When I see the taxi driver, my heart immediately sinks.
Not again, I think.
He’s a short, portly Indian man, and he is busy talking on the phone. I glance at Chris, beside me, who gives me the same look of resignation I imagine is plastered on my own face.
It’s not the fact that the driver is Indian that is giving us pause – I’m Indian too, my skin the same deep brown as his. I can understand every word of the conversation he’s having in rapid-fire Hindi on his mobile right now.
It’s more what his Indianness, and my Indianness combined with Chris’ non-Indianness, means. We’ve done this before. We know how it goes.
As if on cue, the driver turns to us, shoves his phone into his pocket and exclaims, ‘Handsome boy and pretty girl! You are waiting for taxi?’
I smile tightly, and nod, lugging my suitcase from the hotel steps towards the car.
‘Yep, we’re heading to Newtown,’ I say. Chris smiles beside me, both of us hoping that we can get through this with sheer politeness.
It doesn’t help that we’re both feeling a bit out of it – I’m hungover, and Chris has a migraine that prevented him from running the City2Surf this morning, which is the whole reason we’re in Sydney in the first place. Neither of us are in the mood for what we know will be a taxi ride of unwanted questions, assumptions and, most likely, unsolicited advice.
‘You from India?’ The driver asks, as I knew he would.
‘Yes, from Fiji, actually,’ I say. ‘But I’m Indian.’
‘Ah, yes, Fiji! I’m from India too,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Kaise he?’
‘I’m good thanks,’ I reply in English, not wanting to leave Chris out.
‘Handsome Boy, you’re not Indian, eh? You’re very lucky with this girl – she looks like Princess of India!’
Chris tries to laugh casually, clambering into the back seat.
‘You married?’ the driver continues, adjusting his GPS and pulling out onto the road.
‘No,’ I say lightly. ‘We’re not.’
‘Ah, you’re very naughty!’ he laughs, delighted to have caught us out. ‘In India, we don’t do this. Our girls do not just date the boys, especially boys who are not Indian. What do your parents have to say, Pretty Girl?’
I’d like to snap something to the effect of, ‘It’s none of your business’, but I know there’s no point.
‘I’m sure they’d like us to get married,’ I say, still smiling. Considering my parents didn’t speak to me for almost a year after Chris and I started dating, this is the exact definition of putting it mildly.
‘You know, you should get married. How old are you?’ The driver asks, peering at me in the rearview mirror.
‘Oh, you’re getting old, you need to get married now. You know, my son is dating a girl too, we don’t like it. We say they should get married. But it won’t last anyway. She’s, what do you say, Filipino. It’s not going to work out.’
And on it goes, the whole way to Newtown. By the time we exit the car, Chris and I are feeling more haggard than ever.
‘We’ve got to start taking separate taxis,’ I mutter to him as we trudge towards where we parked our own car.
The trouble is, it’s not just Indian taxi drivers who take issue with our interracial relationship – it’s Indians everywhere.
At supermarkets, Indian checkout staff will look at us with disgust, on occasion even refusing to serve us and swapping with someone else.
In restaurants, Indian waiters will interrogate me in sharp tones about where exactly in India I’m from, as if trying to pinpoint where my aberrant behaviour originated.
On the street, Indian men will throw us looks of such pure disgust, it’s alarming.
And sometimes there’s the flip side – once an Indian takeaway owner gave us free samosas, grinning at us over the counter.
But overwhelmingly, the response to our relationship is one of judgement and discomfort. When we first started dating, Chris found this even more confronting.
‘What’s the big deal? They know that people date in Australia, they must see it all the time,’ he’d say.
But the fact is that in the framework of Indian culture, I am every Indian man’s daughter, or sister, or future wife. I’m meant to be a ‘good Indian girl’. And good Indian girls do not date white men.
By dating Chris and walking around with him in public, I am sending a powerful message. To them, I’m saying, the rules don’t apply to me, I have sex before marriage and date white guys. I am NOT a good Indian girl.
It’s a wilful betrayal of everything I was raised to believe in – family honour, loyalty, chastity, modesty. And if I’m a big slut, then Chris is even worse – he’s the corrupting influence, the white bandit stealing into my bedroom at night and luring me away.
Of course, not all Indian-Australians subscribe to this way of thought. We’ve never had someone our own age express any animosity towards us. It’s usually older men and women, who fix disapproving glares on me, and cast accusatory looks at Chris.
This is heartening to me – it suggests that these attitudes are outdated, and aren’t filtering through to younger generations. It implies that Chris and I will one day be able to walk the streets holding hands without having to flinch every time we pass someone who could be Indian.
Australia is a multicultural country – we proclaim this proudly, host food fairs and markets to demonstrate how cool we all are with having different cultures residing on the same land. But the primary focus always seems to be mitigating white racism – as if other cultures aren’t also prejudiced towards each other.
The fact that not a single non-Indian person has made a negative comment about my relationship with Chris, but numerous Indian-Australians have, speaks to the fact that racial harmony relies on more than just accepting that other cultures exist.
After four years of being together, and suffering regular judgement from Indian strangers in public, Chris and I have started dealing with interrogations like those from our probably well-meaning taxi driver in different ways.
‘Yes, we’re together,’ I respond when people ask me. ‘Isn’t it great that we live somewhere where we can be with people who we love, regardless of their ethnicity?’
The response is usually a nonplussed look, but I’m going to keep working on it. Handsome Boy and Pretty Girl aren’t going anywhere.
Image: Chris and Zoya, giving no fucks about their racial differences.