It is always nice to get a compliment about your appearance, but there is a time and a place. A conversation with a stranger in the middle of the night is not that time. The passenger seat of an unlicensed cab is not that place. So in Beijing late last year when a taxi driver declared, “I say you are handsome,” I simply mumbled “thank you” and changed the subject.
I thought no more of it, putting it down to the politeness and directness of another culture, until a flight from Hong Kong to London the following week. My neighbour on the plane was a middle-aged Taiwanese lady on her way to a food tour of Iceland. We chatted a bit about this and that – where are you from, what do you do, that sort of thing – until she said, “But you are very handsome!”
Sure, the “but” was a bit weird, but I was flattered. (I regret to admit, reader, that being called handsome is not a burden I have to shoulder on a regular basis.) Then it happened again, and I figured out the real reason I was such a hit in east Asia.
In January I went to Bangkok for a few days on holiday. The friendly manager of a mediocre noodle restaurant joined my companion and me at our table and engaged us in conversation. The usual questions followed.
What brings you here? How long are you staying? Where are you from?
“India?!” The manager sounded incredulous. “But you are so handsome!” There’s that “but” again. This time, however, my interlocutor elaborated: “Indians are ugly! You cannot be from India!”
I am no stranger to preconceptions about India. I lived in Denmark briefly, where the only Indian my flatmates had come across was Apu from “The Simpsons”. In Munich, a taxi driver assumed I was a software engineer. In Europe and America, at least in my experience, people’s opinions about Indians fall somewhere on this spectrum between underinformed and mildly positive.
So I was surprised to learn about the discrimination some of my fellow Indians had experienced in east Asian countries. Reshma Patil, an Indian journalist posted in Beijing, writes in her memoir of the constant racism she endured in China. Faz, a Singaporean writer of Indian origin, has spoken about the trauma of growing up brown in the island country. Scroll.in, a news website, documents multiple cases of casual racism towards Indians in Thailand. In Malaysia, Indians – and Africans – have a hard time renting houses.
What these disparate east-Asian nations have in common is an obsession with whiteness and the belief that having dark skin is equivalent to being ugly. As I read up on the subject, a passing comment from the Taiwanese lady on the plane resurfaced in my memory: she had pointed out that Indians tend to be dark. Handsome, where I was concerned, was a synonym for having light skin – or lighter, anyway, than what she expected an Indian to have.
My first reaction was outrage. But then I realised that while I was angry about being subjected to colour prejudice abroad, millions of my countrymen suffer from it even when they’re at home. East-Asian societies may have a thing for whiteness, but Indians are world champions at racism.
In India, to be a woman and dark is to be as good as unmarriageable. Matrimonial ads are filled with offers of fair-skinned brides. The country’s most popular skin-lightening cream, Fair and Lovely, rakes in more than 20bn rupees ($315m) in annual sales in a rapidly expanding market. And despite efforts by the Advertising Standards Council of India to discourage skin-colour-based marketing, new skin-whitening brands continue to pile in and thrive.
I’ve never suffered these jibes myself, partly because there is less pressure on men to be fair, and partly because my skin colour is on the lighter side of brown. My experiences in east Asia, while unpleasant, were a fleeting window on to the lives of those Indians who experience this every day. Being called handsome was like having a mirror held up to my own country’s society – and seeing its ugliness.