Rural Rajpura is full of Indians.
This makes perfect sense. The city is plopped just southeast of Central Punjab. In the heart of it, you won’t see anything taller than a four-story building and on the outskirts, all you‘ll find are sprawling fields, crowded houses, and wandering bulls.
When I was there I was so surrounded by Punjabi’s, the first time I saw another white person in India — in a hotel near the golden temple — I gaped, I had nearly forgotten that there was a world in which I wasn’t the only foreigner within a 50 mile radius.
Growing up in the US, I mastered the art of trumpetless arrivals and subtle exits but after landing in Punjab, I was noticed even though I couldn’t say a word. This was a very different world, a world in which every conversation turned towards me when I entered the room.
I was an oddity to be examined. Markedly different by birth.
I knew I had arrived back when I could blend into the crowd and no one would know who I was. I had arrived back when I showed up in the airport and instead of mutterings of “ghora — foreigner” and the shocked faces when I could respond in Punjabi, I heard only English and the words had nothing at all to do with me.
After my eight months were up, the anonymity more than any other thing was what made me aware I had finally made it home.
In Rajpura, stares were the first thing to become a non-issue. Initially the constant reminder that I was 100% different was abrasive and exhausting, but eventually, all the eyes became a game. Instead of slouching and attempting the impossible feat of disappearing, I looked up and out, ready to meet the eyes of those around me and dare them to acknowledge the nature of my different way of being.
In some ways, the stark differences made me proud. I was proud to be able to learn so much without complete conversion. I was able to understand and to perform the actions of someone from the culture while at the same time maintaining a bit of my own culture and not being ashamed of it.
In other ways, I became wary of my differences. Each one had to be examined and reworked and rethought. It was easy to dismiss or to offend instead of to explore or respect.
Coming from the US, it is easy to fall into our superiority complex. Here we are, Americans — as if the rest of the American continents are uninhabited — in our free country with our American Dream and our global status, and it’s easy to think that it’s because we’re better. It’s easy to believe that our relatively luxurious lives are a clear indicator that our way of being is more “developed” or “advanced” than those in other countries.
There aren’t many of us who would admit to that way of thinking. But it’s there. When we look around an Indian roadway and see the plastic sea just off the pavement, we assume it must be because we’re more educated about the environment. A quick foray into a classroom and we believe we now have the perspective on what is wrong with the system and how we could improve it.
All we see is the difference, and that difference is almost personally offensive. After all, if we were to concede that another country had something better than the US, wouldn’t that be unpatriotic? Wouldn’t it betray the country we lived in?
This tension means we will very rarely admit that we have merely seen how another system is different and it would take years to understand what can be improved. It’s rarer still to admit that there may be as much to improve in our world as there is in theirs.
This ‘American’ mindset more than anything was what sent me into my job at the school zealous to incite revolutionary change. I — an ‘unpatriotic’ teen with grudges against the US education system — couldn’t imagine how Rajpura could have a one up on US schools.
It was good then that the people I was working with were patient and insistent. They were quick to remind me when my idealism and intolerance were ineffective, or well… intolerant.
After nearly four months of this tug and pull, I became aware that I was going to learn more from than I was going to change in this school. At seven months I came to terms with how little I could do and began to be happy that I even had the opportunity to work with the other teachers and staff.
By eight months my differences were still there, but everyone — the other teachers as well — had stopped being threatened by that difference. We began to develop friendships that had more to do with who we were than how we did things. Relationships that had more to do with the moment now than all the differences that were built in the past.
We base so many of our relationships not on who people are, but on their external beliefs or ways of doing things that it’s difficult to see where the admiration stops and the friendship begins.
It’s so easy for us to see someone for what they look like — their skin, their language, their clothes — and to assume we know who they are. People wear their differences, and the moment we spot them we determine the exact extent of their potential meaning to us.
Almost everyone does this, this isn’t a rich country thing or a superiority thing, this is a human thing. We have a compulsion to create tribes — political tribes, entertainment tribes, location tribes — and to do so we grasp at our similarities to define the boundaries.
We take our fear or our superiority complex and we feed them into our tribe function to determine who is in and who is out.
Most of the time this happens in the first meeting. Sometimes it is as base as the color of someone’s skin or gender, sometimes we’ll merely ‘get a feeling’ that we don’t like them, every so often someone who is brave enough to express a political opinion on the first meeting will be ousted for that reason.
It’s a shame that this is how we go about our lives. Avoiding those who disagree and agreeing with those who look like us.
And it’s ironic. Once we have created our tribes, we often create relationships that go deeper than our surface similarities, and if we don’t, we yearn for that connection.
Our initial fight against difference ends up being irrelevant to the relationships we form.
When I touched down, all the relationships I returned to were now based on a person I no longer was, and the relationships I left behind were formed between two expressly different individuals. I was no longer the same as anyone I was talking too, and I learned that the similarities I thought were important in forming relationships were so much less interesting to explore than the inevitable differences.
Humans automatically set themselves above the rest of the world, and we desire to be around people who are as ‘cool’ like us. We find people with similar attributes or with compatible beliefs and we live in a bubble of our own making — often without even knowing how exclusive it is.
I knew I had returned to the states when I could walk on the street alone — a feat in itself — or with friends, and the world couldn’t care less.
I became normal again. I wasn’t a ghora — marked by my white skin and cut hair as separate from the world that surrounded me — anymore. Once again, I became merely me, another ghost who can slip into the crowd. Another person who can never be forgotten because they were never noticed in the first place.
After learning to love and embrace a world I disagreed with, anonymity has never felt so conspicuous, or so unnatural.
This one was originally posted on my personal blog www.thesonderer.com
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