The Indian men – western woman conundrum
It’s a common conversation among foreign women traveling this country. Men are often quite friendly, sometimes a little too friendly. One becomes suspicious of motives. I’ve been asked for my number and given other numbers more times than I can count, and I’m asked daily if I’m married (my answer? Yes, and my husband was going to join me on the trip but something came up at work). But except for Mr. Leer on the bus last week, I haven’t felt uncomfortable about the attention, it just gets tiresome—never threatening.
So what’s the deal? Nilesh, a guide in the Dharamsala area, confirmed the rumor among us women travelers: some men are looking for a foreign wife. Others are just looking to hang out near foreigners. He told me that some Indian tourists, mostly Punjabis, will ask at his guest house whether there are any foreigners staying there, and leave if there aren’t. They often don’t speak much English, but will manage to get a western woman to pose for a picture with them, which, he claims, they’ll show their friends and claim they’d spent a few days with this woman. Their friends will come to Dharamsala the next year, looking for a western woman—for a photo or something more, I can’t be sure.
This, or at least the picture-taken-by-Pubnjabi-men part, happened to me in Shimla. I’d fallen into an hour long conversation outside a sweets shop about Boston, Harvard, US and Indian politics and the global economy with an older Indian gent who’d lived for many years in Cambridge, MA (“Harvard wanted me back! I told them no way. They’re ruining that country”). As the conversation wound down, I wound up having a conversation with four young Punjabi men about the US recession (Me: “Corporations have plenty of money, trust me. They’re just not investing in jobs”). They’d asked for a picture, and I’d assumed it was because I was so much taller than them (it was funny). One, a worker at an outsourced American programming shop, has since sent me a friend request.
My new Indian friend in Kochi had warned me to be wary of the overtures of Indian men. Their motivations are not simple friendship, she said.
It’s a bummer. We all want to learn more about the culture, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than talking to a local person. I’m extremely lucky to speak English, and in an accent that most find easy to understand (even though it’s not, unfortunately, always reciprocated), and I take advantage of my language situation regularly, to get a better understanding of where I am. But if I’m questioning motives constantly, what does that mean about the answers I’m given or the conversations I have? There are men aplenty everywhere in India, and usually it’s pretty easy to find one who wants to chat you up. But it’s harder to find women to talk to.
I’ll just keep chatting on. So far I’ve been able to have loads of conversations, some illuminating, some mundane, but at least I’ve been able to have them. Maybe their motives aren’t purely to share cultural understanding, but I’ll take what I can get.