Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Foreigner

There is a word that follows each volunteer of Team India, as we jovially refer to ourselves, like a persistent mosquito. Yes, that really is an accurate analogy. For David and me, the word is saip. And for Lindsey, Sudie, Ariel, and Becca, it is madama. Each of the volunteers has a different relationship with their word/mosquito. Some swat it immediately, others wear Off! to prevent it’s attacks, and some may smile lovingly at this integral part of God’s creation. I fall into Category 1: The Swatters. I anticipate swatting the word when no one is even speaking. I dream about its death. If this word, saip, were actually a tangible being I would guillotine it.

The word saip, I am told, is the Malayalam counterpart to sahib, which simply means sir in Hindi. And now, Dear Reader, you are thinking, “Oh, how polite and innocent of a word.” Not so fast! During India’s visit from her "friend" (intended to read sarcasticaly) Colonization, sahib/saip began to be used out of (undeserved) respect for Englishmen (and madama for women in case you hadn’t put that together yet). And now the term is synonymous with “foreigner.” Having people recognize me as a foreigner isn’t offensive in and of itself; indeed, I am a foreigner and have no shame in being one. But there’s something about me that allows people to make that judgment: my skin.

I am struggling because for the first time in my life I feel defined by the color of my skin. As a white man who grew up in the U.S., I have always been the majority. And while there were times when I’m sure I was the minority in a room, they were rare and passing. No, unlike others, my skin has never made me feel abnormal. The society I come from repeatedly affirms that I am the normal one whose Band-aids have always matched my skin. But the truth is there’s nothing any more “normal” about the color of my skin, yours, an Indian’s, or Barack Obama’s. The challenge is that I have now received a label that I did not ask for and would prefer to reject. And because I don’t speak Malayalam, I will never even understand the complexity of the connotations associated with the word saip, my label, like its users do.

What I do have control over, and will use more carefully from here on out, is the labels that I place on others. For example, until now, I have never really understood why U.S. citizens whose ancestors were Mexican do not want to be referred to as Mexican themselves. I always thought, “Well, my grandmother doesn’t mind being called German.” I think I get it now. There are plenty of connotations and various understandings associated with the word “Mexican” and if you prefer “Hispanic” or “Latina/o,” I am happy to oblige. It is not denying someone’s identity; it is recognizing the common humanity and honoring people enough to empower them to choose how that identity is expressed through a medium as powerful as language.

So, one of my struggles in India is to not become frustrated or offended as I hear saip littered throughout Malayalam conversations right in from of me or when a child sights me on the street and immediately starts pointing to their parent while saying that dreaded word. Instead, I will try to appreciate that this situation offers me an opportunity to feel the uncomfortableness of being the minority (and believe me, it’s a unique, powerful, and irreplaceable experience) and allows me, in a small way, to be in solidarity with other minorities in the world, especially in my own country, who struggle to escape undesired, painful, divisive labels.


  1. John - Thank you for sharing the awareness that comes so rarely to those of us in the dominant culture - it is a true gift of this experience to learn how to be both stranger and guest. Blessings, Susan N.

  2. I really don't think there is anything derogatory in calling a pale-skinned foreigner a Saip.

    One one hand you label yourself a white man and on the other hand you want to reject being called a Saip?

    You are not called a Saip because you are a minority. There is nothing dreadful in a kid calling you a saip.

  3. That’s true that there is nothing derogatory about the word saip. Many times Achen himself will refer to us as saips and I am okay with that in the same way that I am okay with being called a white man.

    However, if you called someone just a white man or just a black man or just an Indian, something is taken from that person. It is the connotation that is implied. It is the context.

    As you walk by someone, they call you saip. They are not saying there is a white man. They are referencing colonial rule and the neo-colonial rule that continues today. We are associated as part of that because of our looks. This is something that shames us. It takes our respect. It frustrates us. As a YAV, I am here to give respect, to give love, to try to make the lives of everyone in this world more equal.

    When a child smiles at me, and references me as saip, I too smile. There is love. But this word is used too often in hate. Hate addressed at colonialists, and perhaps neo-colonists, which I too dislike, which I too seek to address.

    I will bear this frustration for a year or five or however long I live, but I will never cause this pain to another. I feel this is the lesson that John and I will take from here. Saip is another word for white man, but carries colonialist roots; roots that I am ashamed of, roots that I wish to bury and correct, rather than relive.

    -David Buco, YAV