South Asian and Abroad
The experience of travelling as a South Asian isn’t written about enough. Though there are a wealth of accounts documenting the experiences of Western travellers in South Asian countries, there is a serious lack of discourse on the experiences of South Asians who love to travel themselves.
With a huge diaspora scattered around the world, South Asian travel experiences are rich and wildly diverse; largely based on upbringing, country of origin and, unfortunately, your passport in some instances.
To fill this gap, we reached out to our South Asian community members to better understand both the good and bad they’ve faced whilst travelling. We hope with this, other South Asian travellers will feel inspired, educated and prepared for any challenges they might face when heading abroad. With the help of the South Asian Trippin community, we have compiled a list of travel tools and “words of wisdom”, whether you’re preparing to leave the nest, planning a solo trip or navigating airport difficulties in a post-9/11 world.
As a South Asian traveller, airport security can be hit-or-miss. Racial profiling is not uncommon in airports as a Brown person; this terms refers to the discriminatory practice of law enforcement officials targetting individuals for crime based on their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin…something South Asians have faced more of, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Pakistani-British traveller, Jawas Abbas explains how he has always been subject to “random searches” when going through airport security. “In Germany, out of a queue of about 40 people waiting to board, a guard came over to tell me to stand to the side. I got physically searched and my passport details were run through their computer. When asked why, I received the standard answer, 'this is just for precautions’.”
When interviewing South Asian travellers for this piece, Germany came up a lot as somewhere that is difficult to navigate as a Brown person. London based Nylo, who is an avid traveller and model of mixed Mauritian-Pakistani heritage shares, “no shade to Germany but…the worst kind of racial discrimination that I’ve experienced has been there.”
For Nylo, “I just experienced excessive searching, certain looks, stares.” Travelling in a group of mainly POC and Black women on a trip to Berlin only seemed to make security personnel extra vigilant.
"I was wearing super baggy trousers, I layered-up but they were aggressively putting their hands down my trousers, and I was seeing the white people in front of me kind of just walk on through. I was like ‘damn…why does this happen to me." - Nylo
Similarly, Chloe Dorlikar who is half-Indian, half-English explains that while she is often checked in airport security, her father who is originally from Nagpur, India and is “dark-skinned, always gets checked.” Airport security experiences can vary based on your skin tone and passport issuing country. A South Asian person who is white-passing may not be subject to the same scrutiny as someone with a deeper skin tone. Likewise, there are also “passport privileges” which can alter experiences. Someone holding a Pakistani passport may face more checks than a British-Pakistani person, who holds a British passport.
Advice on navigating this
In most cases, you will get through security without problems, but just be aware that in some European countries and North America, there tends to be more racial profiling based on skin tone, passport and even names. Shabs who is Bangladeshi-British shared with us, “I'm always checked as I have a Muslim name. I once took a brand press trip to NYC with a group of journalists and influencers. I was boarding a business class trip and got checked-in at the airport lounge (which is so unusual).”
Similarly, Meg Venkatesh, who is Indian-American, explained to us her frustration, “I genuinely cannot think of a single time (before I got TSA pre-check) where I have not been stopped by USA security.”
Remember your rights when going through airport security. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, aviation security staff have no powers to search, but a refusal of being searched could mean you will not be permitted to fly. Airport security staff are permitted to manually search your bag, make you go through a metal scanner which allows them to see under your clothing. You are allowed to refuse this, and ask for a pat down instead.
If you opt for a pat-down, you can ask if the person performing this is of the same gender, request a person is present while this is happening. You’re also allowed to request a private screening if sensitive body parts are being patted and searched. Travellers have the right to resist removing any pieces of clothing to reveal a body area. This may include the Turban for Sikh men, for example, who can request to pat down their own turban if they are brought in for a search. Muslim women who wear a Hijab can request to be searched by a female airport officer if it is required for them to remove their scarf.
Going through airport security can be an intense and laborious process, especially when some airport officers are not aware of the cultural significance of certain dress items and objects. Try to stay calm when going through airport security and remember your rights which have been outlined above. Each airport is different though, so please use the advice we have provided as a guidelines which are subject to where in the world you are. This is a great resource if you are travelling through American airports as a Brown person. This resource can help you understand your rights travelling through British airports.
Remember that you are who you are and it is wrong that you may be stopped without any need or reason. If that situation does occur though, follow the instructions of airport security and do your best to not escalate the situation. Attempt to get the name of the officer if any type of issue occurs so you can bring it up with the police, rather than engage in confrontation.
Discrimination on holiday
Though travelling is generally seen as something that expands our minds and improves our mental wellbeing, there can be times abroad when that’s not the case. Some of our South Asian travel community shared some of the time when they’ve faced discrimination when travelling due to their background. Nylo shares, “the only prejudice I really face because of my skin colour is when I go to Europe”. This sentiment is echoed in the experiences of Jaishree Chhiba who is a New Zealand-born Gujarati:
“In Budapest we (three POC) were refused seating at a restaurant while other white patrons were all seated in front of and behind us. The whole city would stare at us everywhere we walked and it just made us feel awful. We tried to just put our heads down and ignore that all-too-familiar feeling of being an 'outcast’” - Jaishree Chhiba
Planning a holiday and eagerly researching a destination, only to feel unwelcome upon arrival is an unfortunate experience shared by many of the South Asian travellers that we spoke to. Jai Toor, a British-Punjabi photographer gave us some insight into what he and his friends faced in Barcelona:
“When travelling in Barcelona, I faced discrimination due to my skin colour. Bottles were thrown at us from buildings. Alongside this, me and some friends were not let into any clubs by the bouncer and it was clearly because of our skin colour. On reflection, the trip was still good, however, it was the anxieties of going to other places around Barcelona that made me feel uncomfortable.” - Jai Toor
If the situation becomes dangerous and violent, call the local police. Have the number of your country’s consulate saved on your phone as well, so you can call them if you get into any trouble.
Not all South Asian travelling experiences, of course, come with racial discrimination and prejudice. The trend that we have noticed is that Europe tends to be where South Asian travellers seem to face the most discrimination and prejudice.
Ultimately, travelling as a South Asian person comes with its own unique experiences. South Asians can be wrongly discriminated against in airports and on holiday. This is definitely a difficulty, but should by no means stop you from pursuing your dream to travel. With the tips, tricks and shared experiences above, we hope you will feel inspired to keep travelling.