want to charge the foreigner rate also to our never scammers...

  8. Hi Alexandra,

    You have a great blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and providing a forum for foreign women married to Indian men.

    I struggled with being a "outsider" for a decade. In fact, I am the Rebecca you replied to in Sheryl's blog and I also wrote the recent comment on your MIL psychology post. I think the reason the "foreign treatment" is so upsetting to some of us is because we come from diverse societies where overt racism, xenophobia, and cultural intolerance are socially unacceptable. It is horrifying to us that we are treated disrespectfully just because of who we are.

    In the past year I finally realized that I am who I am and it simply does not matter what other people think. One of your commentators wrote something like "The degree that you and your spouse acculturate should be a choice, not a compulsion", I really agree with that statement. I learned the hard way that I cannot be honest about how I really feel about India with Indians because most of them are so insecure they cannot handle hearing a negative opinion of their culture. It is no wonder India is so screwed up, people there refuse to even acknowledge problems, much less take actions to solve them. So I used to try to vent online and debate with strangers on Sheryl's blog until I finally realized that was a waste of my time and emotional energy.

    Being in an intercultural marriage has at times been hugely challenging, in the early years sometimes I felt like I make a mistake. But a unique strength is that we have the outsider's perspective of each other's cultures which can be more objective. My husband and I have decided to adopt the good and reject the bad from both of our cultures and raise our children with the best from both worlds.

    Will we ever be accepted by all Indians? No. And you know what, that is their problem. If they want to judge us based on the color of our skin or the label on our passports rather than who we are and how we behave that is their loss.

    I wish you and your family the best!


    1. Hi Rebecca,
      Thank you so much for commenting, I was hoping by a slim chance that you would come over and add your experiences, which sound so parallel to my own. I know exactly how you feel...
      And yes, they cannot stand it. It hurts their sentiments. Everything negative is brushed under the rug....very healthy..LOL.

  9. in india there are 1.25 billion people, so there are a lot of people to convince.
    if you think less number of people should point you out as a foreigner that is not realistic. so in this scenario you might have to carry this poison in your throat like shiva.
    you can start this conversation with your sil and very close indian relatives and they will talk with other relatives in their own way.

    my english is not good so you might have put in some extra effort to understand my point of view. i m sorry for that.

  10. Thanks for the positive mention of my writing, Alexandra. Cross cultural relationships are always a challenge, but hopefully the end result is rewarding. I'm Bengali and married to a Telugu man, and trust me, I get a lot of similar comments, e.g. "She's North Indian! Not really one of us!"


Respectful comments only, please! (That means you, anonymous.)

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