I’m in a train from Kolkata to Hyderabad, a city in South India. A friend of mine and classmate, Viswambher, invited me to his home for the vacation.
Just now, my phone had switched off and since I had maintained a very low volume listening to Mali Music and Passenger, the prime suspect in draining my battery is a fascinating book, Sense Versus Sensuality (you should look it up), by Dr. Ravi Zacharias, that I was reading on my phone. Because of this, I have decided against reading it until at my earliest convenience.
Anyway, Viswambher just gave me his power bank to charge my phone. This simple gesture ended my process of deciphering what I think my subconscious was picking up from my college experiences with some of my Indian friends.
It’s something that generally every foreigner studying in India will agree with, something that most Indians will be receptive to and, most importantly, something that hopefully everyone may have some take-home ideas about.
The treatment and perception about foreigners in Indian colleges, like in many developing countries, usually falls into two cases: as special or as somewhat lesser class citizens, and sadly neither of the two acknowledges foreigners as simply equally dignified humans.
A couple months ago Viswambher invited me over to visit and stay in his home during college vacation. Honestly, I was hesitant at first – something which I think was justified since I had just met him. I thus told him that I would chew on the idea a little more. I didn’t really! But there was something about him that made a continually compelling case for him towards my persuasion.
I started noticing that the way Viswambher treated Felix(a friend from Mozambique) and I was more or less the same way he treated our Indian classmates. I don’t remember him acting out of character with us whatsoever. Instead, he maintained his innate personality in simplicity, always spiced up with a touch of humility. The feeling of being treated the same as anybody else really has a more soothing effect than special or condescending treatment.
In hindsight, I think that was the feeling that pushed me to insist that Felix gets “GPL”- a norm that the birthday person should endure a beating by his friends- from Satadal(another classmate). We laughed about this afterwards and I’m sure Felix had forgiven me. After all, When You’re In Rome…
Anyway, the race sensitivity that is intrinsic within the Indian society and the frustration that often comes with it confuses most foreigners studying there about how they really want to be perceived by Indians. An African going around Benachiti wearing a snapback will probably have some random adorable kid call him Akon or Honey Singh with a beatific smile but his excitement is often shortly thwarted when adults ask questions such as,
“So, you came to India to play soccer na?”
There is something inherently wrong in this question, as in a myriad typical others, since it somewhat assumes that Africans are good in sports mostly. For example, I like playing Chess, writing poems, keeping a blog etc. It’s something that is seldom asked of me and when it does pop up in conversation it’s somewhat held with a pinch of salt. For some strange reasons foreigners, especially Africans, are not immediately assumed to be prolific. If all of my Indian friends would, like Viswambher, act within their characters then this would not be too apparent to us.
It’s almost impossible to keep a consistent emotion or a conclusive world view about India and the challenge is just as much to the foreigner as it is to the Indian since some of the acts and words that are often understandably received as prejudicial and stereotypical by foreigners sometimes simply come from pure curiosity and sincerity.
I’d like to take Vaswambher’s personality and inspire every Indian. Don’t feed your curiosity at the discomfort of the foreigners. Learn a little about the foreigners amongst you, to ask informed questions about them. This and just acting normally, as Vishwambar, is the best hospitality you can give a foreigner.
Instead of asking a foreigner what his parents do or how how much they earn in the first five minutes, why can’t you start a discussion about the trending news? What if his parents don’t go to work? Imagine my discomfort in having to answer that. Intelligent questioning is a skill that everyone should try to have in his quiver.
The challenge to the foreigner is to detect and speak out against the special treatment that is often misunderstood as good hospitality. If he’s having laboratory interview, VIVA, he shouldn’t be excited when the professor asks him condescending-like and ridiculously easy questions. The foreigner should speak out to be treated like anybody else, to get tough questions also, and to give it his best. When people are not expressive, stereotypes fly around and have their way but when there’s liberty of expression, there’s greater understanding.
Affirmative Action may be required for some foreigners due to differences between the education systems of their countries and India. However, Affirmative Action doesn’t require that you’re treated differently but that there should be a greater degree of leniency in interpreting the foreigners’ results or performance.
I just arrived at Viswamber’s home and my superexcitement has been anything but fleeting. I love India!
Share this with every college student in India if you liked it and start to make a difference.