How is it that an infant knows that one day they should stand on their own feet? How does that work? What happens in an infant’s mind that motivates them to will themselves to walk? It’s a bit of a process: they have to be able to roll over, they have to be able to hold themselves up, they have to be able to control their body weight, and, the most important thing, somehow they know despite how difficult it may be, every time they stumble they have to get back up.
After living in India for one month, it feels as if I’m learning to walk all over again. I see other people around me walking, and my inability to walk in my new life, as an expat has been frustrating. A simple task like trying finding a French press in a mall took 3 hours. As I shopped, I tried to explain the things that I needed, but because my ears haven’t fully developed to understand an Indian accent, and because I do not speak Hindi, I do not have the skills to communicate to the people I interact with. It was embarrassing to have to continuously ask, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” There were numerous times when I wanted to evoke my inner child and have a tantrum because of my lack of language was frustrating.
I’ve been cooking since fifth or sixth grade, and yet I burned oatmeal—twice! I’ve ordered things from Amazon.com before, but ordering items from India and not realizing I needed to go through Amazon.in was more difficult than I had anticipated.
While withstanding the frustrations and failures of learning how to walk in a new country, I have been able to experience the beauty of interpreting my existence in the world with new eyes. And just like a child, I want to touch and put everything in my mouth that I see. I’ve been known to be a, let’s say, “choosey eater”, but since I don’t know the name of the foods I’m eating here, it’s easier to dismiss the reservations I have toward eating new food, and the food in India is so amazing that everything taste good anyway. I won’t even get started on the garlic-cheese-naan and butter chicken.
I’ve also had to discover a new sense of self since I’ve been here. I didn’t know I was different until fifth grade. I was sitting on a bench at recess, and one of my white classmates asked me, “no offense or anything, but how come black people lips stick out, and white people lips turn in.” I watched her as she demonstrated with her lips what my lips look like, and I watched the other students’ eyes wander around the curves of my lips. I was one of the only black kids at that school, so I can understand why the other students would observe my features with curiosity. Occasionally, as I walk the streets of Mumbai, I can see others looking at me with similar inquisitiveness. Except now I have a similar skin tone to the people around me, and thickness of my lips aren’t so novel. I see the similarities, but I know I’m still different.
Even with my differences, however, there are certain aspects of what some might say is the “Indian” experience that I can relate to, and it is in those experiences that the lines between race, and identity become a bit blurred. There are moments when I interact with Indians and I wonder if I’m being perceived as American, black, African or as a black-African-American—or none of thee above. There are moments when I feel that I’m viewed slightly different from white Americans, and there times when I think I’m being perceived as solely American and not black American. The most interesting thing is that my identity as a black American is what makes me feel connected to Indians I interact with.
White Supremacy is everywhere. In America there are subtle suggestions that having white skin is better: the dominance of white characters on television, movies and commercials and the prevalence of thin, blonde-hair and blue-eyes standards of beauty. I was looking for shaving cream at a local store and I noticed that the majority of skin products are designed to lighten skin tones. I actually had to make it a point not to grab a product that would lighten my skin. I’ve never had to be so careful, rather, protective of my skin. I never worried about accidentally buying shaving cream or lotion that was intended to lighten my skin because light skin is more beautiful than dark skin—my skin. I see Indian children, men and women with such beautiful brown skin, and I can only imagine what it may feel like have it openly and explicitly expressed that light skin is more desirable than dark skin. In the U.S. we only suggest it.
International borders do not enclose sexism, racism and classism. I can remember conversations I had with people about moving to India, and a lot of them were about my own safety, and of course the rape of women. If you took the American media at its word, you would think that India has a unique rape problem or culture, but the same issues are taking place in America and on college campuses—the place where people are supposed to go to become enlightened. So, who am I to judge the problems of one country when the same issues are happening in my own country? By that I mean: sometimes we talk about issues regarding women’s rights as if it’s a local problem and not talk about it within the larger context of global sexism and misogyny and not recognize that the same systems of oppression that marginalize women in India are some of the same systems that marginalize women in the United States.
In terms of my own safety, I have male privilege (both in India and in the United States), and I can go wherever I want, but I do feel a lot safer going to and fro knowing that everyone doesn’t own a gun.
One thing that keeps me up at night is being part of the “1 percent”. There is so much poverty around me, but at the same time, wealth around the poverty. I don’t think I have the personality to get used to it, but I am not naïve enough to think that it’s my responsibility to change it. I question whether or not my actions contribute to societal norms that I don’t agree with, but I also wonder if it is up to me to judge the quality of another person’s life. I do not think access to human rights should change due to ones location: an injustice to someone is an injustice regardless of cultural norms or religion. Someone’s norm may be poverty, little access to water, little access to education, having little control over their body, but is it okay to point out that there can be something better? Is it okay to say, “regardless of your beliefs or cultural norms denying women equal rights is wrong”? Isn’t it about empowering people to be able to make decisions for themselves?
Pornography was banned for a bit, and it was really annoying. There were a lot of comparisons made suggesting India was becoming Saudi Arabia, but I thought about all the articles I read in the United States that condemn pornography and the measures that have been made throughout American history to ban it, and it hit me that in America we sometimes sound like the people we judge as oppressive. We’ve condemned religions that require women to cover themselves, but yet we ask, “what was she wearing,” when a women reports rape. We’ve condemned countries over censoring the Internet, but we have taken measures to ban pornography.
I still have a lot of learning to do, but I have noticed that there are global context to issues that I have thought to be “American” problems. I haven’t been able to dive into Indian politics, so I can’t really say too much about it, but I’m still a child when it comes to this and I’m still growing and trying to figure it out.