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, isn’t it? Well that’s what it sounded like to me. So as a gullible, naïve 19-year-old teenager, who believed anything and everything is possible, from New Delhi, bewitched by Mr. Twain, with parents as cautious as me cracking a semantic joke in the 21-st century without ruffling anyone’s feathers, I set out to explore, dream, discover. Travelling alone in India is still considered a risky, foolish pursuit for women but I promised my parents that I wouldn’t wander off to strange corners, always have pepper spray on me and keep them aware of my whereabouts. The first place I set my foot was New York for my summer school. I got off the plane, without any familiar faces to look into and head straight to the cab station.
“You must be Indian”, the cabbie remarked.
“I sure am” I gleamed as a proud national. I didn’t sense that little sprinkle of racism until I begun to completely immerse myself in the Empire State. While I did totally love being the easily recognisable brown girl, what I was not okay with was ONLY being that girl. Don’t get me wrong, I did have magical experiences, shared many glasses of Caprioska with a bunch of impressive strangers and oh those foodgasms! I was in love with the city and dreamed to make it my home someday.
Fast forward six months, I was alone in Krabi, Thailand after a bunch of my girlfriends cancelled on me. As an enthu-cutlet that I’m, I couldn’t wait to see what the town had to offer. I hopped to the cute little stores, which hung beautiful embroidered bags and crochet shorts. I picked up a few and as I proceeded to pay, 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 to think. It was a complisult, I figured. But all I did that moment was walk away.
SATC, the Burberry Ads and other works of fiction made me believe it was rather easy to meet people, get along and have a great time. For most part of it, it’s true. But not always, especially when seemingly casual conversations turn uncomfortable with subtle insertions of racism.
“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 a place of a lifetime!)
“Do you speak Indian?” (If it were a language, I would’ve!)
“You have Zara in India? OMG!”
“Did you ride the elephants to school?” (That would be damn cool now, wouldn’t it?)
I failed to understand how a person’s nationality and country defined them by such a great extent. 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, attitudes define a person more than just the place she was 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. I’m only referring to about 35% of people I met along my journey. And they’re definitely not keeping me from going even further. What made me further upset was as I travelled through Europe & America among other continents, the few “well travelled” people I met along the way were in fact the most ignorant ones or that they chose to be.
But here it is – 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 fewer person who doesn’t think of Indian as a language but 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’ve visited 25 countries since. I 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 Paris, 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!