Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Of Elephant Rides and Identity Crises

I just got back from my visit with Noah in Mysore. It was a good trip. We got to catch up on stories of our respective summers, news about our other friends, gossip from Sackville, and we talked a lot about plans for next year when we'll be living together. I'm about half-way through the summer and I don't think this trip could have been timed better. I gave me a break from life at home and Kodai as well as a chance to touch base with the other (probably more than) half of my life in Sackville.

The trip had a perfect mix of going out, sitting around and talking, and doing stuff on our own. I went to most of the classes with Noah and that was nice because I got to sit and listen without any pressure of having to remember what I heard or worry about taking notes or anything. I can't remember the last time I had a classroom experience like that. Some of their professors and guest speakers were extremely impressive I learned a lot. I spent most of the afternoons reading, watching movies, or napping. I spend a lot of my time on my own here in Kodai and I definitely needed that time in Mysore, too. As did Noah, I'm sure. We spent the late afternoons and evenings going out and doing things. We went out with the whole group a few times as well as just Noah and me going out on our own for drinks or walks.

We all went out for dinner on the 1st of July which is Canada Day. I thought it was pretty funny to be back in India, visiting my American friend, with a group of Canadians celebrating Canada Day. Wikipedia says, Canada day is "Canada's national day, a federal statutory holiday celebrating the anniversary of the 1 July 1867 enactment of the British North American Act, which united Canada as a single country, which was in turn composed of four provinces [Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario]. Canada Day observances take place throughout Canada as well as internationally." Internationally is right! Thankfully we didn't go so far as to signing 'O Canada' or something like that. I don't even know the words ...

On Sunday we decided to go to the Mysore Palace. Since group is in their last two weeks in Mysore most of them decided to stay at the hostel and write papers and as a result only five of us went to the Palace: Noah, Louisa, and Louisa's parents Dr Strain and Michelle. The entire Palace is covered in light bulbs and on Sundays at 7:00 they light up for an hour. Seeing the Palace illuminated against the darkening sky is quite spectacular. We went around 4:30 to see the Palace during the day as well as to see if we could find an elephant so that Louisa could fulfill one of her biggest "When I'm in India" wishes which was to ride an elephant. We found an elephant, bought four tickets (Noah, Louisa, Michelle and myself; Dr Strain opted out and took pictures and a video of us instead). I asked the Mahut (the guy who 'drives' it) what it's name was and he said that her name was Raji and that she was 18 years old. The guys who run the rides took the cameras that we had and took pictures for us. They also gave each of us a chance to climb onto her neck so that we could get a picture of us 'riding' her. I thought about it and I've concluded that the 15 minutes I spent on top of Raji were about the most touristy 15 minutes of my life. It took me a while to stop feeling silly about being there in the first place but unless I had been with four foreigners in India, I don't think I would have ever ridden an elephant. Two thoughts made me feel less stupid: 1) "None of you know me, so whatever." (Anonymity is an excellent cure for embarrassment) and 2) "Suck it! Have any of you ever ridden an elephant?!" In the end, it was a pretty sweet experience.


Noah and me at the Palace. This is the only picture of us together from the trip and I insisted that we take it so that we had evidence that I was actually in Mysore.


The Palace light up. Under the third arch from the left is a police band playing Western concert music - I thought that was pretty cool.


But, all these things aside, my most prominent experiences in Mysore can be summed up with two words: basically Indian. For Noah and Dr Strain and the rest of the people on the trip, I sort of became the local expert on Indian culture and any time someone had a question about why Indians did something, or what a word meant, or what went into an Indian dish with an unpronounceable name, they asked me. But it soon became very apparent that the way they saw me, and the way other Indians saw me were completely different. For example:

One evening we all got taken out to dinner to a fancy place by their professor Dr Rao. All of us were sitting at one end of the table and whenever anyone had a question about what Aloo Gobi or Saag Gosht or Palak Paneer were, they asked me. When I was telling the waiter what we wanted, he kept telling me what was in each dish after I said the name; it was obvious that he thought that I would have as little idea about what I was ordering as the rest of the group.

When we were at the Palace we bought tickets to go in. The entrance fee is Rs 20 for Indians and Rs 200 for foreigners. I wasn't sure if the ticket seller would believe me if I said I was Indian and since I didn't have any ID on me, I didn't stand in line with Noah and the rest but instead waited a bit and went amongst a group of Indians. The guy at the counter looked at me when I stepped up and asked with mild skepticism, "You're Indian?" When I said yes he made a vague noise and handed me my ticket. Later, when we were getting ready for the elephant ride, the guy asked Noah how many people were going. Noah said, "Three foreigners and one Indian." The guy looked at me, pointed, and asks with a laugh in his voice, "You're Indian?" When I said yes he burst out laughing.

On another day we went to a home for destitute women called Shakti Dhamma. When we first arrived we stood around a bit awkwardly with the woman who runs the home while Dr Strain introduced us and told her where we were from. When we got to me and Dr Strain explained that I'm Indian but I study at Mount A in Canada she woman says, "So you're basically Indian?" I said yes and she says in a somewhat triumphant tone, "I could tell!" I smiled and said nothing but I was thinking, "What tipped you off? Maybe the brown skin?" We spent about two hours there, most of which time we spent sitting on the floor in small groups and talking to the women. I ended up using what little Tamil and Hindi I know to talk to a few of the ladies. When we were leaving a girl who is a law student and is working at Shakti Dhamma as an intern for the summer came over to me and asks, "So ... you're basically Indian?" I was speechless. Her too? Why do people keep saying that?
Basically Indian? What does that even mean?!

So now, people can't understand what I'm saying, they assume I don't know what I'm eating, I get suspicious looks when I say I'm Indian, people think it's hilarious when they find out I am, and I'm - apparently - only basically Indian. I try and make myself feel better by saying that I only got these reactions because I was with a group of foreigners and they just figured I was one of them. I mean, NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) aren't uncommon any more. To an extent that's actually the truth ... but not the full extent. You know how Asian people are sometimes called Twinkies - yellow on the outside and white on the inside? What am I ... a Bounty? Brown on the outside, white on the inside? God. I sincerely hope not. I certainly don't feel white on the inside. Regardless, my crisis continues. Maybe the problem isn't with me but rather with other Indians. Just because I speak English and wear jeans, why does that make me less Indian than a woman who only speaks Hindi or Tamil and only wears saris? What defines Indian?

It's just so bizarre. The bus incident was funny but this is starting to get a bit out of control. I guess I still have a lot of figuring out to do ...

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