Posts Tagged ‘Attention’

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

February 17, 2011

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.



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

February 14, 2011

What is normal supposed to be?

I’ve lost the ability to differentiate the ordinary from the extraordinary. I’ve come to expect the unexpected. Routines have been twisted, bent and contorted out of regularity. Surprises have become so commonplace that they cease to shock me. “Normal” has shifted, blurred, and undergone such a metamorphosis in the last seven months in India that I can no longer define it.

One thing I can say with certainty, at least, is that Wednesday was not a normal day for exchange students in Nagpur.

Whatever normal is.

It started with Hindi class. Rather, a trip to Hindi class. Nisha had recently come to Nagpur, and Anaïs and I decided it was a class she aught to see. The bike ride there was a long one, and a cumbersome one, but not all that memorable except for the amount of sweat I produced. I have nothing significant to report of Nisha’s first Hindi class.

This was followed by a recent addition to the daily program. A little after noon, we biked to our second ever crafts class in a flat across town. Painting and decorating plates are not among my inherent interests, so I found little reason to do anything but enjoy the company I found there. With participation neither compulsory nor free, I did little but sit and talk for the better part of two hours.

Normal. So far.

As had become increasingly common in the preceding week, lunch was to be eaten outside. I was among those who would be eating at Dominos, but the only one who was making the trip via bike. As someone familiar with the streets of Nagpur, I was bemused when what should have been a quick two-kilometer journey turned into a meandering escapade of a 5K. Despite my unnecessarily circuitous route, I arrived well before Michelle and Nisha, whose rickshaw driver couldn’t resist showcasing the passengers to his friends. Jakob and Franzi showed up after our meal.

My bike survived the journey intact.

We went shopping for a timepass. Actually, the others shopped. I just went with them and watched. We received texts that told us our dance and tabla classes had been canceled. Normal. Nowadays the two above classes are canceled more often than they are held. By the time we left for a different dance class, my bike had gone about 20 kilometers without losing any air.

I was under the impression these new dance classes were compulsory, but neither “dance”, “class”, or “compulsory” are words fit to describe the first two meetings. My part, as I’d learned the day before, was to consist of lying on the floor as a monk, get up slowly, and gesture vaguely at the other characters on stage. Even in light of the other performances I’d performed since coming to India, this looked to be especially bizarre. Wednesday’s “class” – or whatever you want to call it – was cut short, and we returned to our bikes after attracting considerable attention from some small children.

Anaïs, Nisha and I set off for home on our two bikes.

And soon came to a stop.

Both bikes had flat tires.

Say what you want about the amount of time we’d been on our bikes in the previous days, or how much strain we’d put on them recently. I’d been putting up about ten Ks a day on my bike since September, and Anaïs had been traveling about as much – if not more – on hers for about a month. Sexy or not, our bikes had been through a lot, and there was no doubting their durability.

Is it really possible that both our bikes just decided they were bas within minutes of each other? Could it be that the throng of small children that crowded around us and our bikes did no harm to the tires? Did the fact that those bikes were foreigners’ bikes really have nothing to do with their punctures?

Be they reasonable or merely rhetorical, I don’t think I need to answer those questions.

The first cycle-wallah we visited did the best he could. Our tires were pumped with air, and if only for the moment, it seemed all was well. We made the brief trip to the Poonam Chambers mall, and waited there for Anaïs to be picked up by her host family. It was nearly ten at night, and I had yet to contact my host family. It was time to go home.

I got on my bike. Nisha boarded Anaïs’.

Both bikes were once again flat.

The best I can say of what happened next is that I remembered I was carrying my host dad’s business card on me. At least I was able to call him via Nisha’s phone and explain I’d be getting home late. We called Pooja, who lived within walking distance, and asked where we could fix our bikes. She suggested we go back where we came from, to a bike shop next to our dance class. We left Anaïs with her family and went on, with only a vague idea of where to go and what to do.

But it’s hard to get bike tire tube transplants at ten p.m. We were redirected three times in a 20-meter long alley, attracting an increasingly large group of small children with each passing second. After a few phrases of survival Hindi, a couple phone calls to Pooja, and two or three firmly directed “No, beta“s, we managed to escape as Mr. Khatri arrived. But Nisha and I were on the verge of despair, our bikes still in disrepair.

We walked our bikes back towards the Khatri’s.

The 38th and final person to shout “foreigner” that day was probably the least subtle. A man on a motorbike speeding in the opposite direction put hand to horn for several seconds, and called out three-syllables at the top of his lung. You know what word it was.

Several seconds passed. Then Nisha spoke.

“It really sucks that that was just able to happen, and no one will do anything about it.”

But what can you do about it? I knew Nisha was referring to the moped man, but she may as well have been referring to whoever vandalized our bikes. The Khatris, at least, came through once again, giving us two bedrooms in which to spend the night, feeding us dinner, and not objecting as Nisha and I occupied their living room past 3 a.m.

Part of it is the nature of Rotary Youth Exchange. Part of it is Indian culture. Part of it is the exquisite group chemistry of the exchange students, and our inherent lust for spontaneity. But nothing about this year has been normal. Thus there is no such thing as a normal day while on An Indian Year.

As I went to sleep Wednesday night, I came to peace with life as foreigner in Nagpur, India.

Only the abnormal makes sense to me anymore.


To be continued…

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

February 11, 2011

There are precisely three things that I don’t like about India.

The first is mosquitoes.

I’m heavily armed against them. I take a malaria pill every week. A mosquito net adorns my bed. In spite of the searing winter heat, I always wear long pants. But no matter how thick the bug spray in the air, how strong the waft of my repellant, or how fresh the GoodKnight plugged in the wall, I always seem to find my arms, ankles and neck in various degrees of bumpy, red itchiness.

I can get used to them, though.

The second is food poisoning.

My stomach had more trouble adapting to India than any other organ in my body. Every exchange student has had some kind of sickness since coming to India, and most of us have had several bouts. Even though I’ve rarely been sick for more than 36 hours, there’s nothing pleasant about the symptoms Pepto-Bismol is meant to cure. Even six and a half months after arrival, eating outside food remains a risky proposition.

I can get used to that, though.

Third is the blatant, shocking contrast of my appearance with every other person here.

It takes some getting used to.

Look. I stand out in India. I am six feet, three inches tall. My skin, though tan, pales in comparison to every Indian with unchanged skin. My hair, which was dirty-blonde upon arrival, has been naturally bleached a few shades lighter.

The sheer number of xenophiliacs in India amazes me. I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity, but most people who have seen or met me treat me as one. The vast majority of attention foreigners get is positive, but the pestering for attention never ceases to persist. Here’s a far-from-complete list of the reactions I’ve drawn:

– Several times, random passers-by have attempted to shake my hand – not with the mere extension of their own, but by shoving their appendage into my forearm. Arm contact without eye contact.

– Physical contact with strangers is otherwise rare, but the other day a man actually grabbed my arm while I was on my bike. He rode away after I shouted back in R-rated Hindi.

– A different man on a motorcycle once drove past me with each forefinger and pinkie extended downwards, an attempt of the American “yo!” (whatever that’s supposed to be). Fortunately, this man was not the driver.

– At least the aforementioned hand gesture is superior to one that requires only one finger. Although uncommon, I’ve seen it too.

– Many a hand has covered a mouth as groups of friends – usually girls – whisper, giggle and smile amongst themselves while foreigners pass them by.

– At the other end of the spectrum are the groups of friends – usually boys – who shout at me in me in rapidfire Hindi and laugh when I don’t respond. As my knowledge of the language has increased, I’ve become more aware of what they’re saying, and I’ve had to refrain from yelling my own choice words back at them.

– At least every other day, someone will ask me (in English) where I’m from and why I’m in India. The age of the questioners ranges from primary schoolers to retired old men, and the honesty of my answers vary depending on the context and my mood. At various points in my exchange, I have temporarily become Danish, French, South African, Liechtensteinese, Chinese and Latvian.

– Twice, men have started singing Sheila Ki Jawani at the sight of me, in particular the line “I’m too sexy for you.” I’m not sure if I should be more confused or amused.

– As I recounted in my tale of our venture to Kanyakumari on the South Tour, people are not shy about taking pictures of us. At least it’s harder to shoot a moving target, so photography is much less prevalent in traffic.

– However, no one has asked me for my autograph. Yet.

Mostly, all people do is look. And there are many different ways of doing so.

The Look-away
Probably the most common kind of staring is The Look-away. These people are intent upon looking at me, but remain too coy to make eye contact. Their heads turn with me: as soon as I look at them, they allow something else to capture their interest. When I turn back, their heads swivel towards mine again.

The Blank Stare
I honestly can’t fault anyone for gaping at me as if I were a green-faced three-eyed Martian with tentacles sprouting out of my eyelids. Given how many foreigners show up in Nagpur, I might as well be one! The Blank Stare conveys innocence – such lookers are simply shocked by my presence, thus they often aren’t intimidated by eye contact. I usually have no problem with it.

The Double-take
One look isn’t always enough.

The Triple-take
One look? Understandable. Two looks? Fine. But three looks? Keep your eyes on whatever it is that’s in front of you!

The Quadruple-take
I have advice for these people: pull over to the side of the road, make yourself comfortable, sip some chai, and stare at me for five minutes. It’s safer than trying to drive in my presence.

The Look Back
Passengers on the backs of two-wheelers have a tendency to swivel their heads quite unabashedly in my direction. The lookers may be in autos or on trucks, and sometimes even the drivers can’t resist turning around. Variations include The Look Back Double-take, The Look Back Triple-take, and the Look Back Quadruple-take.

The Rear-view Mirror
Not every moped has a rear-view mirror, but I’m often presented with a peculiar sight when such equipped bikes pull up in front of me. The driver – often wearing sunglasses – will be looking straight ahead, but as I look at the mirror, a pair of eyes will meet mine. I usually stare back until the driver realizes the subtlety has been lost and looks away.

The No-look
I can tell my presence has registered in the minds of these people by the intent with which they look away from me. They’re trying to be considerate, to show they could care less that a foreigner just pulled up next to them. Maybe they’ve even seen others before. But their attempts at normalization fail – they try so hard not to care about my presence that it becomes apparent that they do.

The Over-my-shoulder
I find it amazing and amusing that there’s always something interesting happening over my shoulder, and yet I’m never able to see it myself. There must be. Why else would Bharatiya eyes so consistently be fixed far in the distance behind me, everywhere I go?

The Dekho!
Dekho is the Hindi word for “look”. Thus it’s a word I often hear as I pass a group of people, usually school-age kids. At the sight of me, one will lean into another, and either whisper or shout the news that a non-Indian is present. Thus one dropped jaw becomes at least two or three.

But dekho is hardly the word or phrase I hear most often as I roam around Nagpur. That distinction doesn’t belong to a Hindi word like bapure (My God!). It’s not “Hello”, “Hi”, or “Hey dude whassup?” It’s not even the curiously ubiquitous “yo!”

It’s the word I’ve heard 512 times in the last 26 days.



To be continued…