“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part three

In the last 32 days, I have heard the word “foreigner” 589 times.

That’s 18.4 times per day. 129 times a week. A pace of 6700 times over the course of 12 months.

Yes, I’ve been keeping track of this very diligently. I could even tell you the standard deviation if you’re interested. But these numbers don’t tell the story of life as a foreigner in India. And I have two more of those to tell.

The morning after Wednesday’s bike-scapade, Nisha and I took a rickshaw across town to Hindi class. As we walked away from the auto, a man’s voice called out to us. Another Indian intent on teasing us, perhaps?

No. Nisha’s phone was lying idle in the car’s backseat. The man had called our attention to it, in spite of the attention taking a foreigner’s phone would have provided. Nisha went to pick it up with gratitude. This wasn’t the first time she’d lost – and soon found – her phone since coming to Nagpur.

See, there are good people in India. They’re everywhere. The trouble is, good people give us the least trouble and the least attention. They stand by, awaiting the opportunity to make lives better – like pointing out when our tires have punctures, or insisting on fixing them for free when we don’t have enough change.

After Thursday’s class, Anaïs, Michelle and I went to fix our bikes. This in itself was another adventure, my third trip to a cycle-wallah in the last 18 hours. A group assembled around us as we watched our bikes being repaired. Three boys lingered without making the effort to conceal themselves, even going so far as to pretend their obviously working bikes were broken too. Understandable, perhaps. But nonetheless obnoxious.

Then again, after what we did the next day, are we any better?

We received a frantic phone call from Michelle about an hour before sunset on Friday. Foreigners had been spotted, and they weren’t exchange students. Anaïs, Nisha and I rode our now-functioning bikes back to Poonam Chambers for the sole purpose of meeting them.

Consider the rarity of meeting other foreigners in India. Aside from the places we ventured on the South Tour, whereon pockets of foreigners were found abound, I’d only run into Indian outsiders about once every two weeks. Usually we’d just pass each other by, an aura of significance exchanged at most, and one-sided obliviousness in the least. Sometimes we’d strike up conversations – as Anaïs and I did with an Austrian outside a zoo two weeks ago – but even those normally remained curt, however exciting the other’s presence was for either party.

The foreigners we met on Friday were mostly American, with one Canadian among their number as well. (This made Nisha very happy.) About 20 in number, they ranged from 20-somes to 70-somes – college-aged, middle-aged and retirement-aged. One of them even recognized my Chicago Cubs baseball cap. We spent half an hour orienting them to India, talking to them about the culture, showing them where to go in Nagpur, and discussing with them the attention foreigners receive – a fact they were aware of despite having been in India for less than a week.

I don’t think they knew we’d driven around Nagpur just to see them. I wonder how they’d have reacted if they’d known we did. It’s certainly not a meeting that would have taken place in the U.S., a country where foreigners melt in, meld in, and become indistinguishable from everyone else. Women in mini-skirts and burqas can be best friends. Only one’s accent or passport can give away one’s nationality in America, and even then, they don’t have to. I never appreciated the diversity of my friends, my community, and my home country until I came to India, where that diversity is of a variety that’s subtler and far more difficult to discern.

It may seem counterintuitive that Rotary every year sends foreigners to a country of over a billion people with relatively similar outward appearances. There’s no denying the unique attention foreigners receive here. The cynic would say exchange students are guinea pigs, nothing more than barometers for India’s perception of the outside world.

But that’s just not the truth.

I’m reminded of Rotary’s motto for the 2010-11 year, one that is splashed prominently across two of my T-shirts from July’s conference in Grand Rapids. I read it every time I put one on, and I’m often given a reason to ponder what it says.

“Building communities. Bridging continents.”

Every time I take my bike through the streets of Nagpur, I’m unable to suppress a grin as I consider how bizarre it is that I am where I am. I smile and wave when the neighbor kids shout at me as I pass – “Chris! Hi!” When people look and shout at me, I don’t want them to think I have it better than they do because of my appearance, that my heroism parallels my bike’s namesake (Hercules), that America is some magical utopian haven to which they can and should escape.

What I hope for those people is that they realize the ever-increasing truth:

For a place with nearly 7 billion people, the world is a pretty small place.

I just happen to come from the other side of it.



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5 Responses to ““Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part three”

  1. Shawn Bird Says:

    The year I was an inbound Rotex, the RI motto was Build Bridges of Friendship-Mankind is One. I really felt that was my mission as a student in Finland.

    Although I am now a natural ‘platinum blonde’ when I was in Finland, I was a dark brunette. There weren’t many brunettes in Finland at the time. Gypsies (Roma or ‘mustalaiset’) and me. Once, dressed in all Finnish clothing and feeling very homogenous I showed up early in another town to visit my friend Päivi. I pulled out my book to wait at the bus depot, when suddenly my friend arrived breathless and apologizing that she hadn’t been here to meet me. I pointed out that I was an hour early and asked her how she knew I was even there. She said her friend had been walking past the bus station, glanced in though the window (40′ from the sidewalk!), saw me sitting in the waiting room, knew I ‘must’ be the Canadian friend coming to visit, and tore off to ring Päivi’s bell and tell her I was there.

    So much for looking like I belonged in Finland… 😉

  2. Tani Says:

    It will take time for some people to realize that truth. It is mainly because of how parents raise their kids. Lets take me and my cousins as an example. Our parents taught us many valuable things, a lot about culture and respect and obviously the good and bad things in life. But they never really discussed about treating poeple equally, not leaving a a certain group out or seeing everybody with the same eye. Mostly because the country we come from consists of poeple with pretty much the same culture and appearance. So our parents’ parents never found it important to touch on that topic, and our parents never really thought about teaching it to us. So teachers don’t teach these values either.. although we are slowly starting to build up a broader mind due to people both emigrating and immigrating.

  3. Nisha Khan: The Christian Canadian Says:

    Life in Nagpur: Exchange Student Edition.

    Make a book about it man. You’re blog is GOLDEN.

    (I only lost my phone once after that…and almost lost is under ten times.)

  4. Abhay Says:

    Great blog. Do keep it up. I grew up in India and now live in Berkeley. When my wife and I go back to India people think I am a foreigner and call me that. I take it as a compliment because that’s how people see me in the US as well. So you are perhaps on your way to becoming a citizen of the world like me 🙂

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