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May 27, 2014 10:59 AM   Subscribe

For the past two weeks, the back of my mind has been occupied by thoughts of how to start writing about my experience as a white man in India. The list of potential anecdotes is interminable. Perhaps a theoretical grounding would prove a more incisive framework. Or maybe I need to talk about everything that I am. I am more than a skin colour. I am a gender. I am a nationality. I am a language. I am a class. I am a sexual orientation. The overlapping privileges encompassed in a straight, white, English-speaking, relatively affluent American man can be more difficult to disentangle than one might imagine.
posted by infini (37 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Note: The whole issue "Skin" is good.
posted by infini at 11:04 AM on May 27 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting prospect, examining the transition from a society where your privilege is implicit to one where it's made very explicit due to the rarity of your background there, but in the end I don't really know what he was getting at. I mean this:

But although one may certainly feel like an other in the United States, I don’t observe – at least in our coastal cities – the overt process of othering that I often encounter in India.

seems like a huge blind spot. The large coastal U.S. city I live in is like champion league at multidirectional othering. I mean, I walked by a bus today with an anti-Muslim ad proclaiming "JEW-HATRED IS IN THE KORAN."
posted by psoas at 11:14 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


I haven't lived in India, but I did live in China for a while and being a white man in China is similarly a very weird experience. You get even more privilege than you did back home, but you're also a token for social cachet. Nothing comes for free, and the privilege you're granted comes at a price too - people are using you to seem cooler. The bars that let you in without a cover are counting on your skin to make the place look more sophisticated. The out-of-your-league women who show interest in you are using you as an outlet for all kinds of complicated reasons that you can't understand, or because of hopelessly misguided notions of what "foreign men" are supposed to be like as lovers. You're not taken particularly seriously. You don't get to have much of an individual identity because much of what you say or do is chalked up to your foreign-ness. You're constantly asked what you think of China, but if you say anything that's not on the official list of Opinions People Have, you are written off as someone who doesn't understand or, even worse, someone who is just anti-China. Doesn't matter if you have a graduate degree in Chinese history, different + foreign = wrong. The part where his grad professor dismissed him was very, very familiar.

If you want to confound someone who hasn't travelled very much, try "Here I am the foreigner, but if you came to my country you would be the foreigner." No, see, that can't be right because a foreigner by definition is someone who's not like me. Now let's go get some KFC. You people like KFC, right?
posted by 1adam12 at 11:44 AM on May 27 [16 favorites]


I'm still processing the article, but in the meanwhile: holy shit what???

I mean, I walked by a bus today with an anti-Muslim ad proclaiming "JEW-HATRED IS IN THE KORAN
posted by kanewai at 12:15 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


I'm still processing the article, but in the meanwhile: holy shit what???

Here's the Southern Poverty Law Center's profile of Pamela Geller. Here's the ADL's take.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:23 PM on May 27


I found that my "privilege" as a white male in Japan evaporated as soon as the locals realized I spoke Japanese. For example, early on I illegally parked outside the train station. I got out of a parking ticket by showing up at the police box and speaking in very rudimentary Japanese. They ripped it up. My girlfriend (and later my wife) was not so lucky - she got a parking ticket the same day and had to pay the fine.

However, years later, after I had worked hard to master Japanese, and would never, ever think of trying to use my status as a foreigner for preferential treatment, I was stopped by traffic cops in the middle of nowhere for, apparently, blowing through a stop sign.

"Oh, you speak Japanese," said the cop. "You should know better." So I had to pay the ticket.

In some societies it's not so much skin colour that determines "privilege", but instead cultural literacy.

And that's an interesting thing in Japan, for example. As a foreign guy who has "married into Japan", I have it way easier than foreign women who marry a Japanese spouse. I have so much respect for my female friends from places like Britain and Canada and Aus and the US who marry a Japanese man, because they have to work so hard to assume a very demanding cultural role.

But it's not always about skin colour.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:28 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


But although one may certainly feel like an other in the United States, I don’t observe – at least in our coastal cities – the overt process of othering that I often encounter in India.

I'm inclined to say, having lived in both the US and India, that the author is not truly aware of how much othering takes place in the United States because he has not himself been the target of it.

It also seems like he has a bit of a blind spot about how his gender has affected his experiences. The part about being uncomfortable when Indian women tell him they don't like dating Indian men because of experiences of sexism was particularly striking to me. When I lived in India, I dated both Indian men and Western men who were living in/visiting India, and the experiences were very different. My interactions with Indian men were in part shaped by the cultural divide between us, different expectations/ norms, etc. But they were also shaped by the fact that the society, at least in the part of the country I lived in, had very problematic attitudes about women. There was a lot of disrespect and aggression, expectations that I be subservient, shaming over sexuality.

I don't blame Indian women for wanting to avoid that kind of behavior. Responding to an Indian woman's statement of her own experiences of culturally-condoned sexual harassment with "But I also have no basis to determine if her filter is merely the product of deeply ingrained biases around the kind of identities that we collectively ascribe to certain groups," feels pretty dismissive to me.
posted by bookish at 12:49 PM on May 27 [12 favorites]


I find it easier to be random exotic foreigner in many many ways than to be an Indian woman in India. There, I said it.


note that the above sentence is loaded with enough embedded experiences of 44 years of being a global nomad since toddlerhood to be representative of an entire book's worth of "how I got to this point of wanting to say this sentence"

note the overthinking, at least I'm a true blue mefite

posted by infini at 1:08 PM on May 27 [19 favorites]


What is this other than a list of privileges enjoyed by the author? This is about as interesting as discussing world hunger over dinner and about as meretricious.
posted by dmh at 1:11 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


JEW-HATRED IS IN THE KORAN.

I know "anti-Semitism" uses more letters, and maybe it's just me but the phrase "Jew-hatred" (as a way of describing hatred towards Jews) sounds weirdly anti-Semitic to my ear. Whoever it is that's paying for the anti-Muslim ad, I've got a hunch that they might not particularly care much for Jewish people either.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:12 PM on May 27


I'm curious why we have to discuss US-centric "othering in a thread about being a foreigner in India.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:21 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


I appreciated the author's attempts at untangling the intersection of skin color / nationality / gender et al. There are so many variables at play that any attempt at addressing them is going to be a challenge.

The experiences seem to vary a lot from place to place, though. There are places I've worked or traveled where white or American workers absolutely have privileges that locals work, and I've met many ex-pats in positions overseas that they have no qualifications for beyond being male, usually Caucasian, and having an American passport.

The social scene and dating seems much more complex. I hear comments like the author's a premium is placed on fair skin a fair amount from novice travelers ("I have blond hair and blue eyes, will I be safe from the men in Country X?" was almost a cliched question on the old Thorn Tree forums), and I always questioned this. I've been to places where the propositions came non-stop, and my impression wasn't that it was because I was a white dude, but because I will a single male in a sexually repressed culture and therefore available.
posted by kanewai at 1:26 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Or maybe I need to talk about everything that I am.I am more than a skin colour. I am a gender. I am a nationality. I am a language. I am a class. I am a sexual orientation.

Huh. A list like that doesn't even come close to constituting "everything" about most people...

You've got to be really locked up in certain merely trendy theories to think it does
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:29 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, does it say somewhere that the list is exhaustive?
posted by kavasa at 2:49 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


I'm more curious how this reads, exactly, in India.
posted by zbsachs at 2:58 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Wannabe hipster.
posted by infini at 3:02 PM on May 27


The out-of-your-league women who show interest in you are using you as an outlet for all kinds of complicated reasons that you can't understand, or because of hopelessly misguided notions of what "foreign men" are supposed to be like as lovers.

Not exactly a humblebrag, but...
posted by signal at 3:15 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


maybe it's just me but the phrase "Jew-hatred" (as a way of describing hatred towards Jews) sounds weirdly anti-Semitic to my ear

Not to derail further (this is getting quite far from topic), but this is a stock phrase used by the very Jewish (and openly Zionist) Pamela Geller in her crusade against Islam in any and all forms. It is in fact a post tag/category on her blog, the finding of which I leave as a discovery for the reader. I hope this closes the matter.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


Nearly two decades back, when I first came to Korea, I was very much 'other' and it was sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so good.

These days, in part because I've come to terms with it, in part because I live a fairly quiet and private life, but mostly because Korea's gotten a lot more accustomed to having non-Koreans around, people just tend to not give a shit that I'm not Korean.

I like it a lot better.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:27 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


Stav, I knew that I had arrived as just another person in the community a couple of winters ago (we spend about 3 or 4 months a year in small-town Japan).

I was out for my morning walk down the covered shopping arcade towards the main shrine in town, and I noticed two junior high school students contemplating a dead cat.

It was lying dead in front of a property management company's office. While there are a lot of stray cats in Japan, this cat was fat and, apart from being dead, healthy-looking. It wasn't apparent what had killed it. It was far from the road, there was no blood or anything. Maybe it had been hit by a bicyclist or something.

"That cat's dead," I said to the two boys. They glanced at me and nodded.

I went on my way. I had actually tried to dispose of a dead cat in Japan about ten years before. At the time I was living in a subdivision in the same town, and it was our household's turn to man the neighbourhood "trash station." As a foreigner I wasn't exempt from tasks assigned by the neighbourhood management committee. I cleaned the storm drains once a year, did neighbourhood fee collections, and made sure when it was our turn that the trash collection area was clean and free from trash.

In this case one evening I discovered a cat that had obviously been hit by a car. Being neighbourly, I tried to dispose of it by placing the corpse in a transparent pink bag for "burnable garbage" and left it at the garbage collection area - a vacant lot with some green netting to protect the garbage from crows and the occasional monkey.

I returned the next morning and discovered the cat had been carefully removed from the bag and lay there in the vacant lot.

I phone up the city to see what had happened. Apparently sanitation workers in Japan generally will not collect the corpses of dead animals - that's a job for animal control... or something.

All I remember was that it was a massive pain in the ass to dispose of dead cats in Japan.

So, I left the two boys and went on my way, safe from the swirling February snow, towards the local shrine.

On my way back home I passed the resting place of the dead cat. This time a woman a few years older than I was, was standing over the cat.

Hearing my approaching footsteps she turned around and said to me, in local dialect, "You think this cat is dead?"

I nodded gravely, and said, "Yes."

"Do you think it belongs to the property management company here?"

It was an important moment for me. Earlier in sojourn in Japan, people would have just ignored me as being completely outlandlish (probably the closest translation of the word "gaijin") and would have never asked for my opinion about anything.

But here was this average person, without giving me a second sideways glance, asking me if I thought the cat was dead or not.

I had started feeling more and more at home in this small town, but I thought my comfort level may have been a product of wishful thinking. "Do people really think I'm just a normal soccer dad? It can't be true, can it?"

But here was validation!

And luckily my experience with a dead cat ten years before had taught me never to go near them, even with a ten-foot pole.

So I left the concerned woman who had whipped out her phone and was phone the telephone number on the door of the property management company.

But I'll always remember that winter day.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:59 PM on May 27 [12 favorites]


I grew up as usually the only white kid in local school in Singapore from a decidedly expatriate family, and am often the only white person in work and social settings. The church and oddly enough my daughter's preschool are more mixed-race couples than expats. It was a quirk of choice that my parents pulled us out of expat school and put us into the local system - I think my oldest sister got expelled, and it was much cheaper and socially safer (single sex schools and no drugs or physical bullying) to do the same for the rest of the girls. My brother stayed in expat school the whole way and when he visited Singapore recently, had no local friends to catch up with. I'm not third culture - I'm essentially a second generation immigrant, but without family as they all went back to New Zealand.

It's a very different experience being the only white person who is working and living long-term in an area, compared to being on an expat package. You're a resident, an immigrant who stands out ethnically, and you can move in and out of the expat bubble (neighbourhoods and areas that are 50-80% expat) into areas where you are the only white person present. Singapore has always had lots of white people and is geographically tightly packed, so there's no real sense of hinterlands where you are the only white person in the village, but there are still plenty of areas that are clearly local, not tourist or expat.

I thought he was being careful with his comment on dating and gender because he didn't want to discount her account against what he had personally experienced with male friends. Women here date foreign men for complicated reasons too, and the gender roles and expectations can play into that. Freedom from the social network is a strong factor too.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:22 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


Whitesplaining from an unemployed DJ. Good stuff.
posted by basicchannel at 7:57 PM on May 27


Just to be clear, I meant no disrespect by my last comment. I realized half way through this thing I knew this guy. I just wonder what [your typical Indian]* thinks of that. "Typical crazy gringo?" "Nice moustache?" I really don't think there's any way I can know. Unless you tell me.
posted by zbsachs at 9:14 PM on May 27


"Here I am the foreigner, but if you came to my country you would be the foreigner."

At the age of 6, right as I was preparing to move from China to the US, my mom explained this transition to me and it blew my mind.
posted by obliterati at 12:10 AM on May 28 [3 favorites]


I mean i feel really weird about this whole piece, but between the humblebrag already mentioned above, and the entire part about the several women saying they felt like they'd be safer from sexist attitudes around him and how that made him feel like some kind of bad liberal and all the hedging against quote out of context social media attacks it seemed like he felt he'd get on that... fuck, this is a bizarre piece.

At a number of points in it i just wanted to be like "Why don't you just listen to what they have to say, and take it without feeling like some awful fucking person? What if in their experience it's true?". If someone who grew up in this culture and knows the kind of harassment they've received will be ignored by the community, and sees you as safer for not being steeped in it you don't have to punch yourself in the face. There's a huuuuge difference between that and some random white person going "lol it's sexist over there".

There's just so much bizarre 21st century warped internet white guilt in this piece. He seems like the kind of guy who would go home and flagellate himself if a brown person got out of his way and said "oh excuse me" while he was carrying a couple obviously heavy bags of groceries just because "oh my god he got out of my way that's horrible white privilege it's like when black people were forced to yield to white people on the sidewalk in the jim crow south WHAT AM I DOING TO THE WORLD".

I don't know, it just kinda seems like he's pushing his brain through the motions of trying to have meaningful thoughts about this but just a stream of consciousness and crap comes out. A lot of it reads like saying what he feels he's supposed to say to sound like a good person, and not any actual meaningful analysis derived from any real self reflection on all but the absolutely shallowest level.

i was also going to diss on his mustache and douchenozzle appearance since the dude looks like dov fucking charney, but i'm sitting here with a jerry curl mullet-goatee combo that could cause a jaw drop induced car accident, so i'll just shut the fuck up.
posted by emptythought at 12:26 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


An interesting counter point worth reading.
posted by infini at 1:49 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


basicchannel: "Whitesplaining from an unemployed DJ."

I don't you've quite got a handle on what whitesplaining means.
posted by Bugbread at 5:23 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


Given the number of white people I interact with on a daily basis who wear ironclad blinders about race and class, I found this a rather refreshing thing to read.

Whether you like his delivery or not, he's trying to take an honest look at his own experience and understand it from a perspective which is - if you'll pardon the expression - foreign to most Americans. Good for him for trying.
posted by Thistledown at 7:45 AM on May 28 [2 favorites]


basicchannel: "Whitesplaining from an unemployed DJ."

I don't you've quite got a handle on what whitesplaining means.
posted by Bugbread at 5:23 AM on May 28 [1 favorite +] [!]


Except you and your buddy Kokoryu seemed to have missed the part where he explains the feelings of an "other" culture.

Guys, they're different from us! Because one time a guy did a thing therefore a billion people.
posted by basicchannel at 11:48 AM on May 28


Guys, I had a teacher one time it was nuts. True story.
posted by basicchannel at 11:48 AM on May 28


I, as an Indian woman, who has lived in India and in the author's own country, thought this post worth sharing. Notice my tag, "its complicated"? He might not have hit every button and he knows he can't get it, but he slid in enough to let me know that he got enough, far more than most people.

Give over, do
posted by infini at 12:25 PM on May 28 [1 favorite]


infini: "I, as an Indian woman, who has lived in India and in the author's own country, thought this post worth sharing."

The tremendous, tremendous irony in basicchannel mansplaining (and perhaps whitesplaining) how this post should be received.
posted by Bugbread at 3:53 PM on May 28


The irony only exists in your weird mind. The repetition and piling on of 'splainings was pretty funny, though. Perhaps I cissplained, too? Dosplained? I sometimes just know what my dog is thinking!
posted by basicchannel at 5:42 PM on May 28


basicchannel: "Dosplained? I sometimes just know what my dog is thinking!"

Naw, dosplaining would be if your dog was telling you how you really felt. I'm thinking the right word would be some cross between "explain" and "homo sapien", but "sapliening" or "splapiening" doesn't really roll off the tongue very well.
posted by Bugbread at 10:20 PM on May 28


No one should ever explain anything ever again. How boring!
posted by zbsachs at 10:37 PM on May 28


*insert dolorous tone*

I suspect a vast gulf divides us....

... that of puberty and menopause...
posted by infini at 12:53 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Again, I should clarify I'm being quite serious. Only half, or OK, maybe three-quarters of what is so infuriating about mansplaining is the man bit. The rest is the 'splainin. Ever try to talk to someone who's 'splainin? Yeah.
posted by zbsachs at 10:41 PM on May 29


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