The Adventures of Two Foreigners In India

I have been trying for two weeks now to write a post about what it is like to be an American, childless, interracial couple traveling independently in India. India is a very strange place. It is truly a different world. I’m sure that Indian people think the same thing when they come to the U.S. Kara and I have now traveled in 20 countries, all of them different. In each one, after a day or two, we were able to figure out what was going on and get comfortable. Some places, like most of Europe, aren’t that different from home. Others, like Syria and Mozambique, hardly see any Americans.

Before coming to India, we heard a lot of warnings that India was “intense.” I just assumed this characterization had to do with poverty in India.  But we knew that there was a lot of poverty in India.  We had heard the stories about crime bosses having children maimed and then turning them out on the streets to beg. I knew that, in India, you some times see shocking examples of human suffering and poverty. That is some times true, and we were prepared for it. We were not prepared for the chaos.

Chaos is the only word I can think of to describe India. There is very little infrastructure for basic things we take for granted, like sanitation and sewage. So, there is garbage everywhere. It is not unusual for Indian people to litter. We were waiting for a train at Nizamuddin Station in Delhi and watched a young guy eating at a food stall on the platform throw his used plate on the ground even though he was standing right next to a trash can. The trash is just piled up in mounds on the street, and is usually picked over by the cows, pigs and dogs that roam the streets.

India is the second most populous country in the world. Given the one-child policy and attitudes toward female babies in China, it will probably be number one soon. But its territory is much smaller than China or the U.S. for that matter. While the U.S. has about 300 million people, India has more than one billion. A cycle-rickshaw driver in Amritsar summed the reason for this population explosion nicely: “In an Indian marriage, after two years, there are two babies.” This population density has very real effects; there are people everywhere.

This might not be such a big deal if there were any rules of order in Indian society. But there don’t seem to be. People don’t line up for things; there’s just a big scrum to push your way to the front. There were several times in Delhi Metro where people looked me in the eye before stepping right in front of me in the line to buy tokens. At home, you would call out such a person. I’ve learned that, in India, indignation doesn’t really work; instead, you sharpen your elbows and push such a person out of the way. It is a very physical society. People don’t think much of pushing and shoving their way. I don’t think it’s considered impolite; it’s just a way of getting by in a country with more than one billion people.

We’ve had a few opportunities to speak one-on-one with some Indian people. I find usually that Kara is always very warmly received. For one, she’s a blonde. But there’s also an odd fascination in Indian society with fair skin. Watching Indian television, you see one ad after another for a product called “fairness cream,” sold under brand names like Neutrogena and Nivea. Fairness creams purport to do pretty much what the name describes – make your skin whiter. One cream even pledges to make your skin “up to two shades fairer.” So it seems having a fair complexion, at least to some, is a good thing. People often come up to Kara to strike up a conversation, or even ask her to pose for a picture with them.

I’m also a curiosity. Usually people ask Kara whether I am also American, a question to which, after hearing in several other countries, I have learned not to take offense. Sometimes they think I am Indian, but since my hair has grown out some, and it’s quite a bit coarser than the typical Indian man’s hair, there is some question about where I come from. I explain, and if that doesn’t get the point across, a reference to Barack Obama usually helps clear it up.

Once these issues have been resolved, the conversation often turns very personal. The questions Indian people can sometimes ask are akin to being asked to undress in public. The two favorites are our salary when we worked as lawyers and the type of contraception we use, the latter because it is assumed that a couple married for two years and without any children must be using contraceptives. I guess these are ordinary things to ask a perfect stranger in India, because there seems to be no concept that these are extremely personal questions. We try to politely demur and express our desire not to answer, but we just get the question repeated. When the inquisitor cannot get the answer from one of us, he will just turn to the other and ask.

We take it all in good humor, or at least we try.  When we were stranded in Jaipur after midnight and trying to figure out when, if ever, our train to Agra would leave, Kara was not too amused when a gentleman at the ticket office, with whom she was chatting while they waited for the correct person to arrive, asked her whether we used condoms or the pill.  I don’t know if we’ll ever get past some of the cultural differences we have with India.  But part our reason to take this trip was being challenged.  I don’t think it gets any more challenging than this.

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2 responses to “The Adventures of Two Foreigners In India

  1. It is great to be able to read your posts. Danielle and I (plus Sophia now) hope you to see you soon. Last night we had a “wonder how Damien and Kara are” conversation. Enjoy your travels, and if you need firm shoulders and sharp elbows for the next trip to India – Danielle’s in!

  2. This is a great entry — it really makes me miss India. It wasn’t an easy place to feel settled (ever), but I found that, after I’d lived in Pune for a few weeks, I actually began to expect that cars would start moving 10 seconds before the light turned green. 🙂 Glad to hear you made it through to Bangkok and that Kara’s healed — safe travels!