The Ugly Indian

August 17, 2009

– Jason Overdorf writes for the GlobalPost, where this article first appeared. –

The instant that the fasten seat belts light went out aboard Cathay Pacific’s inaugural Delhi-Bangkok flight this summer, a chorus of metallic dongs erupted like a romper roomful of Ritalin-deprived 5-year-olds turned loose on an arsenal of xylophones.

The passengers were attacking their call buttons.

In seconds, flight attendants were up and running. By the time they began dishing out the special meals, tempers were beginning to fray.

“Whiskey!” demanded an old man with a white beard when the young Chinese flight attendant tried to put a meal in front of him.

“Sir, we are not serving drinks now,” the flight attendant replied politely. (Dong! Dong-dong! Do-Dong, dongdong!)

In the next row, another man, younger but no less eloquent, reached up to press his call button, and the flustered attendant caved and uncapped the Scotch.

“Arre, such a small peg she’s given you,” the old man’s companion protested.

Dong!

Once the world loved to hate the Ugly American — fat, loud-mouthed and blissfully superior in his utter cultural ignorance. But since the economic crisis put the kibosh on American and European travel budgets, there’s a new kid in town. India’s rampaging outbound travel market has thrown a much-needed lifeline to the tourism industry in Southeast Asia, Europe and farther afield.

For those schlepping bags and serving drinks, though, the Ugly Indian can be so demanding that the lifeline sometimes looks like it has a noose at the end of it.

“It’s a cultural thing,” said Pankaj Gupta, part-owner of Outbound Travels, a New Delhi-based travel agency. “In India, we have servants to do everything in everybody’s houses mostly, so people are just sort of used to getting stuff delivered to them.”

Culture conflict has already resulted in several public relations debacles. In May, for instance, a group of Indian passengers caused a minor sensation in the local press when they leveled allegations of racism against Air France — saying that when their flight was delayed for 28 hours in Paris other passengers were transported to hotels, but the Indians were made to wait in the lounge. (The distinction was not made based on race, but on possession of a valid Schengen visa, the airline maintains).

In a similar incident in 2006, 12 Indian passengers accused Northwest Airlines of racism when they were offloaded and detained in Amsterdam for what flight attendants called “suspicious behavior.”

“Imagine arresting 12 guys just because they were changing seats and talking on their cellphones when the plane was taking off,” wrote Indian humorist Jug Suraiya in his Times of India column. “Everyone does that in India all the time, and no one gets arrested.”

But just as the American tourist’s penchant for plaid never stopped France from chasing his dollars, the Indian tourist’s insatiable thirst for Scotch hasn’t made his rupees any less attractive. Tourism boards from a laundry list of countries have flooded Indian cities with delegations — or simply set up shop here. Airlines and hotels abroad have wooed Indian travel companies with bargain basement rates, and pulled out all stops to compete — throwing open their kitchens to traveling Indian chefs, topping up their in-flight entertainment libraries with Bollywood movies, and fighting tooth and nail for the right to host stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan for the Indian International Film Awards.

The reason is simple. Despite the downturn, India’s travel market is still growing. According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, more than 800,000 Indians are expected to visit Singapore this year, more than 669,000 Indians are expected to visit the U.S. and more than 625,000 are expected to visit Malaysia. Moreover, PATA expects the number of Indian visitors to Singapore, Malaysia and the U.S. to continue to grow rapidly through 2011.

“Since the economic crisis began, there has been a reduction in travel, but the reduction in travel by Indians has been very low compared to any other country,” said Gupta. “Indians are still traveling a lot. Maybe some people have downgraded, by say, instead of going to the U.S. traveling closer to home, but they’re still traveling abroad.”

Many of these Indian travelers, of course, are erudite, suave, charming, or simply humble and polite — it’s just that nobody remembers them. For every passenger aboard Cathay’s Delhi-Bangkok run with his finger on the call button, there were three or four who were fast asleep, mummified in blankets, or peacefully guffawing at the mindless in-flight movies.

Most problems result from simple misunderstandings, explained Thomas Thottathil, spokesman for Cox & Kings, one of India’s largest tour companies. “We sensitize our customers, our tour guides, and we also explain to our suppliers overseas — the hotels or whatever — that Indian travelers have their own needs, their own particular habits.” Because of that effort, Thottathil said his firm has not faced anything more serious than the occasional complaint that a hotel didn’t provide dinner after 9:30 p.m.

Thottathil may well be onto something. A quick lesson about Indians’ love of thrift, for instance, might ease international tensions in the air. What’s the multicultural secret to a tranquil flight, you ask?

Five dollar whiskeys.

More from GlobalPost:

India’s unfriendly skies

Can you outsource God?

The Mormons in India

9 comments

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You show me a man who doesn’t accept that Ugly Indian exists and I’ll show you a liar. And show me a man who doesn’t believe that the Ugly Indian doesn’t have his cousins in England, France, Australia, Germany…and I’ll show you what you 100 liars rolled into one. Made good reading but much ado about nothing, sir.

It is a very biased and unacceptable perception of Indian travellers abroad.Accepting that there are a few such passengers who behave shabbily and have brought disrepute to the nation at large.It certainly cannot be taken as a general notion describing all Indian passengers.I strongly reject such prejudiced comments which smack of racial bias as well.Please refrain from generalising your narrow observations as it is highly demeaning to educated people like me who constitute a large chunk of overseas traveller.

Posted by sweta | Report as abusive

Well I guess this article hits home and in a way its an education to see ourselves as others see us – there is a lot that rings true in these observations.I don’t know what to make of the Air France incident because we do tend to dramatise and scream ‘racism’ at the drop of a hat and we got to hear just one side of the story. As far as the Northwest incident was concerned it was sheer ham-handedness. Youngsters do move around on flights, more so when there are empty seats in plenty. However, to take the flight back to its point of origin just because they were talking on their cells in a language the sky marshalls didn’t understand and some of the names were Hussain or Mohammed or whatever was crass stupidity.

Posted by Dara | Report as abusive

It’s true!I have noticed how unbelievably demanding and rude Indian travelers can be. I was on a flight from Trinidad to New York recently, and the plane had not even taken off when some Indian passengers began to demand blankets, orange juice, etc etc

Posted by Vikram | Report as abusive

No offence but all of my out of country trips have been to either UK or Canada. And I could not help but notice Sikhs indulging in this kind of behavior. The one uncle-ji sitting next to me had no courtesy what so ever and he was determined to make as much use of free booze as he could even when he stank like hell. Since there has been a bigger diaspora of Sikhs and people know they are from India, it the entire India that gets painted ugly.

Posted by Seth | Report as abusive

I strongly reject his article, dont get me wrong there are few Indians who act such way, but there are other races that do the same. Dont blame all the indians for this act.

Posted by TKD | Report as abusive

I agree with thoughts of the writer. We Indians are yet to grow up to the expectations of being a Global Citizen. Every society has had these transitions, but we need to grow up and behave in a civilized manner, the sooner the better. We have learned so many things from the west and Manners should be last thing we should be seen learning from them. It’s high time we realize the importance of maintaining decorum both inside and outside the country.

Posted by Aaruni Upadhyay | Report as abusive

I agree with this article. I am from Pakistan and travel to the US frequently. I don’t mean to generalize, but it is almost always the Indians on board who are bound to create the most nuisance.

Do NOT take me as a racist, but it is equally true that many such incidents would remain unnoticed under the cover of WHITE SKIN.@Abdul Hamid: This article did not rule out Pakistanis, it just focussed on Indians. So this article cannot be used as a jumping board to launch your statements.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive