There were numerous aspects of India that could have shattered my travel resilience, but what ultimately did it was the staring. It wasn’t just that I felt eyes on me regularly, it was also that the eyes were blank and unrelenting. And they continued to stare and stare even when they met mine and I gave a half smile and nod or wave to say, “Yes, I’m here, and I’m black.”
I’m ashamed to say that it was a toddler who broke me. He sat with his family in the row in front of me on the bus I took from Jaipur to Delhi. For about 6 out of 7 hours on that drive, he stared at me. I sometimes turned to the side to look out the window. I sometimes looked up at the Bollywood film that was 75% extreme violence and 25% choreographed song and dance routines. I sometimes looked down at my book. But I could always feel his eyes on me and each time I looked ahead, I’d see him climbing all over the seat to get a better view of me or his two little eyes peering through the gap between the seats. At first, I smiled, waved, made funny faces, hoping he’d have his fill and focus on something else. But hour after hour, those eyes, those adorable little eyes never turned away from me. It’s amazing what being stared at for hours can do to your psyche.
The thing is, I’m used to being an outsider. I grew up with my skin and hair not blending in with the people around me. I’m used to outsiders being curious about me on my home turf. On what seems to be a weekly basis, I find myself being surreptitiously photographed by tourists who visit my city. I’m also used to being a traveler who might introduce a small village to the sight of a black person and I am always prepared to receive a different type of attention than my largely paler travel counterparts might receive.
Some of my favorite places have been the ones where I was clearly an outsider and it didn’t matter. Places like Oaxaca where beyond the initial surprise at seeing me, I was treated with abundant warmth. Or Luang Prabang, where children whose eyes showed fear the first day they saw me began to wave and smile at me each day that followed that.
And of course, my least favorite places have been those where being an outsider did matter. Prior to India, Vietnam is the one other place that whether purposely or not, people made me feel unwelcome. Coincidentally, it was also kids who broke me in Vietnam.
I’d had up and down experiences with people in Vietnam. In Chau Doc and Hoi An, locals had been extremely friendly and open. But in Nha Trang and parts of Hue, groups of people, usually teenagers or young adults, pointed and laughed at me as they walked by. And then I arrived in Hanoi where I encountered a group of school children at the Museum of Ethnology who grew hushed when they saw me. They whispered amongst themselves while looking at me suspiciously, then they played the “Who Can Get Closest to the Scary Black Girl and Not Get Attacked?” game. As I tried to enjoy the fantastic museum I was at, groups of these kids would repeatedly run towards me bravely and then turn around and run away from me screaming and afraid. There were plenty of other tourists there, but this behavior was reserved for just me.
In the Hanoi situation and with the toddler on the bus in India, it was both the honesty of kids’ actions and the inaction of the adults the kids were with that got to me. Kids don’t know always know what they’re doing, but in both situations, the adults could’ve ascertained how the kids they were responsible for might have made me feel, but they clearly didn’t care.
On the occasions when I talked to a person from India about how much staring put a damper on my time there, I received a “but” in the response. “People stare at you, BUT…” I found that it was difficult to talk about India honestly with affluent Indians I encountered during and after my trip because so much was quickly dismissed with a “but”. “Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, BUT…” As a Ghanaian-American, I understand and appreciate the pride and wanting people to see the positive aspects of a country that can undoubtedly use some improvement (I’m talking about both Ghana and America). But with the potential India has, I can only imagine how much more good it would do to for people to acknowledge the issues more, especially people with the ability to help the country maximize its potential.
The first person I talked to about the staring was a woman on my Jaipur day tour. She was originally from India but had lived in Canada for many years. She told me that, “People would stare at you less if you wore Indian clothing.” This annoyed me. In the heat of daytime Jaipur, I had on leggings under my below the knee length dress and had wrapped a scarf around my neck and chest in an attempt to respect local ideas about modesty. Ideas that I don’t agree with but was trying to respect nonetheless.
I explained that when I’d worn Indian attire for the first two days of the wedding, it seemed to make people pleased that I was walking around in Indian clothing, but it did absolutely nothing to decrease the amount of staring. I get that if you’re going to stay in a country for a length of time, it can make sense to dress more like the locals. But if you’re in a country for two weeks? I also couldn’t help but think about how in the United States, there are many older Indian women who live in the country for years and continue to wear Indian clothing daily. I think it’s great that they maintain this aspect of their culture and I don’t think it warrants either extreme staring or trying to convince them to throw on jeans and sweatshirt. I know that America’s culture is different in that it is significantly less homogeneous and centered around the more recent blending of many different cultures, but when it comes down to it, you can’t deny the cheeseburger and fries, jeans and t-shirt core of it.
Another person I tried to talk to about the staring in India was someone I encountered here in San Francisco. When she asked how I liked India, her face immediately dropped when I mentioned how much the staring made me feel on edge. “People are just not used to seeing someone who looks like you,” she told me. I told her that it’s not the first time I’ve been somewhere where they were not used to seeing black people, but in India, the staring was so far beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. It was just so unrelenting and almost always so unfriendly.
Maybe I took it too personally. Maybe the staring in India was something I was supposed to accept as a cultural difference and let it roll off my shoulder. But alas, I am human. And at the heart of my frustration about the staring was my desire to have that recognized.
Editor’s Note: I’m aware that all foreigners and even some Indians who visit India will likely be stared at. A lot. And there were definitely times where people were friendly to me, mostly at historical sites, museums, and of course at the wedding I attended in Kolkata. However, unfriendliness was blatant when I was walking around certain cities on my own, especially Jaipur and Varanasi. At one point, a kid even threw rocks at me in Jaipur. I would love to believe that the staring was simply because I am “different”, but the clues I received, combined with the unmasked idea in India that light skin is best leads me to believe that it wasn’t. If you have any thoughts or ideas on that, feel free to share them.