- Posted August 19, 2013 by
New York, New York
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
India, a part of my story
I’m writing a book about India to talk about the diversity, beauty, issues, and misconceptions. While that might take some time, there was an article on CNN Report to which I couldn’t help responding. It was about a woman’s interpretation of India during her 3 month stay there. After settling my emotions and a draft of this post, I decided to take a different approach and let readers see a different perspective and tell a little of my story.
I went to India in 2010 to work in a city outside of Mumbai. Although folks told me it might be dangerous for women, to keep my eyes alert, I decided to pay no heed to such warnings and jump into a country I knew almost nothing about, to a city I was unfamiliar with, and learn a language with so many different sounds it made no sense to me. My plan was to stay there for a year, get my international experience, and run away. That didn’t happen.
Although a slow process, India started invading my personality, infiltrating my mannerisms (I now can own the head wobble and small hand motions that accompany certain words), my language (I started picking up Hindi only after a few months), and my friend circle. The more I lived there, the more I became fascinated with the country and people. One rule of thumb I have is that I never go to a country to hang out with other Americans or expats. What’s the point? At any point I would try to do activities that would gain me friendships with any and everyone. My “in” was with salsa dancing and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. Within 8 months I had a small community of friends, of which I was the only foreigner. Salsa was a great outlet and something that’s booming in India lately. What gave me my closest friends was capoeira. Due to the nature of the activity, most of the participants are men.
With my friends or their help I was able to travel to more than half the states during my vacations and weekends. I saw places I never knew existed, tasted food I couldn’t pronounce, and fell in love with every aspect of it. I found myself places where my friends would say I might be the only foreigner some of the people had ever seen. I was surrounded by some of the most amazing people I had ever met, many of whom I would call my family.
During my off time, in a park, I made friends with some local kids. We communicated despite my bad Hindi (my friends would often interpret, but I could keep up for the most part). They lived in the nearby slums. Although it took time, we were soon invited to dinner by candlelight, festivals both religious and family related, and could show up just to say hi. I never felt like I was in danger, even when, at the caution of my friends, I showed up to the community on my own. I would sometimes get some stares of wonderment but nothing ever happened. At one point the police were doing a scan through and asked me if everything was ok and if people were bothering me. It was hard to explain that they were my friends and that I was there voluntarily. They were shocked.
While in my city, I never had any issues with being a foreign woman, or just a woman for that matter. After a certain point I realized that the looks I was getting was just to look. There was no malice in them. No, I’m not being naive either, there were a few instances when I knew to walk away, look away, or pretend I wasn’t there; but those were few and far between. I did have some innocent issues when traveling the train; I took general class most of the time back and forth to Mumbai. I found it amusing when men would hold up their phones and take a picture pretending they were sending a text message. What would they do with such pictures I will never know. My friends would say that they might show it to their friends and after some time it would be lost and forgotten. When in Delhi with two friends who came to visit many people asked us to be in a photo with us. After a while of entertaining people we started to decline. No one was offended.
I managed to travel through many states alone on public transportation with no problem; from the south to the northeast. There was another American girl there for about 10 months who similarly had no issues as well. One time one of my only girlfriends cancelled on a trip and I ended up traveling with 7 of my Indian male friends to her home in Gujarat.
The male/female issues in India are very deep. Most educated Indians will tell you the same (at least the ones I encountered). There is female feticide despite hospitals with signs clearly stating that even asking the sex of your child could get you fined. Doctors will loose their licenses. Sometimes that doesn’t happen though. The North usually has more issues with sexism (generally speaking to include rape, honor killings, female feticide, etc) than the South. Kerala has a positive female/male ratio. The point is, yes, India clearly has issues when it comes to women, a lot of issues. However, to let some stares come in between me and the country would be more than a big shame. Understanding the stares, mostly of curiosity, is key. Despite all of the tourism, some Indians are still new to a foreign face and are interested on why they’re here. Sometimes when rickshaw drivers stared too much I would strike up a conversation, knowing that they were probably too shy to do so. It helped a lot. It also allowed me to practice my Hindi. After getting over what I thought were mean faces, I realized that it’s easy to make men, even older ones who might scare you a bit at first, crack a smile.
India has a complex culture difficult for even some Indians to understand; imagine what it’s like for an outsider? It’s our job (I think) as outsiders to observe and reflect, but not judge; as of now, especially when new to a country, it’s not our responsibility. I am sorry for those who come to India, a place that I can call home now, and feel alienated or objectified; however, it all just depends on your perspective. I chose to use the strange feelings and transform them into opportunities, to start conversations and to understand something and someone that I might never have the opportunity to do again; I never lost out on a good one and am so happy that I did.