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“You don’t really look Asian,” I’ve been told, as if it’s a compliment. Sometimes people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m half-Korean. Growing up in a predominately white, upper-middle class suburb of New York City, I became used to being judged based on my appearance. Even now that I live in Brooklyn, I’m regularly confronted with an earnest, “Where are you from?” The question always bothers me, but my response is now polite and well-practiced: “Well, I’m from New York. But my mother was born in South Korea.”
My mother came to New York from halfway around the world when she was fifteen, and she was not exactly pleased when I wanted to go halfway around the world at twenty to study abroad in India. She readily listed her concerns: crime, dirt, kidnappings, illness, street harassment, and distance. I took her anxieties with a grain of salt: these were the kinds of things all mothers worry about when their children decide to study abroad, let alone travel to a place about which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions travelers about maintaining personal safety.
The program orientation packet didn’t do much to calm my mother’s worries, and even gave me pause. The literature said that traveling to India as an American woman would be difficult—us women, we needed to be smart and to do our best to fit in. This led to a long discussion about clothes. The program insisted that one “meet the standards of conservative modest dress,” which meant no skirts or dresses unless they were floor-length, and definitely no shorts. Any shirts we brought would have to be “long enough to cover the hips and amply cover your bum.” We were warned that the decision about what to wear could make or break our experience. It could be the difference between getting home safely or not, since “tight or revealing clothing is seen as an explicit invitation for sexual attention.”
Of the 25 students on the program, 22 were women. We all had read the orientation packet before arriving, and were all terrified about what dangers would befall us based on our fashion choices. Of course, these warnings were not as applicable to the three men on the trip, who were told to wear clean and neat clothing, regardless of style. One girl went as far as to dye her red hair to a deep, chocolate-brown before leaving the States, so as not to stand out as much. Another blond girl, upon hearing about the other girl’s dyed hair, wondered aloud why she hadn’t thought of that too. I was suddenly grateful for my thick black-brown hair, courtesy of my Korean genetics.
Our teachers had to convince all the blondes that dyeing their hair wasn’t the solution. But they still insisted on the connection between personal appearance and personal safety. Dressing modestly as a sign of respect wasn’t unique to India, but there seemed to be an increased urgency in that context, where violence against women was pervasive and systemic. The now-infamous Delhi rape case happened in December 2012, seven months after our program ended, but even during our six months there, there were a couple of heavily publicized rape cases. Most memorable for me was the story of a twenty-three-year-old woman who was gang raped when she was coming home from her job at a pub. The response from the police did little to inspire confidence in the justice system. The victim’s integrity was questioned and the solution was to ban women from going out past 8:00 PM.
We were told that being American would not give us immunity from harassment. If anything, we’d fall under more scrutiny. We briefly discussed the role of media in all of this, since many Indian men’s only experience with American women occur through porn or Hollywood movies, which, as we know, do such a good job of portraying women. This perception of American women as “easy” made us specific targets, particularly when engaging in “Western-style” behavior, like going out to pubs or wearing blue jeans.
So when our female teachers took us shopping for a new wardrobe, I felt relieved. New clothes would help me fit in, be more discreet and pretend away an obviously American look. Our teachers were our spirit guides, showing us how to match our scarves (dupatta) to our leggings (churidar) and tunics (kurta). After a couple of hours of mixing and matching, we spilled out into street, shopping bags in hand, disoriented and excited. We were prepared to wear this new armor that would supposedly protect us from the lewd male gaze.
As a half-Korean woman, I found that I could fit in while wearing my churidar and kurta. If I hailed a taxi-wallah while alone, three times out of five, the driver would start speaking to me in Hindi rather than in English. I wasn’t just another American girl in India. I was a Korean-American girl in India, and that came with a whole different set of problems. Sitting on the couch in my new outfit, my homestay mother remarked, “You sort of look like you could be Indian.” I wasn’t expecting this, to not be perceived as an American girl, not after the orientation.
My Korean-ness was simultaneously a blessing and a liability. People wouldn’t immediately write me off as an American, and I felt as if I blended in more than other American girls. The northeastern states of India—also known as the Seven Sister States—border Tibet and China, and have historic ethnic ties to East Asia. Many of the people from those regions appear to be East Asian, like me. This meant I didn’t look clearly foreign, especially when I was alone or with an Indian-American friend or in Indian-style clothing. There were days when I wasn’t harassed once, barring a couple of stares.
But being perceived as an East Indian woman added an additional layer of complexity, particularly in Delhi. These northeastern states are some of the the poorest in India, and many women from this region are trafficked into big cities like Delhi as sex workers. Therefore, there were assumptions about East Asian appearances linked to prostitution.
On the days that I was cat-called (as all women, everywhere, are) wearing a kurta and churidar led to more aggressive shouts and lecherous looks from men on the street. The shouts were often in Hindi, which I didn't understand, perhaps for the best. This happened more frequently when I was alone than with others. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cat-called when with my female peers. We were. But the jeers I got when I was by myself were nastier, I assume because the men thought that my body was for sale.
I was in a bit of a lose-lose situation. Either I was the American slut in blue jeans, or the East Indian prostitute in a salwar kameez. My identity was fluid, entirely based on who I was with at the time and what I was wearing. But the other girls in my program didn’t seem to have that same problem. They were lauded by others, specifically by other Indian women, for demonstrating respect for and understanding of the culture that so many American tourists appropriated. But the other girls were still clearly American. Rather than be mistaken for someone I definitely was not, and since I spent most of my time with other Americans anyway, I decided to err on the side of Western clothing, often wearing blue jeans with a kurta.
Still, even efforts to control my appearance and perception would sometimes backfire. The most aggressive incident happened while I was wearing blue jeans. Walking down Marine Drive in Mumbai with my friend Sarah, a white girl with freckles and auburn hair, I was wearing jeans and a modest, button-up shirt, albeit a shirt that didn’t fully cover my bum as the orientation packet recommended. A man spotted us and followed us down the long boardwalk, first talking in a whisper and finally yelling, begging us to touch each other’s breasts and make out, like those “filthy girls” in those “porn movies.” We tried to dodge him, but he was persistent. We ran across the street, past four or six lanes of traffic, to the aquarium, so as to be nearer to families than this man.
For six months, I had been playing by the rules, and that man on Marine Drive proved to be my breaking point. I was worn down, tired of having to negotiate others’ perception of my identity in order to maintain a level of personal safety. No individual should be subjected to that level of scrutiny, and it was frustrating that my appearance, and therefore my identity, were always up for interpretation. I spent most of the semester trying to find balance between personal safety and personal comfort and personal style and cultural norms. For me, wearing blue jeans provided more defense than Indian clothes. But that still was no guarantee that I would be protected from sneers.
Just because I am an American doesn’t mean I am always perceived as one, which can be both liberating and frightening. I’ve become used to this fluidity in the American context, but it took me a while to get used to it in India. I do wish someone had discussed this with me in advance, because once I became aware of it, I felt more empowered, and more in control of my surroundings.