In a country as multicultural and liberal as the United States, I am like a crunchy crouton in a party salad. In China, a homogenous society, I am like a blended banana milkshake. The fancy ‘but’ enters the picture now: In India, I am like an exotic species of bird at the city zoo. Most of India is similarly homogenous, so naturally, when an Asian girl walks on the Indian soil, a revolution has begun. I stood out like vanilla and chocolate. In the beginning, walking on the streets never felt so awkward and uncomfortable. I had to bear the probing, bloodshot stares. One thing you have to know about Indian culture, Indian people stare and do not look away. I tried staring back to see if they would back down. No no, they are not ones to be shy; they keep oogling at you like a tiger after a piece of fresh meat.
Next to the women all dolled up in long, flowy dresses and vibrant, elaborate sarees, I was quite the anomaly. I sported tight, black leggings and either colorful long-sleeved shirts or NYU white Tees. Women there dressed conservatively, not showing much skin overall (except for some belly fat). I, the foreign Asian, drew attention because I wore American-style clothing and showed some legs and arms, though mild in my definition. On one occasion, my friend on the trip said to me “Hey, I think the guys are getting a good look at you.” I freaked. I hate to be stared at. I hate the feeling of eyes on me. Especially when it’s wolfish glances from strangers on the street.
- The first night in India, after my 12-hour snooze session, my friend and I went to the local supermarket for food and necessities. I picked up whitening face wash, cookies, bottled water, ramen noodles, paper towerls and a bug-repellant nightlight. The men at the shop kept creeping up, as if they thought I was sneaking around and stealing their cheap goods. I stood dumbly aside as my Pakistani friend attempted to communicate in Hindi, which South Indians speak another language, Malayalam. At one point, one guy started asking questions about where we were from and where we were living. See, when you’re in a foreign land, especially for someone starkly different, it would be best to nod or be vague, since there is no point telling them who you are and where you’re from. Word spreads fast and once people know a foreign couple is in the neighborhood, there is no telling what can happen. Locals will be on the lookout for the Chinese girl, jack up prices in the stores, follow us, rob us… who knows?! Maybe I’m being paranoid, but it’s better to be more cautious in a foreign place.
- It’s not like in China where you can get friendly with people. There, I have no language barrier; I am Chinese. It’s having the sense of security with family and friends that eases my anxiety. I am familiar with the Chinese way of living and culture. There, it’s not so foreign. In India, the streets are populated with men, animals, rubble, smoke, car exhaust, pollution, horrendous drivers and potential danger. Naturally, I can’t hide or run fast; the rocks pose a hazard to my flat feet. At night, it’s not like the life in Manhattan; it’s eerily quiet and pitch black and terrible for my night blindness.
- Flash forward to my first Sunday Morning: I woke up early and took a walk down the main road for something to eat. It was sunny and I whipped out my purple piggy umbrella for shade and UV protection. I looped back around to More Supermarket, the convenient one down the street. I bought some peas with my mega-pack of masala ramen noodles. My second experience in the store led me to call it the “Creepy Market.” The store workers gave me a weird feeling. Like the day before, I was being followed by a few Indian men. Where I walked, they were close at my heels. Either they were creepy guys fascinated with a foreign girl or they thought I would steal. They tried to ask if I needed any help, which was nice, but it was masking their underlying question: where I was from and where I lived? Today, I was in the noodle section. I asked the girl if there was any sale on the noodles she was unloading. I was not sure if she understood me at all, but she gave me the cheap noodles. She then smiled and asked for my name. How creepy was that? It’s one thing to be friendly, but another problem to ask who I am within seconds, while giving me the creepiest smile. Perhaps I’m being neurotic and I should lighten up. I moved away and shook my head “No” in a manner that signaled I did not understand.
- That same morning, after I waited out the random monsoon rain, I walked back to my apartment. The next episode was a serious creep alert… A rickshaw slowed down and came up next to me. The damn car really slowed down to a crawl. The man inside turned his head towards my side and just looked at me! He did not say a word nor make any gestures. He frowned and stared at me with dark eyes. Pretty scary! Then he drove off again, after he got a good peep at me. I recounted my story to my friend, and he said the guy was probably asking me if I wanted a ride. However, he was strangely silent as he drove up. Then my friend replied, “Well then, he’s just being creepy.” Last time I was walking the streets on my own, even in daylight. My bad, not my last time; I had a full week on my own at the end of July to come…
Those experiences were only the first few days. In the next full month, I continued getting awkward looks on the streets, at the hospital, at the beach, in restaurants, aboard the buses, etc… just about everywhere. This is how it feels like to have minority status, to stand out like a lemon amongst apples. India is a homogenous society, so for natives to see a light-skinned, black-haired gal in leggings is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
I felt exposed and conspicuous. I could not blend in physically, though I attempted to acclimate to the Indian ways of life: eating with my hands, riding rickshaws, trudging on rocky roads, playing with rupees, or buying local goods. Though I started off fearful, naive, and uncertain, I grew more open-minded and comfortable. That is, I said to myself, “What the heck! Let me have fun with people here. Let loose, embrace yourself and stop shying away! Embrace the culture and people. Have some fun!” I listened to the devil beside me and let go. As I left Kabab, a frequent dinner excursion, I smiled and waved to the owners when I left. I was one of their favorite, returning (and foreign) visitors. I was helping them make business. I’m sure they appreciated my love for their cheap and delectable Indian food, so what was the harm popping my best popstar grin?
In the pediatric ward, I looked back at the curious kids and popped them my brightest smile. Little toddlers and teenagers alike, I smiled and waved. With one little boy, I went over and played my signature game of “tap-and-hide.” Boy were the kids and teenagers giddy after I responded to them. They smiled back, somewhat shy and delighted, happy that a freak like me waved a friendly “Hello!” Another occasion while I was walking back home, a group of girls were boarding a school bus. Once again, the pack of kids stared at me, but one sweet girl pointed in my direction. I looked up and waved to her. She got glowed with absolute excitement, so much so that I was touched.
Aboard a rickshaw ride at Neyyar Dam preserve, we were driving through small villages. Shops and homes lined the quiescent area. Kids got super thrilled and giddy to see a foreign Asian girl ride through their town. A few waved ‘Hello!’ A couple of rowdy, adorable pipsqueaks chased after my rickshaw! They kept shouting “Hi!” and running behind us. I wanted to get a video recording of this moment, but it was too much of a hassle. I kept sticking my head out the window and flapping my hands around. They ran for a good minute before we lost them, probably out of breath from the energy burst. It was a remarkable, touching episode. This was stuff you see on TV dramas, when a kid chased after his father or fated lovers parted ways.
Playing with kids. Charming boys, young and old, rich or poor, from seaside jewelery shops to the workplace to restaurants. Getting intrigued glances aboard crowded buses and trains. I got used to it all and accepted the inevitable: I was different. What mattered was, I started enjoying my time and falling in-sync with everyday life and culture, quickly yet cautiously.
Traveling is all about fun times and exploring the world. What would be the point of exploring if you do not relax and melt into the society? Like I said, let loose and have fun with it.