Wednesday, 21 December 2011


A few months ago, I was attending a not-particularly-enthralling conference on skills development in India when my phone rang in the middle of the opening session. On the other end was a lady from an Indian TV production company.

"Hello sir," she chirruped, "I got your details from the organisers of the Short & Sweet theatre festival. We need a foreigner to appear in our programme. Can you come to our studios in an hour?"

She seemed genuinely perplexed when I explained that I had a job, was indeed in the middle of said job at present, and that in any case an hour's notice seemed a little bit ambitious given that getting anywhere at 10 am on a weekday in Delhi is pretty much guaranteed to take at least that long. Anyway, I politely declined, resisting the temptation to ask what the requirements were beyond being A Foreigner, and returned to the less-than-fascinating conference.

A couple of months later it happened again. This time it was during the theatre festival, and I was backstage about half an hour before curtain up. It was a different (though equally chirpy) lady from another production company. "Hello sir," she warbled, "I hear that you are a director and stage manager for the Short & Sweet theatre festival. We would like you to come on our programme about whether Indians are becoming less tolerant, to give a foreigner's perspective. Can you come to our studios in an hour?"

I explained patiently that yes, I was indeed stage managing the festival, and indeed was in the process of doing so at that very moment, so consequently I would not be able to accept her kind invitation. Again, she seemed quite perplexed that I would turn the opportunity down. I was tempted to ask why she thought I had any credentials or credibility on the subject of the programme, having only been in the country for a few months, but I had furniture to move around, so I hung up.

Many expats will be familiar with the phenomenon, living in a country that lacks a history of major immigration, of being feted by the media simply because you're from somewhere else. It happened in Korea too, but I suspect it is even more common in India because the language barriers are so much lower. Consequently you get approached for all kinds of things that would be unlikely to happen somewhere where English is less widely spoken.

Back in September, I was called by a director looking for an actor for his play, who needed to be Caucasian. I sent him my CV; he sent me the script. The part was for a fat man in his mid-50s. I called him back and suggested that it probably wasn't my casting. "Oh, that's ok," he said, "he just needs to be white."

Anyone who's lived in a country where most people are a different colour has, I am sure, a hundred tales like this to tell. You're left feeling bemused and ever so slightly affronted that the rich tapestry of wonders that make up your own enigmatic and sparkling personality can be so easily subsumed under one single characteristic that, in itself, is only important when it comes to deciding what factor sun lotion to use. But of course my whiteness - and everything it is seen as meaning - largely defines me to most people here, and that's just something I have to get used to again. And of course I'm very grateful that reactions to my difference almost always involve interest and engagement (even if sometimes rather clumsily expressed) rather than hostility.

And then there's the fact that, should the whole education thing not work out, I'm pretty sure I could make a good living here as an actor playing white people (whatever their age, width, height, features and quite possibly gender) and appearing on TV offering a "foreign perspective" on any subject I can summon up a few minutes' worth of bullshit on (which is quite a lot of subjects). It's good to know you have options.

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