The White Man Tax

I have become fascinated with visiting Bhutan. A small country bordering India, China and Myanmar. This small country sets a “Tourist Tax” in an attempt to preserve the Buddhist culture of the nation. To enter Bhutan, you must pay $200 a day, a price set by the government. The price includes food, lodging, and transportation. But the bulk of the money is a tax, ensuring that the tourists pay directly to the preservation and betterment of the country.

This makes total sense to me. And a large factor of my desire to see Bhutan is because of the culture that this tax has preserved.

India has a tourist tax as well, although not formalized or official, and most assuredly, not in some systematic fashion. The tourist tax is everywhere, and it still catches me off guard.

The restaurants have separate menus for Westerners, with greatly inflated prices. Many shops and stalls have no price tags, instead, you ask for a price, and the shopkeeper sizes up your means and offers an answer. For westerners, the opening price is usually 3 to 4 times what he would ask of a local. When we shop, the keepers occasionally slip things into our bag and then charge them for the items. Our ay-ya continually brings over little pots and pans she has “bought” for us, expecting repayment. In bigger cities, not in Mussoorie, thankfully, we get followed by small children begging for rupees, and I feel heartless as I pass them by, knowing that giving them money will only invite more trouble.

So I can’t help feeling a bit angry by the assumption that I am wealthy, because all of my life, I have felt poor.

Again, I am well aware of my idiocy here. My idea of “poor” are radically different than “poor” in India, or even actually “poor” in American. My feelings of “poor” comes from my over-whelming debt and an annoyance that I cannot afford small luxuries in life despite my hard work. I could afford food (although not as nice of food as I would like), I can afford my rent, I could afford cars, insurance, and health care. I was able to eat out more than I ever should. I know I am not poor. But I also know I am not rich.

I grew up in a family that constantly fought about money. Some of my earliest memories are of loud fights late at night about money. During my lifetime, my father went from truck driver to truck driver manager to law school to broke attorney to celebrated attorney to attorney/minister. And in all that time, no matter how much we made, we always seemed to live beyond our means.

Then I got out on my own, and followed the cycle of living beyond my means. In fact, I think probably exceeded my parents in this area. I took out student loans I should not have taken, I went on trips I could not afford. And especially, Merideth and I have never let money dictate what we do with our lives. Some people envious this, but it stresses us out more often than not.

So I have lived the last fifteen years stressed out about money and debt, and I simply cannot handle being treated as if I could buy anything I want. To the point that a few people have become annoyed when I walk away from a sale, because, as I rich person, I am being insulting by not buying the pot they are selling.

But I am not rich. I know, my standard of living is significantly higher than a vast majority of Indians. I know that America is a land of plenty, and that comparatively, I am well off. But I owe a fortune. I have no savings. No back up plan. I have $300 in my stateside banking account. I own a couple of nice computers and nothing else of value. I owe over a hundred thousand dollars in student loans. I am far from rich. On the balance sheet, I owe more than I will ever be able to repay in my life. And now, I work at a school who was very clear upon hiring me that we make a middle-class Indian salary ($600 a month). So, I am not rich in India either.

I would not trade my adventures for financial stability, but I also do not want to be treated as something I am not. I want people, even people who have no idea who I am, all of these shopkeepers and door to door salesmen, to understand that I am not rich. That I made a choice between stability and adventure that could creep up behind me any second and bite me on the ass. I don’t regret the decisions, but I want people to know what they have cost me.

I don’t want to begrudge people a living. And hiking up prices for tourists is a time-honored tradition everywhere people vacation. I don’t mind the white man tax so much as I mind the assumption behind it. I just want them to know I did not come here because I have money, but in spite of the fact that I don’t.

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About the Author

I moved to India. I mean, why the hell not, right?