We often will see people taking our pictures from some distance away. While it was something I found mildly annoying at first, Ann taught me a tactic that turns it into a laugh for all parties involved. When I notice someone with their camera phone aimed in my direction, I simply whip out my camera and take a picture of them, too. They laugh, I laugh, and they either put their camera away or we take pictures of each other.
However, something that will never stop being weird is people asking you to take a picture with their children.
It is a phenomenon that is strange and even oddly flattering at first. And at first, it’s fun to smile and hug very, very cute Indian kids while their parents take your picture. But after the silliness wears off, you start to feel somewhat like a costumed character at a theme park. Not just parents of children will ask you, but awkward men, shy young women, and old matrons will ask too. And the issue isn’t that it’s annoying, although it may get tiresome. The issue is the psychology beneath their desire for a picture of you, which Baishakhi had to explain to us.
For some people, especially the younger ones, we are a spectacle. I get that, although I feel like (/hope that?) etiquette in America would keep people from thrusting their child at someone who looked different and dressed strangely. For the older people, though, the idea of white superiority still resonates. We see it on television in the commercials for “skin lightening” soap, lotion, cloths, cream. We see it in the fair-skinned Bollywood stars. I see it at work when, at least once a week, one of the teachers or moms comments on how nice my complexion is, how I look good in any color because I am so fair - when the reality is that I spend time and money trying to make my skin darker (#irony).
So a child coming up to me and asking me to take a picture of us on my camera is completely understandable. I look funny and they don’t know any better. A parent asking to take a picture of me and their child with their camera is slightly weirder… Are you going to frame this? (You don’t even know me!) Young women asking for a picture with me on their cameras is the most rare, and fun because I can relate to them and because they are so shy, but still weird… Again, what are your plans for this picture? Young men asking for a picture with me on their cameras is, without a doubt, the most awkward. I can’t really relate to you, especially when you’re obviously 30-something, and I don’t even want to know what you’re going to do with this picture. (Zaara said something that stuck with me about men making up stories and showing the picture to their friends…great.) But older women and men asking for a picture is sad. The older generations are the ones that ask for a picture then thank us profusely. And I know that for them, I am neither a spectacle, a new friend, or an object of desire. I am a white person.
The slang term for a white girl is “gori.” Being a gori in India is no longer the uncomfortable experience that it was at first - there was quite the learning curve. As soon as we stepped off the plane we were stared at from all sides. Places like the airport, however, are where we get the least stares. Any major place in the city has seen its share of gori, with the other notable places being the two malls we have visited. The city streets, however, are a different experience entirely. We are stared at by wide-eyed children, skeptical adults, hungry beggars, and everything in between. The staring tends to occur in a greater scale at landmarks, presumably because some of the Indian people there are visiting from more rural areas, and was the most apparent in Agra, where we were approached at least 30 times and asked for pictures (and someone asked Dom for her autograph?). We get stared at when we’re in cabs or on the metro, and we get stared at in restaurants. By week five, I notice it less, and it no longer phases me.
The most frustrating of the phenomena is the immediate attention and reverence we sometimes receive at restaurants and stores. When dining at Flury’s with Hannah Colton last week, we were given two waiters, and both the chef and the manager came out to ask about the quality of our meal and our visit. Of course it was nice to get such great service, but it was marred by the knowledge that we got it because we are white. None of the tables of Indian customers were given such service. When shopping at the mall two weekends ago, the six of us went into a department store. At every turn, an attendant was asking me whether I needed a different size, a different color, would I like it off the hanger, would I like it on the hanger, would I like in a box with a fox… You get the idea. Again, annoying because the good service is not due to the friendliness of the staff but to our white skin. While I’m not ungrateful, this treatment makes it impossible to forget the fact that I’m a foreigner. I don’t want special treatment, and I wish the type of thinking that holds us higher didn’t exist.
Naturally, being foreign and usually traveling in a large group, we are also a target for beggars and scams. Taxi and autorick drivers double their prices, street vendors raise them exponentially. Pickpockets don’t seem to be an issue here, which is nice, but there are more homeless people than I’ve ever seen. It is not out of the ordinary to see a mom and two children settled down for the night on a sheet spread out on the sidewalk. Not all of the homeless beg, though, but we are often approached by half-naked children grinning and yelling “Aunty! Aunty!” with their hands cupped in front of them. And we have to say “naa,” because the reality is that giving money to a child will help neither me nor him. It is a hard truth, but giving money to one child only means that the nearby children will learn of your generosity and expect the same. In writing, that sounds like a weak argument, but in practice, it’s the only way to navigate crowds and get anywhere. Saying no does not ever get easier but usually the children just run off smiling and laughing.
Sometimes children approach us not to ask for money but just to shake our hands and say hello. It is something that is cute and mind-boggling and funny all at once. I visited Future Hope today, and when the cab dropped us off at home, we were greeted by about twenty kids from the neighborhood. Each of them had stuck their right hand into a giant pile of sand by our house (the roads are being repaved) and offered it to us with a “Hello Aunty!” We shook all their hands, laughing at their prank, and they all laughed and smiled and shouted. A month in, and we’re no longer the outsiders. We are neighbors.