If you Google ‘traveling to India’, you’ll be flooded with blog posts written by Americans or Europeans discussing their “spiritual journey to India”, “how to overcome Delhi belly” and “advice to avoid being scammed”. But what does not often pop up on your search results are blogs and perspectives from anyone with a darker skin tone than white.
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There are blogs upon blogs written by white women traveling to India for one reason or another who share their stories of first impressions, challenges, advice on what to wear, how to eat and what to say. There is a never ending narrative of the white woman in India, but for the African woman very little dialogue exists.
For three native African women living and working in Bengaluru, expat life in the ‘Garden City’ has been just as overwhelming as wonderful and is not entirely what they were expecting.
I spoke to Chido Iweala (name changed) from Africa, 26, Bukelwa Nzimande, 27, from South Africa and Rudo Awolowo (name changed), 26, from Zimbabwe about their experiences living and working in Bengaluru over the past month.
Most African expats are in Bengaluru to attend college but these women are here strictly for working purposes. They have each has received a fellowship to complete internships at various organisations around the city for a total of six months. Their relatively short stay in Bengaluru gives them an advantage when it comes to facing ongoing problems that some expats face when moving to India long term like finding permanent housing or gaining the acceptance as a resident. The experiences of these women in Bengaluru offers a glimpse into first impressions on both their side and from Indians who react to seeing foreign women in their city.
It can be a daunting and even dangerous time for Africans to visit let alone live in an Indian city. Incidents in Bengaluru and the rest of India targeting young African expats in schools and by police are not uncommon. Unfair treatment by police, drug allegations, violence and discrimination in colleges are just a few of the recent instances where Africans have been the main target.
Bukelwa pointed out that little narrative exists on Africans living in India, something that, before she arrived, made her worry more about how she would be perceived by locals.
“I think all of our experiences will be different to a certain degree because we’re from different places and already people perceive all of us differently whether it’s intended or not,” Bukelwa said. “It’s history and a whole lot of other things that influence how people perceive you even before getting to know you or even before having the chance to say something.”
Bukelwa was most nervous of how India’s caste system would affect her and feared her darker skin tone would characterise her time in Bengaluru.
“That was one thing that really worried me before coming here – like ‘oh my goodness I’m not ready to be classified because I am a shade darker than everyone else and automatically I’m placed in a caste,’” Bukelwa said. “And I must say I haven’t felt like people have looked at me as I’m less of a person or I’m inferior.”
Someone’s always watching
Before traveling to India, or any Asian country, most travelers or expats are warned about the many eyes that will curiously watch them and the stream of probing questions they’ll be asked. It can be difficult to adjust to living in a new country when “you stick out like a sore thumb” as Bukelwa puts it. Bukelwa, Chido and Rudo all said they knew they would be different but are surprised by how much they stand out or rather how much they notice it. No matter how prepared a person thinks they are for the blatant staring, there is no way not to feel completely comfortable with so many eyes on you.
“I have felt uncomfortable being stared at and the first thing that comes to your mind is ‘oh it’s because I’m black’ – but it’s just general curiosity,” Chido said.
Chido continued to say that she never received this type of reaction with regards to the way she looks, while in any other country she has traveled to. Including Poland where she said most people she came into contact with had never seen anyone with a skin tone darker than white.
Rudo experiences the same type of treatment although she initially didn’t think she would stand out much because her complexion is similar to some South Indians.
“I think a lot of people are very curious about who I am, I’m very different from a lot of people and obviously the way I look, so I get a lot of stares which is ok. It’s understandable because you know I’m different,” Rudo said. “But I think it’s an experience when people look at you and ask you questions like ‘is that your hair’ like ‘can I take a picture with you.’”
Blending in is not a privilege most expats are given, but obviously sticking out can be a bit unnerving – especially when you are used to looking similar to people around you. Living in Bengaluru is a big lesson in confidence as foreigners have to adjust to a new way of life while constantly being observed. A very uncomfortable feeling when you simply want to live and work like everyone else around you. Bukelwa said she was surprised at how uncomfortable she sometimes feels, because what make her look different to people in Bengaluru are aspects of herself she’s always known and feels comfortable with.
“I look different and people are curious not only of my skin tone but I have dreadlocks,” Bukelwa said. “I’ve had so many people wanting to touch my hair and people outright staring and I know that sounds a little bit petty but I never thought I would feel that uncomfortable.”
Learning how to interact with locals in Bengaluru
Bengaluru, with its cosmopolitan characteristics, hosts 7% of India’s expats. While expats are more common in Bengaluru than other Indian cities, they are still foreigners and it can be difficult for locals to know how to interact with them and to pick up the Bengaluru way of life. Not to mention getting used to the India’s blunt mannerisms and the language barrier that complicates simple interactions.
“There is still that initial culture shock and people not really knowing how to interact with you or engage you so for me that’s been the highlight,” Bukelwa said. “Especially I’ve had moments when I just want to wear a scarf so that I’m normal I’m like everyone else out there.”
Any expat can read a blog on how to navigate the metro, when the local festivals are and how to flag down an auto but the small idiosyncrasies that characterise Bengalureans are something a foreigner can never simply read to understand. Like the use of short, snappy phrases like simply saying “come” or single word demands seem pointed and aggressive to foreigners, but it’s just another quirk to get used to.
Chido finds that people come off less interactive and friendly than in other countries she has lived. She accounts this to the social culture of Bengaluru and not because she is an expat or of her skin tone.
“There’s a shopkeeper who I thought was quite rude and I went in with my indian friend and he treated her the exact same as he treated me before and it was nothing to do with the fact that I am African it’s just the person’s personality,” Chido said.
And of course scamming foreigners is a problem many expats face.
“So far people have been really nice but there are some cases when they try to charge me more because I’m a foreigner,” Rudo said. “But for the most part they have been helpful when I needed help.”
All three women stressed that overall most people they have interacted are helpful and kind toward them. But that the language barrier can throw a wrench in everyday interactions. Chido adds, “I’ve found that most people who don’t speak English get uncomfortable quite quickly so they walk away in a way that might be deemed rude.”
Thoughts on recent tension between African expats and Indian police
Recent stories of police brutality, discrimination against students and drug-related arrests taint the African expat experience in Bengaluru. The unfortunately reality is that those with darker complexions may be treated differently by law enforcement as seen through the many arrests of African nationals made in recent months and the brutal attacks on Africans around the country with little intervention from officials.
“When you look at the message that Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu tried to spread and encourage people to be peaceful and practice non-violence,” Rudo said, “It would be unfair of me to blame the whole of Indian police, but my hope is that minority of the Indian police that are racially attacking Africans expats practice humanity and not see Africans as criminals but normal people that want a better education and see them as Africans that are contributing positively to the economy of the country.”
On the other hand, Bukelwa who had her phone stolen right out of her hand in Koramangala said the police officers were helpful when she reported the stolen phone. Although the area was out of their jurisdiction they gave her the documents she needed to report the phone to the service provider. Bukelwa admits she initially had reservations about going to the police from what she had heard of the tension between African expats and Indian police, but said the experience was good.
“I went in thinking it would be a terrible experience because of what I had read and other formulated preconceptions but was surprised at how they attended to my matter,” Bukelwa said. “It was my second encounter with police in a week and both times I was surprised in that my experience was better than what I expected.”
Life as foreign women in India
Being a woman in India adds another layer to the expat experience. Adjusting to new clothing standards, safety precautions and differences in gender treatment is yet another aspect to get used to. This can often be the most drastic adjustment to what women from less conservative countries are used to.
“Being a woman in India definitely has its challenges, I have to be more cautious of what I wear and for the most part I have to travel with someone,” Rudo said. “This is not saying that it’s not a safe country, but because I’m a woman, anything can happen and I can’t really defend myself.”
Search the many blogs about women traveling to India and you’ll find instructions to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees at all times, not to go outside alone after dark and be accompanied by a man when you do. This advice is simple enough and out of respect to Indian culture. For their own safety many expat women follow the guidance even though it may be counterintuitive to the way they dress or act at home.
“Because you’re so used to living such a life back home, it takes a while for your brain to adjust like I can’t do this and I can’t do that,” Bukelwa said. “Even just clothes — last week I felt I just want to wear a dress that shows my legs… not like a skimpy dress but just a dress for my legs to breathe, you know just the simple things.”
Bukelwa, Rudo and Chido agree that as the initial culture shock begins to wear off and they prepare for five more months of crazy traffic, loud city life and nice weather they are hopeful the challenges of expat life will subside or at least they will feel more comfortable sticking out.