Why I'm Not Your Exotic, Indian 'Princess Jasmine' Fantasy

by Sheena Sharma
Kylah Benes-Trapp

I've always wondered how men perceive me. Sometimes, I don't have to wonder. As a brown-skinned, somewhat ethnically ambiguous-looking girl, people assume a whole lot about who I am and where I come from.

"No habla Español," I say to Spanish-speaking tourists when they come up to me on the street and ask for directions.

"That's Arabic tattooed on your shoulder, isn't it?" This one particularly irks me, mostly because men think they're so smart in suggesting it's Arabic. "No," I say, sounding just as entitled as the guy who asked the question. "It's Sanskrit."

And then, there's my favorite assumption of all:

"So, like, do you have to date another Indian guy? I heard you guys have, like, arranged marriages and stuff." This is something I've been asked verbatim probably at least a dozen times.

"Uh, no," I usually say back, rolling my eyes.

While it's true that Indian culture has yet to get rid of the traditional practice of arranging marriages (my very own aunt and uncle had an arranged marriage), it isn't true of the expectations for me. I'm free to date and marry whomever I want. Most of the time, though, I don't feel like going into a low-key history lesson about how most Indians living in America don't have to be set up, so it's just easier to stay mum and let people think what they'll think.

Not all people are this close-minded, but there are a lot of numb nuts out there.

Blind assumptions happen every day to everyone. Sometimes, when I'm on the subway, I can tell the older, suited-up gentleman in the corner thinks the girl sitting across from him is ratchet just because she chose a bright, loud purple lipstick over a soft, nude one. We judge people based on what they look like all the time; it's human nature to do so.

But there comes a point where blind assumption becomes offensive in its naiveté, and I've felt offended quite a bit.

I've dated non-Indians my whole young adult life. The town in which I grew up in, Long Island, New York, was predominantly Jewish, and I felt allegiance more to non-Indians than I did to Indians. I've had a Croatian boyfriend, an Irish-Catholic boyfriend and many-a-Jewish flings. I took small comforts in knowing I wasn't tied down to any one race or religion, but I'd often have to explain that I'm not. New York born and raised, I'm just as American as the next person.

Still, in the midst of each whirlwind romance (none of my relationships have lasted more than a year), I couldn't help but wonder if I was just someone's experiment. Like, were these guys I dated playing out some sort of cultural fantasy or "fetish" by dating me? Was I their exotic play-thing only for the moment?

This phenomenon is a complicated thing to explain to people who aren't children of immigrant parents. All I know is I'm not the only one who thinks this way. There's an entire Reddit forum dedicated to the discussion of the struggles Indian women face in dating white men. This one 32-year-old Indian-American female writes:

Throughout my whole life, I never really dated any Indian guys; I exclusively dated white guys. However, now I realize more than ever that the guys I dated never really took me seriously. They never really viewed me as someone they would eventually marry. I was always just some exotic fun. This part was definitely a realization that has hurt me to the core. I didn't actually do it to spite Indian men or anything like that. I did what a lot of my white female friends did; I thought I was the same as them, but that could not be farther from the truth.

I empathize with her. Whether our train of thought is fueled by our own paranoia or the actual outcome of our experiences — that outcome being the eventual fall-out of our romantic relationships with non-Indian men — doesn't really matter. The fact of the matter is we still think this way, and we can't really know what role we fulfilled in the lives of those men without explicitly asking them. And this is something we'll never do because it sounds incredibly presumptuous to ask, "Are you just with me because I'm fulfilling some 'exotic,' Princess Jasmine-esque fantasy of yours?"

I can't speak for all Indian-Americans. I can only speak for myself. But maybe it's because of the love stories of our parents — or rather, meeting-which-grew-to-respect-which-grew-to-love stories — that we desire to stray so far in the other direction. That direction being anything other than what we were brought up to believe is the picture of "love."

In her op-ed, "Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?," Anita Jain addresses that desire to dilly-dally with the non-Indian man. Jain writes:

The problem is that while he wants doctor or engineer, my heart beats for the diametric opposite. Take the aging, but rakish foreign correspondent I was smitten with last year. Nearing 50, he'd just seen his marriage fall apart and he mourned its passing by plastering his body with fresh tattoos and picking bar fights. I found it terribly sexy that he rode a Harley, perhaps less so that his apartment was decorated with Wonder Woman paraphernalia. He was on a downward spiral, but perhaps my parents might appreciate that he'd won a Pulitzer earlier in his career?

So, I guess what I'm saying is many of us Indian-American women need you to know why we're dating you: We have an irrepressible need to, one that stems from wanting to defy non-Western cultural norms. But we feel like we're being shut out. We feel like we aren't being given a real chance with you. Not all the time, but much of the time.

How many times are we going to make conclusions based on what a person looks like? If I'm not being given a real chance with a non-Indian simply because he operates under things he knows about Indian culture (or worse, what he thinks he knows about the culture), then that's just not fair.

I suppose the right person wouldn't let my skin color or irrelevant cultural traditions stand in the way of his feelings for me. The right person would love me for me. But I've dated so many people and haven't met the right person, which leads me to believe there's something I'm missing here.