by D Sohi
Holiday season is upon us. Summer 2018 in the UK, in particular, is a scorcher (now people can’t say it’s always raining here!). WhenI discuss holidays with friends and colleagues, I frequently return to one nagging memory – or several. I recall a trip to Italy, September 2013. The fact that I’m still listening to Italian songs and reading Italian books clearly should demonstrate my affection towards the country. There were, however, some incidences that refuse to leave my memory. The intersection of race, mother tongue and nationality snatched my attention more than I wanted it to.
One example is my trip to the Vatican. Even as a Briton, and a zealot believer of “first come, first served”, I found the queuing up mildly irritating possibly because it barely moved. One couple from Oceania decided they would occupy the space in front of us (despite us being there first) and give a steely stare just to prove their point. It was only when they heard us speaking British English did the hostility miraculously drop. I wasn’t a nuisance brown Indian person anymore. I was British. Naturally, that solves everything. The couple forgot that they had technically pushed in front of us, and merrily discussed the day and how annoying were the salesman-types rolling up and down the line. The salesman-types were people of colour. So what, you may ask. Exactly. Why did I feel uncomfortable at the sudden difference in treatment once the couple heard our accent? I also found their persistence trying when we had already declined their services; why was I uneasy? It dawned on me that the Indians from India were viewed as inferior – I fared only slightly better being a well-spoken, “refined” (read: civilised) British subject. We had a fairly pleasant conversation, however, unlike my family, I had spotted the microaggression beforehand.
The next example, I have to admit, is one I reflect with slight affection but mostly a cringe. Once in the Sistine Chapel, we allowed a Frenchwoman to take our vacated seat. She did a double take, analysed us (Middle Eastern? Pakistani? Indian? Indian!), smiled and then said “Namaste”. Oh dear. Namaste isn’t offensive. It is considered polite in Indian communities to greet someone using their religious greeting, even if you are of different faith. The cringe stems from the assumption that all Indians are Hindu, therefore must all use one greeting. It erases India’s vibrant ethnic and religious makeup. I’m a minority in India as well as the UK, thus the assumption was a touch troublesome. She was a sweet lady, and I appreciate her attempt to reach out to us; the episode, however, alerted me to the ignorance surrounding India’s rich history.
Perhaps the most infuriating example is of the woman flouncing into the queue at a train station, throwing us a dirty look and stealing the space in front of us, which we had allowed for people to pass through to get across to their platform. Two young men behind us found this hilarious (the penny hadn’t dropped that her rudeness had pushed them further down the line). It’s possible that she was a serial offender of many other unsuspecting tourists, but the daggers over the shoulder was enough evidence of putting us in our place. All this for appearing different.
What did I take away from this trip? I love the Italian language, the food and the architecture. I also took away this message: as a brown-skinned person, I should know my place. Which is after those superior to me. Unless I’m from the UK, then I’m tolerable. I will always be judged on my skin colour and otherness no matter how good a person I try to be.
This can’t be laid at Italy’s door: my experience is factored by people of many nationalities and backgrounds. Should this make me feel grateful that I don’t have this exact kind of treatment in the UK? No, of course not. Marginalised people should never settle. We must keep communicating our troubles and our pain till our resisting audience listens.
When people believe Western Europe to be the beacon of progression – in contrast to the United States – I want to laugh bitterly. Especially now, mid-2018, with many resurgences of European Far-Right groups, the belief Europe is progressive is a comforter i.e., “At least we’re not as bad as the Americans”. It excuses microaggressions and colonialist mindsets. My heart goes out to the Indian national tourists: it must be so much worse. As a British Indian, I acknowledge my privilege. Indian tourists deserve better.