My girlfriend and I were sitting alone on a wide marble ledge along the side of the Taj Mahal, exhausted by what had already been a trying day of saying “No” to armies of in-your-face drivers, shopkeepers that followed us for blocks, limbless beggars, unlicensed tour guides, and train station touts trying to steer us in the wrong direction. We were enjoying the sanctuary of an early-morning, pre-crowds trip to the Taj, a respite from the dirty, choking chaos of urban Delhi. As we were chatting, I noticed two boys, about 14 years old, stop a few yards away.
The two boys whispered to each other until one of them came over and plopped down a few feet to my left. The other pulled out his camera phone, discreetly trying to snap a photo of us. He realized his friend was too far away to fit in the photo and waved at him to get closer. The boy inched a little closer. The one with the camera looked and again shook his head, motioning the friend over. My girlfriend and I had been pretending this wasn’t happening, but finally I turned to the boy next to me, motioned him over, put my arm around him, and we took a lovely picture.
Unfortunately, we didn’t recognize the potential fallout of this decision. A few nearby kids noticed us taking the photo, and within minutes, we were mobbed by groups of field-tripping school children. At one fairly terrifying point, someone actually shoved a baby in my lap without warning. I was so startled that I nearly dropped this poor little baby onto the polished marble ground. Right now, someone in India has a picture of my girlfriend, several schoolchildren, and me, awkwardly tilting my body and holding on to a slipping baby for dear life.
Being a foreigner in many parts of India was rather like being a celebrity. People want to talk to you and sometimes even just touch you. I caused a bit of a scene whenever I left the enclave of my posh area. People brazenly took photos of me wherever I went, as if I couldn’t notice their camera phones pointed right at me two feet away. I posed with dozens of people who asked me to be in photos with them. I felt the eyes of strangers on me almost everywhere I went—the sort of stares one could imagine Brad Pitt getting. Moreover, I rarely waited on lines (even people in line would push me ahead, telling me to go to the front), the security pat downs were way less intrusive than the one Indian friends got, and I never had any problem getting into chic bars and restaurants. In some ways, I felt above the law—if only because almost every Indian person I met told me not to worry about the rules— because they didn’t apply to me (though I never tested this out).
I deeply appreciate the way people let me into their houses, checked in on me, fed me, and generally tried to provide a home away from home. I have never been embraced by strangers that way. But now that I’m home, where I blend in with the multicolored spectrum of life, it feels good to be anonymous again. I was never quite comfortable with the reverence I was afforded. It was definitely nice to skip the lines, but I certainly hadn’t done anything to earn it. When I asked my Indian friends why foreigners were treated this way, they either gave me a “that’s how it is” shrug or something along the lines of “You’re a guest, and we want you to feel welcome.”
I don’t doubt the last bit—strangers often went out of their way to help me, whether with figuring out the train and post service or finding a decent place to eat. People bought me dinner and tea just because they wanted to welcome me; even after they found out I’d been living there for five months already. But there is a big qualifier, because I wasn’t just any guest: I was the right guest. I was a white male.
The stories from female travelers are certainly less pleasant. I heard several stories of men coming up to women, grabbing as many of their private parts as they could, and running off. Some female fellow foreigners said they often felt threatened when they were alone and never went out at night—which I never ever worried about. I was also the right color. A real estate broker and a landlord both told me they would never serve a black client and said, “No one will rent to the blacks” because they were “trouble.” What that means is beyond me, but if I were a different color, I may have had a vastly different experience. I saw the way my friend—who, though Indian, looks East Asian—was treated by people who often assumed he was Chinese, and he never received anything like the preferred treatment that I did, even when we were together.
Reconciling the racial bias has been difficult for me, but then, despite the things several Indian people said to me behind closed doors, I have a black female acquaintance—an American—who said she received virtually the same reverential treatment as I had (albeit in cosmopolitan Mumbai). In fact, the entire celebration of foreigners has its own twist. You see, as I got to know people and began to straddle the worlds of East and West, I became privy to the slight resentment many people felt toward the foreigners that lock themselves in luxury hotels or foreigner-only backpacker havens and spend time exclusively with other foreigners. They felt disrespected.
I promised myself I wouldn’t be that way. In return for the hospitality, I tried to make time for everyone that wanted to talk to me, pose with me, or even just look at me. Unfortunately, answering probing questions about my family, my girlfriend, my plans, and my country was arduous. You can imagine the relief of coming home to a place where I was left alone.
And yet, for all the relief, sometimes when I’m sitting at home, marveling at how American everything looks, I think back on these moments with strangers, missing them. I remember all of them clearly: the women I posed with on the mountain in Jaipur, the kids who stopped their alley-way cricket game to stare at me, the burka-clad girl who said “Hello” to me on the street, the old man who hugged me in Delhi’s Old City because I was learning Urdu, and, of course, the baby I nearly dropped at the Taj Mahal.