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White skin, brown Soul

Riddhi Shah lists some whites who have made India their homeland.

sex and relationships Updated: Aug 22, 2013 11:26 IST
Riddhi Shah (Hindustan Times)
Riddhi Shah (Hindustan Times)

Every morning, Stefan Eicher wakes up knowing that his day will be fraught with conflicts. He is as Indian as you and me - he was born here, has an Indian passport, and has lived here for 27-odd years - and still, there is a daily struggle to prove his 'Indianness'. A simple rickshaw ride can turn into a battleground when the driver tries to overcharge him.

The vegetable market is another minefield that he must navigate carefully. There are obtrusive catcalls of firangi and gora and long, hard stares. At work, a new colleague asks him how he can be Indian.

After all, he is white. "I ask them why I can't be Indian. They say, you don't look like one. I say, you don't look like one to me. You look Pakistani.

That's when they get it," says his brother Andi Eicher, who works with HIV patients in Mumbai. For the Eichers, born to German and American parents, the decision to retain their Indian citizenship was an easy one. This was "home".

The brothers are not alone in such an experience. As mobility across the world increases and borders diffuse, thousands of children now grow up as products of two (or more) cultures following their nomadic parents, they spend childhoods in one country, even as their origins lie in another Eventual re-entry to their 'country of origin' is one filled with much heartbreak, culture shock and trauma.

Their dilemma is often so acute that it has given rise to an academic term: Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Belonging neither here, nor there, TCKs create a unique culture entirely their own.

"Back in the US, I looked like everyone else but didn't feel like them. I'd see India on the news and instantly connect with places and people, but no one else seemed to care," says Chris Starr.

After 30 years in the US, he has returned to his country of birth. He is finally home. Much has been written about the NRI experience - their conflicts, their battles, their struggle to come to terms with their mixed identities. But the stories of these reverse NRIs - white on the outside and brown on the inside, 'white chocolate' to the NRI's 'coconut' - have gone largely untold.

"Strangely I relate more to NRIs. They too, are mixed products. At least they have their own comedians. No one makes jokes about my experience," says Tara Chowdhry Part American, part British, she is now married to an Indian (of Indian origin) in Chandigarh.

Even as we rail against the racist treatment of NRIs, these Indians of foreign origin suffer racism of a different kind. In a country where nationality is defined by narrow parameters of appearance, language and religion, white is not the colour of Indianness.

For some, like Jamie Alter, the discrimination extends far into his personal life.

"I'11probably marry an 'Indian Indian' girl. But things didn't work out with my last girlfriend because her parents didn't accept me as Indian. Iwanted to say, 'You want to see my passport? It says 'Indian'," he recalls. Alter goes by the nickname of Bunty and his Hindi is Bombaiyya, but that has made little difference to how the rest of India perceives him.

Still, being a TCK has its upsides - a worldview that is more accepting of different traditions. TCKs navigate easily between nationalities and customs, accepting all and judging none.

"I'm more adept at dealing with non-Indians than my mono-cultural counterparts," says Stefan, who works for an international NGO. And in a globalised world of colliding cultures and clashing opinions, these children of a third culture are constant reminders that manmade borders are only that - manmade.

BANGALORE: Jamie Alter, 25 "When I was picking colleges to attend in the US, I chose ones with international students and a cricket team. Once there, I hung out only with desis. That's when I realised I was more Indian than I could ever be American, although I stand out in both places. I even worked there for two years to see if I could live there, but I left without getting my American citizenship. I missed the mastifactor at home."

MUMBAI: Andi Eicher, 37 "Until I was 18 I lived with two passports. Then I gave up my German one; I have no connection with that land. Because I'm Indian by choice, I also have a greater feeling of being Indian, especially since many of my countrymen would give up their passports for an American one in an instant. There is the daily irritation of having my identity questioned, but I also face reverse discrimination because we're so geared to honouring the white man."

CHANDIGARH: Tara Chowdhry, 25 "I was born in a small village in Rajasthan, and I grew up entirely in India. I studied four years in London and went to America for holidays but all my cultural resonances are from Delhi. I have nowhere else to call home so there was no question of settling elsewhere even if I face racism for being white in this country. Bureaucrats have asked me how I'm different from an imperialist. I can never be invisible here - and sometimes that's all you want."

MUMBAI: Tara Sapru, 25 "Because I'm a product of mixed cultures, I find that I'm more tolerant and flexible; I learnt very early on that nothing is black or white. I feel at home everywhere and yet nowhere. I hate being so easily misunderstood purely on the basis of how I look. But then, even in America, I get asked the very same questions I'm asked back in India."

UDAlPUR: Claire Abrams, 17 "For me India is home. I prefer this simple life free of the materialism of the US. And yet, something as small as taking a walk is impossible in Udaipur because I'm stared and hooted at. If I could somehow make my skin darker I would. But rather than despair, I feel unique because I've drawn from both cultures my middle name is Roshni. I respect the freedom given to women in the West and also value the warmth and community living in India."

MUSSOORIE: Chris Starr, 41 "When I went back to America at 11, I felt like an immigrant. All my peers were small town kids who had no idea of the world outside. I spent the next 30 years feeling like a misfit. I drove Indian strangers crazy by telling them about my childhood. Now that I'm back I feel at home - except that I don't look like everyone else."

NEW DELHI: Stefan Eicher, 35 "While growing up, all my friends were nonwhite and I didn't feel any different. It just seemed natural. I began dealing with my colour only after I started working in the real world, where I face a daily rejection of who I am. From the inside, I'm Indian and from the outside, I'm a foreigner. Yet the idea of moving somewhere else hasn't even crossed my mind because I belong here, and here only."

First Published: Apr 30, 2007 18:54 IST