When I tell people in the US that I am originally from Bangladesh, I am often met with confused and surprised looks. Some will ask me what part of India that is, some will ask where in the Middle East it is, and others won’t even bother trying.
When I tell people in India that I am originally from Bangladesh, I am still met with confused and surprised looks. People ask how I know Hindi, how I ended up in the US, and most importantly, what I’m doing with three American peers in India.
As a Hindi speaking brown girl in India, I have numerous privileges. To start with the obvious, I appear local. My skin tone protects me from half the stares that my non-brown co-interns face. I only say half because any young woman in India is susceptible to stares, brown or not. My next enormous privilege is being able to speak Hindi. I can get by almost anywhere as a privileged North Indian. I have already avoided the foreigner fee at various tourist sights and bargained my way down to reasonable prices. I have also made several local friends with whom I am able to hang out without seeming like an outsider. Another big one is my fluency in English. I was speaking to a waiter recently who was very amused by how “I speak like an American, look like an Indian, but am neither” (referring to my Bengali origin). In Bangalore, knowing only about ten words in Kannada, I always take a brief second before each interaction to determine whether it would be wiser to use Hindi or English. They seem to have the same success rates but usually Hindi takes me a bit further. In addition to these I can’t ignore the fact that 90% of the time here I am walking around with three American non-brown friends. This gives me all the luxuries of being a foreigner while still holding the privilege of looking brown.
At this point, it may seem like I’m enjoying the best of both worlds here in India, and in some ways I probably am. However, being a brown non-Indian has just as many downsides as it does up. I often find myself having to take charge of our group while making plans, travel arrangements, finding places to explore, etc. I am pushed to become the spokesperson for the group within work environments but especially outside of work. Sure, some part of this may just be my Type A personality but it’s undeniable that a big part is also that it’s simply expected of me. As a South Asian, I am more familiar with the way things work here than the rest of my co-interns. But this responsibility can easily become a burden. Given that it’s my first time in India, just like my co-interns, it can be frustrating to constantly have to play host and be explaining things. This isn’t necessarily my fellow interns’ fault – regardless of whether we are with coworkers, uber drivers, or vendors, it’s expected that I know certain concepts or am somewhat familiar with why things are the way they are. While it’s true that there’s similarities across South Asian countries, I grew up watching way too many Bollywood movies, and I am practically fluent in Hindi, I find that people around me often forget that I am just as much a foreigner in this country as the other interns. When one of my co-interns asked me what a Puja was for example, I referred to a scene from the movie Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham (which we had just watched together), and explained that given that I am Muslim, I had never actually been to one so I wasn’t the right person to ask.
I knew before coming to India that my experience would be unique. As a South Asian from one country in another, I definitely would not be local in India, but I wouldn’t be 100% foreign either. As I reach the halfway point of my summer in India, I look forward to seeing whether my non-Indian brown experience continues to be more positive, negative, or a mix of both.