The Inevitable Question: ‘So how is/was India?’

It is early in the morning, but everyone is awake. Cling! Clang! I hear my ammaa making breakfast downstairs. She is probably making idli (steamed rice cake) or dosa (thin pancake made with lentils and rice), with coconut chutney on the side. After getting dressed and eating breakfast, I walk to the bus stand where I always see the same three men sitting in front of Kings Department Store. Turning my back to them, I hail down a shared-auto rickshaw and climb in. The auto starts to move before I can sit down. Once I situate myself on the upper seat I realize I chose a bad auto. It was a private auto that had been converted into a shared-auto, which means that I had to hunch my shoulders and lean forward in order to prevent my head from hitting the ceiling. The other women seated next to me look perfectly comfortable. Their heads are not grazing the ceiling like mine. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches I do not consider myself a tall person; however, I felt like a giant in this cramped auto. Four women, including me, were in the upper seat and four women were sitting on the lower step. There was also a man sitting in the front seat with the auto driver. In total, there were 10 adults in the auto that was originally built for 3 people. Talk about a clown car. I cannot say this was my favorite auto-rickshaw memory.

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My last share-auto ride home from the SITA (South India Term Abroad) center. The cheap and quick mode of transportation that a share-auto provides will be missed.

I have been in India for the past 3.5 months now and it has been quite the adventure. Looking back at my first blog post I sound very naïve and somewhat innocent. In the beginning, the noise and the smell and the interactions with people were exciting. Now, it is tiresome. The loud and continuous honks push at my buttons. Trying to avoid stepping into cow poop, goat poop, dog poop, or even elephant poop is annoying. Everyday I get hounded with the question of whether I like India from strangers…and I do not know what to say. If I am honest, I run the risk of offending locals; if I lie by saying that I love India, I am belittling my time in India. India is hard to describe. It is difficult to explain the experiences I have had. It is frustrating that my friends, who are either studying abroad in Europe or back in the States, will never completely understand what India is like for a foreigner.

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Cow eating garbage for breakfast, and probably for lunch and dinner. Cows can be seen on every corner lounging, sleeping, or eating garbage/cardboard. I didn’t know cows could consume cardboard…until I came to India…

Since studying abroad, I have been able to better dissect my status as a foreigner and as an American. This is a skill I did not expect to gain. Because I am visibly a foreigner, I will never fit in with the locals, however, that does not mean Indians consider me to be American. According to many Indians, I do not fit the description of a typical American. I’ve had random people yell ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’ while I walk past them on the road. (I’m Korean, a Korean-American to be exact.)

It happened while I was on a tour in Mysore. We hiked up to a Jain temple where I broke from the group and wandered by myself for some time. I walked past a group of Indians who belligerently shouted ‘Nepalese, Kathmandu, Bhutan, Thai’ at me. Rather than asking me where I was from, these people wanted to put labels on me that they deemed appropriate.

My status as a foreigner affecting my interactions with people does not end there. Every so often, I will get into a shared-auto and the people sitting around me will, very eagerly, ask me where I am from. Before I can answer the first question, a lot of people will ask ‘China?’ I tell them ‘No, I’m from the US.’ Their faces drop; they thought they had guessed right when they identified me as Chinese. The reactions I get from saying ‘I’m American’ shows me that they are disappointed. I was angry and still am angry. Was this a form of racism? When did being Asian mean I could only exist as Chinese in other people’s eyes? How do I react? Was it my place to teach people about the diversity of America? I was stuck. My program has a total of 10 students: 8 of the students are white; 1 of the students is multiracial; 2 of the students, including myself, are Asian. The other Asian student happened to be one of my best friends from Bowdoin and she had the same daily encounters. At the end of the day, our hands were tied; we had to put up with it.

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The SITA program celebrating Thanksgiving by enjoying a dinner buffet at Hotel Supreme. It’s not a home-cooked meal, but at least we have each other!

India was not wonderful or exceptionally amazing. The staring from both men and women never stopped. High school students, who would shout at me and sometimes even follow me, constantly harassed me. Every time someone tried to start a conversation with me, I was concerned they would try to label me with an ethnicity rather than asking me where I was from. Should I have spoken up against the men who stared, the immature students who did not know how to properly interact with me, or those who did not care how I identified myself? I know I should have, but my peers and my program told me that it was best not to attract attention to myself. ‘Since you’re a foreigner, try not to do anything or say anything that will attract attention to yourself’ is the best and worst advice I have received. I do not want to do anything that will put my safety at risk however that does not mean I have to put up with everything that makes me feel uncomfortable simply because I am a foreigner.

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Maligai Sweets, a tea and sweets shop where the space is primarily occupied by men at all times of the day.

I do not regret studying abroad in India. It was a period of time that I will never forget. Studying and living in India taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. India opened my eyes to the unique diversity of the United States that I had taken for granted. I learned different methods of self-care that worked for me. I know India has helped me personally grow as a student, a person, and a traveler however I do not think I will be able to fully comprehend the growth I have experienced until I return to the United States where I will have the time and space to process everything.

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Filed under Michelle in India, South & Central Asia

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