You must talk to your inner xenophobe before you board that plane. Are you kinda annoyed that every liquor store in your neighborhood is owned by an Indian; and yet you haven’t seen a liquor store of any kind in an Indian neighborhood? Do you get upset when you pay the Indian cashier and she puts your change on the counter, not in your hand? Does a tinge of jealousy well up when you want human hair extensions and the most expensive pack reads ‘100% Indian’? I could go on and on… you call Citibank in the middle of the day and you reach Ritu instead of Rita. That little person inside of you that harbors these negative thoughts needs to have a frank conversation with your educated self before arriving in India. Why?
…because all of India is not the Taj Mahal. It is not those pictures in the Incredible India! ads that show empty forts in Jaipur at dusk. It is not a country-wide ashram where only well intentioned, professionally misguided, singles struggling with relationship demons go to fine tune their Om and to realign their Chi. Trust me, Elizabeth Gilbert should rot in a special chamber of literary hell for all the non-glamorous parts of India that are mysteriously missing from her novel “Eat, Pray, Love.” I’d like to make sure that you, tourist, are made aware that you are not that special and Indians don’t really care about you.
Do you really think they have made a special place in their hearts and minds just for you, tourist, who is on your search to ‘find yourself’? Let’s be clear, you are one of many in a long line of generations who come believing that there is wisdom and enlightenment in poverty and destitution (self proclaimed or imposed). You will pay 10 times the local price to get into tourist sites that someone told you should be on your bucket list – but really, be prepared to get touched in private parts to see the dusty, hazy, pollution filled view. You will, most likely, not know the difference between a Swami and a Sardar-ji. You will assume that Sikhism is a different religion from Hinduism. You will want to take pictures in places that you really shouldn’t even be allowed to enter. You will fear street food like you were trained by Pavlov’s dog to eat cyanide laced ice cream sandwiches at the sound of every car honk.
You will quickly realize that all the things your inner xenophobe fumed over back home are simply par for the course – but multiply it by 1,205,073,612 and there you have your tourist reality. Be frank with yourself. You’re only here because you think these Indians (yes, the ones living in India) are like your weed smoking second-generation American college roommate. Maybe you think you’ll meet Apu from the Simpsons. Even better, you’ll be able to do camel pose with Bikram Choudhury. If Indians in the U.S. are more than what stands between your stereotypes and their prototypes, then snap out of it stupid and get real about what India must have in store.
Let me explain, xenophobe. I mean, tourist. India is full of people. Over one billion of them. (It is mathematically impossible to take a picture at any historical site without getting a Nagalakshmi or a Balaskandan’s head in your picture!) While you may think, “if I’ve spent years mingling amongst the 2,843,391 Indians in America, how different could India be?” I’m here to tell you that India is, rightfully, a gazillion times different.
At home, India gets this exotic wrap. It’s being played up as this country on the verge of some modernity meets traditional bastard child called the future. And I assure you, it is on the verge of something alright. But, whereas at home you get to choose Indian-ness as a taste of an ethnic ‘other’ (Read: “Honey, I’m so tired of pizza. Let’s try something different and not so boring. C’mon be adventurous. Why not, Indian?”) there is no alternative when in the motherland. (Read: “Paneer? Again?!”)
Honestly speaking, you will find some people in India to be just as genuinely unpleasant as you found some Indian Americans. But what do you expect? By virtue of there being so many damned people in India, you will come to love and loathe individuals much more poignantly. You will notice the difference between a Gujarati and a Punjabi. Why? Because Indians in India differentiate amongst themselves and you will soon learn these complexities in ways that the united Indian front in the U.S. will not allow foreign penetration.
Tourist, you will pay attention to rich Indians, because the things that are unpleasant to you tend to be unpleasant to them too – and wow have they learned to un-see all the negatives around them. Who needs to build a wall to keep out undesirables?! I have seen rich Delhites pass by hungry children in the streets and not bat an eye while ignoring the poor girl screaming really loudly (really actually annoying as all hell) “Hellllooooooo! Hello didi!” while she bangs on the car door. But because you’re in a mood to question your Western standards, the xenophobe in you may forgive rudeness in India, but be less forgiving of your half and first generation Indo-American compatriots.
I’m here to say that before you board that way too expensive, very long, and very cramped flight with soon to be (very, very) drunk uncles and some Frida Kahlo-esque Sardarnis, you have to forgive your fellow (Indo-) Americans. Forgive. Forgive with all your soul. You will soon find out that some of what you mistook as rudeness, directed specifically at you, is learned behavior that has nothing to do with you at all. Sure, the acts remain unpleasant and you have the right to be offended. You probably have every right to be offended.
Yet, some things that you assumed to be a general disdain for Black culture, for example, you will come to see are really part of a caste system carry over that not only divides North and South Indians, but also fuels a whitening cream industry that is very vibrant in Indian households all over the world. What you thought was just a generally horrendous disposition towards women may actually be a generally horrendous disposition towards women. More than just that though, it reads into these South Asian and conservative religious narratives of the faithful wife (Sita) – who really is valued when she quietly, but visibly martyrs herself – and these bhakti motifs that posit male-male friendships as foundations for pious communities (see Manas Ray’s Nation, Nostalgia and Bollywood).
Your inner xenophobe has to be ready to let it all hang out, because you’ll need to check your assumptions and pick your battles. For there will be many, but some more worthy than others. Maybe it’s not because you’re White – maybe it’s because you’re not Jain. Maybe it’s not because you’re not Indian, maybe it’s because you come off as a young upstart with no respect for hierarchy. Maybe it’s not because you have a foreign passport, maybe it’s because the military guard at IGI airport has been standing outside in a military uniform, in 115F degree heat for the last 7 hours holding an M-16 made on the first day of the Cold War. Maybe it’s just because it’s not an auspicious day. Or, of course, there’s the option that it is you…
But, you’ll never, ever, ever know for sure. If you spend all your time worried about the dingbats you meet, perhaps you’ll lose sight of the really brilliant Marathi tour guide of the Elephanta Caves and how she saved you from being pickpocketed. You might miss out on the opportunity to learn from a Malayali how you can take a house boat from Cochin to Thiruvananthapuram – rather than wading out to sea for days heading nowhere except to a malaria clinic if the right mosquito picks you to be her tall drink of water. The road from Delhi to the Taj is 4 hours filled with people, on the roadside, in the village, in the dhaba and in your damned pictures! There’s no way around it, so you should get really friendly with some people who will forgive your inner xenophone just as much as you forgive yourself for thinking those xenophobic thoughts in the first place. Be prepared to confront, head on, every ill thought, assumption or misunderstanding you’ve ever had about India or Indians.
It’s either that… or, I hear Thailand is great this time of year.