Faces that looked nothing like mine tore past beyond the open van window as we darted in and out of chaotic traffic, like some crazed obstacle course. Billboards for insurance companies, hotels and makeup brands flew past in languages I could never read while corporation buildings loomed over us. In the middle of these structures, little shops made of nothing more than a cart or a tent camped in the crevices of the city. As we drove through the streets of Chennai, India, my mind wandered over the day I had. Today, my friends and I had visited a zoo that was in the city with our guide and friend, Agnesh. As our Uber attempted to find parking, Agnesh and our other friend, Lo Li, had the van stop so that they could get out to buy admission tickets. Agnesh was native to India and Lo Li was from Fuji, but she was also of Indian descent and had been to India several times prior. Some of my teammates protested not being able to get out, but our guides assured us that as soon as the admission people saw our fair skin, they would assume that we had ludicrous amounts of money and would, therefore, raise the price. This was a phenomenon we experienced a fair amount of times while we were staying in India and so we named it “the skin tax”.
Once Lo Li and Agnesh returned with our admission bands, we walked into the zoo. It was different than what I was used to – less shiny. However, the biggest difference I noticed was that, besides my little group of people, we were the only white people in sight – over the three weeks I was there, I could count the number of white people I saw on two hands. We were the minority and we stuck out like a sore thumb. Quickly it began to feel like we were the animals in the zoo as people tried to take pictures with us and stared as we walked down the path. At one point, a whole mob of school children in uniforms went out of their way to get high fives from us. Of course, all of this attention wasn’t bad, even the skin tax didn’t bother me too much because, with the exchange rate, the raising of their pricing only amounted to a few dollars extra for us. It was fun to be treated like a celebrity – but I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
As I pondered all of this, I looked out at the billboards advertising the makeup, clothes and beauty creams. I noted the basically white models being used to advertise the services and my heart sank a little. No one on the streets looked like this, only me and my friends and we weren’t even from there. We had achieved our special treatment simply by looking like their unachievable standards of beauty. Standards that had been imposed upon them by our people across the sea.
The van stopped in front of a coffee shop and I slid my way out of the van. With our backpacks strapped securely on our backs, we made our way into the shop. We were greeted with the smells of brewing coffees and chai teas while Indian music played quietly over the speakers. The barista looked us up and down with a smile on his face. As we sat down the traditional sounding tune was swiftly replaced with Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack”. My celebrity status at its finest.