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Feb. 16 2010 - 1:51 am | 469 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Mumbai mashers: Stay out of my inbox

It is the night before my first day of kindergarten. I am five years old and terrified. My big sister, Becca, who has already mastered the world let alone the art of making friends, sits on my bed and tells me it will all be OK.

“You go up to another kid,” Becca instructs, “put on a big smile, look him in the eye, and say, ‘My name is Hanna. What’s your name?’ ”

It was great advice, especially coming from an eight year old. It took me a few years, but I eventually got the hang of it. By high school, I was partying with the cool kids.

Twenty-three years later I moved to India and automatically followed Becca’s advice over and over. Give big smile, make eye contact and say, “Mera naam Hanna hei. Aap ka naam kya hei?”

But in India, something got lost in translation.

Here, such behavior, especially coming from a foreign woman, can translate as, “I’m easy! Want to sleep with me?”

Eek. I don’t think that’s what my big sister meant.

“Western women can’t be as friendly, as outgoing as they would be in their home countries,” says Times of India columnist Bachi Karkaria.

If a woman strikes up conversation with strangers at a bar or if she gives out her phone number, Karkaria says, many men think she wants to be an entirely different kind of playmate.

Many — though obviously not all or even most — Indian men think foreign women are perfectly willingly to have a cup of tea and then jump into bed with them.

“The general notion about foreign women is that the foreign woman is a slut,” says Jerry Pinto, author of “Surviving Women,” a manual of gender politics in India. “Unless proven otherwise, she is available and ready for sex at any time.”

Once men decide that a specific foreign woman is “fair game,” as Karkaria puts it, they make their move. This leads to another rather awkward, sometimes disturbing, cultural difference.

Many — again, not all or even most — Indian men put on the moves by engaging in an excessive amount of one-sided communication. They call and call and call. And call. When a woman doesn’t respond, they call some more.

Cristiana Peruzzo, a 35-year-old Italian woman living in Mumbai, says that when she first moved to India, she was looking for friends and made an effort to meet a range of people. She met a guy through a social networking site, and they then met in person in September for a fresh lime soda.

She could tell right away that she was not interested. He is short. She herself is very short, and given that he was the same height as her, she says she knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Peruzzo was friendly with the lime soda man, but she did not flirt with him. And at first, he seemed to pick up on her cues. “He seemed genuinely interested in a friendship,” she says.

But then the phone calls began. Lime soda man began calling Peruzzo 10 times a day. She told him she was not interested. She said she had a boyfriend. She stopped answering her phone. Nothing worked. Lime soda man called and called and called, multiple times a day and night for months. He would call from different phones to confuse her into answering.

Now, Peruzzo has to turn her phone off every night so as not to be awoken by text messages from him.

And he wasn’t the only one. She met a number of men through the social networking site, and many of them pursued her by calling and texting her incessantly.

“On Friday or Saturday nights, I’d get messages like, ‘Hey, what are you doing, sexy bones?’ And I was like, ‘WHAT?’” Peruzzo says laughing. “It never happened to me in my life.”

From my super informal survey of foreign women who live or have lived in Mumbai, just about every one I talked to said they have had similar experiences with men who would pursue them by calling or texting virtually non-stop. Go here to read my GlobalPost article on why some Indian men do this, including an interview with one man who explains why he sends five to 10 text messages a day.

The barrage of text messages and calls can feel flattering or intrusive, depending on the sender and recipient. Peruzzo says that in the beginning, she liked all the interest. “I’m 35, and I’ve never had such a long list of people begging for my attention,” she says.

When it happened to me, I felt claustrophobic. Men who I had met professionally started sending me emails, instant messages, Twitter messages and texts over and over throughout the day. One man sent so many I felt like I was being pummeled with messages, each one encroaching on my space, more and more and more.

After days of messages, he would send a simple “Good morning :) ” and I would want to scream.

And yet, I did not hit back. I didn’t even put up blockers. I felt like I could not say “leave me alone” because I did not want to be rude to a professional acquaintance. I also felt like since I am new to India I needed as much professional help as I could get. I did not want to lose this man’s advice and assistance.

I asked Jerry Pinto how the caller who refuses to stop making contact differs from the schmuck who gropes a woman on the street. “The man who virtually stalks a woman IS a virtual schmuck on the street. He is invading her space,” Pinto says. The virtual stalker is just like the groper in that he is harassing the woman. “He is just using another form.”

Peruzzo eventually decided that the incessant calls were not worth the temporary ego boost. She realized that these men only wanted one thing, and she wasn’t willing to give it to them. She has stopped meeting guys through social networking sites, stopped giving out her phone number and stopped accepting invitations for day trips or get togethers with men she does not know well.

Like many foreign women living in Mumbai, she has stopped being friendly to strangers.

I have only been here two months. And I have decades of “give a smile, make eye contact, introduce yourself” ingrained in my brain. It’s not so easy to train yourself to stop being friendly. And despite my experiences with men who do engage in what feels to me like virtual stalking, I am not sure I want to give up being outgoing. What I love about living in a foreign land is being open to new experiences and new people. If I close myself off to half the population, I will miss out on half of India.

But I have reevaluated my position on incessant callers. I do not care how valuable the colleague or contact might be, the relationship is not worth feeling pummeled. I do not blame the men for wanting to interact with me. (Hey, it’s not their fault I’m cute!) But I now know that this may indeed be a cultural difference. They may think it’s OK to contact me 15 times a day even though I do not respond. And I must now realize that I do not have to be subtle or gentle. They are free to call, and I am free to assert, “Please leave me alone.”

I may be foreign, but I’m not that kind of playmate.

Read my related story on GlobalPost.

If you would like to follow me, probably best to stick to Twitter: Hanna_India


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    About Me

    Hanna Ingber Win is a multi-media journalist based in Mumbai, India. In addition to blogging for True/Slant, she works as GlobalPost's correspondent in Mumbai and marketing consultant. Most recently, Hanna was the founding World Editor of the Huffington Post, and she won InterAction's 2009 Award for Excellence in International Reporting in recognition of the HuffPost's foreign coverage.

    Hanna has also lived and worked in Burma, Thailand, South Africa and the States. She has a passion for telling stories about people and how they live.

    She has covered maternal health in Ethiopia, police misconduct in South Africa, migrant workers in Malaysia, Iraqi refugees in San Diego and juvenile sex offenders in Los Angeles.

    Hanna's freelance work has appeared in Washingtonpost.com, LA Weekly and the Hartford Courant and on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "Day2Day."

    She received her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and her master's in journalism from USC Annenberg, where she was a Dean's Scholar.

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/Hanna_India

    Email: hingber@gmail.com

    See my profile »
    Followers: 23
    Contributor Since: January 2010