India through the eyes of my American Classmates

“So how do you like it here, in US?” This is a common icebreaker with new classmates from other countries.
“I love it; it’s fun!” is my general response. After all, I don’t need to complain about my homesickness to everybody.
“I would love to go to India, but am little bit worried about the safety and stuff over there; ….”  Some hesitation about a country far away is quite normal among Americans.
“Stuff like what?” I like to explore what they think about India.
“Well, it is a new place; plus I don’t speak Indian.” Some say this as a joke, while other are clueless to the Indian languages.
And sometimes, the things get slippery after such small talk! That is where the snakes, the elephants and other wild animals jump into the picture. Some questions, asked even with the utmost seriousness, beg for a chuckle, if not a full blown laugh!

I like my American classmates and friends just as much as my desi colleagues, well almost. At least, that’s what I would like to believe and that’s what I try anyways. Many of these firangs are my close friends. We eat together, we study together and we goof-off together. It’s a fun bunch of people I am surrounded by.

I am one of the five Indians in our class. There are students from everywhere – Canada, European countries, Australia, Kenya, Mexico and Korea…to name a few. They all come from a very diverse background, not to forget in all colors – white, brown, black, yellow, pink, dark pink…well, sometimes it is hard to tell the real color with all the makeup on. 🙂

Different cultures mingle together in our classrooms, labs, cafeterias and not to forget the craziness of after-school dorm life. We don’t feel any racial grouping or biases. Nobody takes anything too seriously. Oh and yes, accents are considered cool, except I have hard time understanding my Korean friend. 😀

I admire and respect most of my ‘foreigner’ friends and classmates. Most of them are very open-minded about other cultures and want to learn about the world out there. At least that’s what they believe. However, their innocent questions spell out their ignorance and perceptions about other cultures. Some the weird questions – rare, but it happens, that get thrown at me include:
“Do you see elephants in your backyards sometimes, like wandering, ?”
“Is it all farms where you live?”
“Should I bring canned and packaged food supplies when I visit India, just to be safe?”
“Do they sell mosquito nets there?”

I answer all these questions with a laugh, plus they are easy to answer. I often say something like:
“You can find everything in Indian shops…”
“The Indian cities are very much like western ones…”
“The elephants and snakes don’t live everywhere…” and so on…

But then there are some cultural and social questions that catch me off guard sometimes:
“Why do the women put a ‘dot’ on their foreheads?”
“Why do girls have separate schools?”
“How common is the arranged marriage!….”

I have no problem with these questions either, I explain to them the social customs and traditions. Every country and culture has its own way of life, and everybody understands it, as long as we can explain.

However, there are some tough cookies I encounter time to time. Some came from my Indian friend raised in US, who recently visited India:
“Why do men stare at the passing by women?”
“Do I have to bribe to get things done?”
“How about smoking in public place?”
“Why does everybody honk all the time while driving?”
“Why do they trash the stuff in public and never get in trouble?”

I often find myself speechless on this type of questions. The most politically correct answers that seem to work are something like:
“It’s not everyone and everywhere?”
“Things are changing!”
“India is going through this growth phase.”
Or plain and simple, “I don’t know! I wish I knew!”

And, whenever I fail to justify or just cannot think of a good answer, I switch back to my old rant: “It is a culture thing!…..”

Hopefully one day soon, we will stop hiding behind the culture and actually start thinking through our actions, behavior and the stuff that is holding us back, as a society.

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4 Replies to “India through the eyes of my American Classmates”

  1. Another great post!!

    As an American, I had to laugh that the word ‘firang’ is used to describe Americans in America! 😉 Nice sense of humor.

    Myself being an American who has lived in India more than 10 years ago, and recently completed my 9th trip, I also get accosted with such questions. I do get irritated only occasionally because I find it refreshing when Americans are interested in any country – and realize questions are based on stereotypes. When I lived in India people asked me questions, “So, do you have a gun? Why do people have so many boyfriends and girlfriends? Why do people get married only to get divorced? Why don’t Americans care about any other county than America? Why do Americans bomb and go to war so easily?”

    Once people got to know me the questions changed based on seeing my behaviors or things I asked about India or seeing how I experienced India!

    Regarding the staring questions, of late I answer it like this, “Not that I condone staring, but it’s a different culture. Most people really stare out of friendliness. I found this out after my 7th trip to India when I got so fed up with others staring at me and I began staring back. This staring back happened more with girls than guys, guys I would make eye contact back and move on, with girls I’d stare back. Girls means any age female, and when I did this the girl would generally then soften her glance on me, smile and few even came up to me and started talking asking my name, where I am from. When I lived in India, and lived in the girls hostel for the first month girls came into my room and touched my skin, hair, looked into my eyes. They never saw a person with ‘white skin’ or ‘green/blue eyes’ or brown hair. India is a country where many people to us foreigners ‘look the same’ there is not much difference in skin color/hair/eye color as in America. People simply aren’t used to seeing foreigners as we are in US, and that coupled with their curiosity and staring behavior culturally acceptable, we gotta go with the flow!”

  2. “sometimes it is hard to tell the real color with all the makeup on.”
    lol…..so true.
    i think accent wise all the asians can understand the other asian’s accents.. i mean if u r indian, understanding the korean or japanese or even chinese is pretty much easy 🙂
    i always get questions about the “dot” thing and canned food.
    gud one

  3. Thanks Heena. I have more problem with Asian accent, may be because I am not used to it.
    So what color are you, with make-up on! 🙂

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