Being a Brown Ugly Immigrant: The Other Side of Expat Life

I spent a year in Beirut, between 2012-13. I was studying there at the American University (AUB), a place that had a mythical existence in my head ever since I got to know about it. Hamra, where AUB is located, is the “Champs Elysee of Beirut”, where the intellectual hipsters crowd in the night to smoke and drink in small crumbling spaces, some mystifying the war that is not far into the past (and now it seems, the future).

I am a woman of South Asian origins, and I look it, with my nose piercing, the thick black colour of my hair and the cottons that I wear. And for odd reasons I had imagined my appearance to give me a ticket of acceptance in the intellectual hipster bubble that I had heard of from every other friend of mine.

I was heavily mistaken, in all my ideas, in all of what I had imagined  for myself. I was not the expat that my friends of “Caucasian” origins were, for I was closer to those who were termed “slaves” and “immigrants”. I was closer to women who wash toilets, do laundry and change the children’s diapers in the houses of the Lebanese. I had their hair, their skin colour, but oddly for most taxi drivers who assumed a profession for me, I needed to be dropped off at AUB. What was I doing there? was always their question. Studying, I would say, leaving behind an odd silence.

For now, I don’t have a home. I am stuck with a life of running with my suitcase in a moments time. I chose it, very gladly. But what I have seen is that as much as my “white” friends qualify the doorman’s respect (thinking of Cairo), I am the ugly immigrant (not that I care individually for the doorman’s services). Being seen as an expat remains exclusive to being being “white”. I am an immigrant, be it while I renew my study visas or work permits and pay unimaginable expenses for what is free for the native. I am not the tourist you welcome and say “sorry” to for the “harassment” of a single security check at the airport. I am your potential terrorist, so you get to ask me to go through five different scan machines, remove my bras so my boos can be checked and my bra scanned for potential weapon (well hello Israel, its called wired bras; I guessed most bras have wires and considering half of the world’s population is women…).

I spent my year in Beirut being confused. It seemed like all my friends who had arrived with me from my school in France were having the “(good) time of their lives.” I was having a time of my life as well, being confused, losing my sanity,  unsure if what I was feeling was indeed discrimination. I think of the day when I was walking in Gemmayzeh with my (Quebecois) boyfriend and the police following us and being rude to us, accusing us that we were involved in some act of terrorism and looking through all the pictures of my camera (on a cultural note: a white and a “black-brown” walking around in Beirut or any part of India for that sake is considered a big-fat oddity, equivalent to the probability that you will spot a UFO). I also think of the day when the french police followed me for around 10 minutes and stopped me to interrogate me while I was walking around in Menton, saying that I resembled a person involved in an attack in close vicinity.

I have been told that the airport and police treatment should be considered acceptable, for they are in the end “protecting my own well being and security.” So what about banning knives from kitchen, for the sake of “protecting my own well being and security” and decreasing chances of potential murder?

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About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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