Hello from Delhi,
In puzzling over what my first post from India should say, I decided to be more philosophical, real and shy away from the day to day narrative of my life here. Perhaps that will come later. This post, however, is more of a reflection on my evolution of thought, as an Indian adoptee.
Long have I yearned to live here, back among “my people,” hoping, praying, wishing that actually spending significant amounts of time on India’s soil, I would be more “Indian.” But what does that mean? India is after all many people, thousands of places, languages galore. Not one characteristic can describe all of India, except for maybe, “crowded.” But for me, India conjured up visions of acceptance, familiarity, the sense of being an insider and one of the crowd. That is not the reality here at all.
I do not feel any more Indian today than I did three weeks ago, eating dinner, anxiously awaiting my plane while sitting in my parents’ dining room. Did something go wrong? Am I unhappy with my choice you ask? Surely this is not AJ who for the last ten years of his life constantly reminded everyone that “I’m moving to India, at some point,” and waxed poetically about how great that experience would be?
But alas, it is. I am the same person, who glowingly spoke of the wondrous opportunity it would be to live in my birth country again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely grateful that I can live here. I’m proud to be of Indian heritage and I’m very thrilled with the opportunity to experience India for an extended period of time. But…
I tried to tell myself I had no expectations coming here; that wasn’t the case. I did think that finally being here, living among Indians, working with them, navigating their roads, buying in their markets, trying to discern their language, etc., would somehow make me feel more legitimately Indian.
However, I feel as much as an outsider back in the land of my birth than I did outside of it. I’ve referenced these feelings here and again in this post. There are a few reasons for this, and I’ll look into each of them briefly.
• I just don’t fit. I’m brown skinned, yet pretty clueless about cultural India, communication mores and societal norms. I’m not Hindu. My parents are not Indian. My world view is decidedly Western. When I go somewhere to buy practically anything that doesn’t have a price tag on it, I immediately feel like a school-aged child in my helpless comprehension of all that is happening around me. I’m constantly processing, and in doing so, all my actions are delayed. Over time, I’m confident the processing will accelerate, but the first sentences remain truth.
• I don’t speak the language. And though everyone supposedly speaks English here, it’s not the prevalent tongue that I hear daily on the streets. When I begin to speak in English one of two things happens. They either stare at me in amusement/wonderment, curious as to why I don’t know the language, since I’m clearly brown. Or they completely ignore me and pretend not to hear as I ask them for translation help. Neither situation is ideal. And when/if I explain that I don’t know the language, the disapproving looks are for my assumed Indian parents, who neglected to raise me properly with the language.
• Community, family ties, and your lineage–all of those concepts are enormous here. Much, much more than anywhere I’ve ever lived and certainly more than in the U.S. So I’m a relative “zero,” to them. They don’t know where I came from, they don’t know if my family has a good reputation, I have no standing in their world, and am without any credentials.
There’s nothing I can do about this. Everywhere I sign formal papers–the lease to my apartment, the agreement to my mobile, my Wi-Fi contract, etc–there are always two words which are, I assume, extremely rare in American contracts of similar ilk: “son of.” So I write down “son of David Bryant,” as if penning my father’s name down ascribes status to my contractual documents. I chuckle to myself, if they could see Mr. David Bryant, I wonder what they’d say.
Those are just three reasons why India has been difficult for me so far.
Sometimes I’ll be taking an auto-rickshaw back to my flat late at night, and say to myself aloud. “I’m really living here, in India, this is crazy.”
Most of my daily life isn’t all that much different from the life I left behind in DC on some levels. I wake up, making sure I do so a half hour early, in order for my water to heat. Then scarf down oats, milk and sugar as my usual breakfast and walk four minutes to work.
Actually when I leave my flat in the morning, I remember I’m in India again. Usually I’m nearly run off the road, because I’m still getting the traffic rules down here. Traffic rules, actually that’s a misnomer. The main roads have actual laws; neighborhoods exist in some form of organized chaos. You just have to move out of the way when people honk at you, which they do constantly. As you do so, you hope that your sidestepping doesn’t land you in a puddle of what may or may not be water, or in the path of another car, rickshaw, motorcycle, bicycle or animal.
I live in quite an affluent neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to see Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, along with other European luxury cars in driveways. But again, I’m in India, so while I see conspicuous wealth, I’ll also see giant cows lazily sleeping on driveways, aggressive monkeys jumping towards people with food, and stray dogs all over the place.
India is a land of contrasts.
I had forgotten just how much of one. In the West, particularly the US, poor folks live in one section of town, rich in another. Rarely do both sides co-exist together. But in India, there’s no choice in the matter. Insane wealth lives side by side with grinding, gritty poverty. It’s the reality.
At night when I’m walking home, I pass the guards, giving security to the gorgeous houses of my neighborhoods and they’re huddled outside, usually with the fellow guards, around an open fire, chattering away. I don’t know where the guards sleep for the other houses, but I know the guard that works at my house doesn’t live on the property.
Everyone has a maid. Though I work for a group that seeks to end caste discrimination and advocates for the marginalized classes of India, my office has a maid. It’s a perplexing and yet at the same time, simple concept. Do I get one because “everyone,” else has one? Let’s be honest, when is the next time in my life that I would be able to get someone to clean my floors, do my laundry, etc? Not anytime soon, especially not with a degree in peace and conflict resolution. We’re not known as the money-makers.
But then part of me says, but if I hire a maid, aren’t I just perpetuating the idea which is so anathema to me: that inherently some people are better than others? I’m torn. Another argument is that because I’m an American and wealthy by standards here, I could pay/tip them extremely generously and therefore make some small difference in their life. Lastly, some say, they are already doing the job, you asking a current one to add another house to her list isn’t going to change anything at all. But unlike the world in which I live at home, I see domestic servant hood as being the final stage here.
Let me elaborate on that idea. There’s finality to one’s station in life here. Meaning what people are doing, in the lower classes is “just what they do,” they aren’t going to do something different. If you’re educated, the world is your oyster. But if you are say a sweeper, or a maid or a fruit seller, I never get the impression that you will be anything more in life. That’s not the case in the Western world, certainly not the US, where we preach that education and hard work will lead to better opportunities and then see that lived out daily. In India I see people who are permanently “stuck.” They probably have no prospects for education, they aren’t going to suddenly learn a new skill, what they do in their 20s is going to be what they do until they die.
In the states, people hit hard times, they may take a job that is less becoming of their education or how they view themselves, but it’s only for a little while, while they save up for something better again. Or just to keep food on the table while times are rough. But usually it’s just a stop-gap measure until their finances improve. I don’t see that mindset here. If you were born with nothing here, then you remain with nothing, generally.
And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a backlash by them or by anyone else against this. In fact because of the importance of saving face and reputation here, people are afraid to ever speak up, to say something smarter than their superiors, to make it look in anyway as though they aren’t completely thrilled with the way their lives have turned out. It’s such a different concept from the Protestant work ethic that the US was founded upon.
Perhaps I’m totally wrong about this all. I do live in the city, where these generalities can look more valid. I will let you know as I travel around India, if I feel the same way. One of the reasons for the lack of upward mobility surely has to do with India’s population, which is way too big for it’s land size. There are just way too many people here– it’s totally unsustainable, but it’s the reality. Certainly another reason must be the caste system and its hierarchy, but that’s not for this post. I’ll share some thoughts on that later on. We’re not opening that can of worms yet.
So those are my initial thoughts as a returning adoptee in the land of my birth. I know I was naive when I came here, but don’t read the previous paragraphs and feel bad about my disillusionment. I’m actually happy that I can just live here, and try to soak it all in, instead of trying to make India “do something for me or create something in me.”
There’s plenty of learning I’ll be doing here, about India and about myself. This is just the first month. India totally overwhelms one’s senses. I’ve tried to wrap my head around the underlying things I witness on a daily basis here and share them with you.
I’d love to know your thoughts and comments.