Mark Twain once said, ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
It sounds easy, dreamy, almost like a fairytale, doesn’t it? Well that’s what it sounded like to me. So as a gullible, naïve 24-year-old from New Delhi, who believed anything and everything is possible, bewitched by Mr. Twain and with über-cautious parents I set out to explore, dream, discover. In India travelling abroad alone is still considered a risky, foolish pursuit for women but I promised my parents that I wouldn’t wander off to strange corners, would always have pepper spray on me and keep them informed of my whereabouts. The first place I set foot was New York for summer school. I got off the plane, without any familiar faces to look to, and headed straight to the cab station.
‘You must be Indian’, the cabbie remarked.
‘I sure am’, I beamed as a proud national. I didn’t sense that little sprinkle of racism until I began to immerse myself more in the local culture of the city. While I did totally love being the easily recognizable ‘brown girl’, what I was not okay with was ONLY being that girl. Don’t get me wrong, I did have magical experiences, shared a glass of Caprioska with a bunch of welcoming strangers and oh those foodgasms! I was in love with the city and dreamed of making it my home soon.
Fast forward six months, I was alone in Krabi, Thailand after a bunch of my girlfriends cancelled on me. As the entree cutlet that I am, I couldn’t wait to see what the town had to offer. I browsed through the cute little stores which sold beautiful embroidered bags and crochet shorts. I picked up a few in one shop and as I proceeded to the desk, the mid-60s Thai woman casually asked me where I was from. ‘India!’ I said. She seemed a bit taken aback. As I tried to enquire about her expression, she exclaimed, ‘Indians are rude. They no pay. You are sweet. I didn’t think you were from India.’ While I did take a part of that remark as a compliment, the other part got me thinking. It was a compli-sult, I figured. But all I did that moment was walk away.
TV shows, advertisements and other works of fiction made me believe that it was rather easy to meet people, get along and have a great time, especially when you are abroad. And for most part of it, that is completely true – but sometimes seemingly casual conversations had an uncomfortably racist underlying tone to them. Subtle, yes, but noticeable.
‘How is your English so good?’ (Believe it or not, I did have the privilege of attending a school. Just like you.)
‘You’re so gorgeous, especially for an Indian!’ (Thanks, but no thanks!)
‘Does India look like Slumdog Millionaire, a third world country?’ (No, it’s a blend of amazing cultures & beautiful languages, a throbbing business hub, and the trip of a lifetime!)
‘Do you speak Indian?’ (If it were a language, I would have!)
‘You have Zara in India? OMG!’
‘Did you ride elephants to school?’ (Now that would be cool, or would it?)
What I, as a naive 19 year old globetrotter, failed to understand was the extent to which a person’s nationality and heritage defined them to others. At the TedGlobal 2014 Talk Taiye Selasi said, ‘To me, a country — this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract — hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being.’ I concur. Doesn’t a person’s experiences, stories and attitudes define who they are, much more so than the place they were born in? Taiye Selasi further added, ‘The myth of national identity and the vocabulary of coming from confuses us into placing ourselves into mutually exclusive categories. In fact, all of us are multi — multi-local, multi-layered. To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart.’
It unfortunately did bring us further apart. Don’t get me wrong here though – I’m only referring to about a third of people who I met along my journey. And they’re definitely not keeping me from going even further. What made me really sad though was that often the few ‘well travelled’ people I met were in fact the most ignorant ones.
There is just nothing you can do about it – people will reduce you on the basis of things you have no control over. But you must still keep going. The journey is beautiful and even the most gorgeous roses have thorns. Tell those people that it’s impossible to understand a country’s cultural theme from the outside, show them the reality of where you belong, be patient, teach them what they don’t understand. The world is not just a place to learn, but a place to teach as well. Communicate, inform, advise. And for every person you educate, there is one person less who thinks of Indian as a language and one more who recognises India as a diverse nation that is multilingual, multicultural and oh-so-gorgeous!
It’s been 4 years since I travelled solo for the very first time. I have visited many countries since and most definitely fell in love with the journey the way ‘Prometheus fell in love with humans.’ It has been ecstatic, amusing, breathtaking, educational, surprising, uncomfortable, too comfortable, thrilling, scary, offbeat and so much more… I will never forget watching the sunset at Oia, Santorini, enjoying the fourth of July fireworks in New York, kayaking in Koh Hong, skinny dipping in Goa sipping martinis at the infinity pool in Singapore, falling asleep with strangers by the river… these are the stories that define me, the adventures and the people I’ve met along the way have built my personality, brick by brick.
To me, to judge an individual by the colour of their skin or their country of origin is purely wrong because, hey, there is so much more to learn about them!