Subtle Stereotyping

Being stereotyped is something every person experiences at sometime, especially when you are in a foreign country. I have experienced it often enough, being an Indian who is living and studying in Japan. And unfortunately most of the time, it feels like the most awkward thing in the world when you have to rack your brains to find something suitable to say when a person you are talking to unconsciously stereotypes you.

How can you fend off the stereotype image and at the same time not offend the person?

The image of various countries and cultures in peoples minds are often quite different. For example, what do Japanese people think of first when the mention of India comes along? The answer is, curry.

Seriously, the first question I get when I say I’m from India is,” Oh, isn’t the curry there really spicy? But I love Indian curry!” and so forth. Of course, in countries like the USA and UK, there are huge populations of Indian immigrants. As a result, many Indian stores, cinemas and eateries has spread their wings there. The poeple in these western countries are aware that India, more correctly Indian food, is not only about curry.

However, in a place like Japan where the Indian population is considerably less, where would you find something related to India? On a restaurant billboard of course. I am not blaming them though. Happens everywhere doesn’t it? In India, people probably think the Japanese only eat sushi. Interesting, how food is a major contributor of stereotypical assumptions.

The other day I was chatting to a Japanese teacher about taking on a teaching assistantship. We exchanged introductions and I told her I was from India. The whole ten seconds of curry conversation ensued like always. I had just come from another campus of my university on a bicycle and was pretty much out of breath. She noticed this and on my telling her, she looked at me with startled eyes and asked me, “Do you know how to ride a bicycle?”.

I replied in the affirmative and was a little affronted as to why she looked so surprised. Did she not think I looked capable enough of riding a bicycle? She then, in all seriousness, started talking about how her husband was from Congo in Africa and how he told her apparently girls don’t know how to ride bicycles there.

Now this I understand and I do think it is quite an interesting fact but I was totally nonplussed at the timing and the context of this in our conversation. I’m pretty sure she  knew where India was since we were talking about it in detail like fifteen seconds ago. She was looking at me expectantly for an answer, but what on earth do I reply to that?

She was a sweet thing so I didn’t want to repeat that I was from India. That would have only embarrassed her. So in the end, I nodded with a  “that is so interesting” look on my face. On hindsight, I think maybe she thought India was similar to Africa in that way and thought it was perfectly normal to assume what she did.

These kind of moments do leave me frustrated because on one hand, I know that I can explain to a handful of people and correct some of their assumptions,  but on the other hand, not to a huge population.

Incidents like this happen to me on a daily basis here in Tokyo and I have started to think them more hilarious than offending. Especially because its always done in a harmless and mostly curious manner.

I just hope I keep a straight face next time.

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