Monday, April 02, 2007

Alien-Celebrity status

Now I know what it feels like to be Jennifer Aniston, if Jennifer Aniston was also a purple-ish green color with antennae and an extra set of arms and legs. Or at least I imagine that my experience and the alien version of Jennifer Aniston have something in common. For one, I get stared at everywhere I go. Not everyone stares, but most do, at least the first time they see me. I think of my skin as part of the normal range of human colors, but because in India foreigners are relatively scarce, it sometimes feels like I must be purple and green. They discuss it amongst themselves. "Look how white she is, how pale..." And they tell me directly, "Your skin is such a light color. It's very beautiful." Sometimes they comment on things like tan lines, if any are showing, or the presence of small brown moles. But by far my most common experience is being called "vellai-kari" which just means white woman, by large crowds of children. They scream, and point, and tell their friends to look. "Hey look, over there, hey-da, it's a white woman!" If the children are too young to understand that they should be pointing at me and calling out "vellai-kari" their mothers usually whisper it to them, and then tell them to say "ta-ta" as in "bye". From my cultural perspective it seems like they just want me to go away. I'm sure there is some other logic involved, and maybe I will start asking why they say that. In any case, my presence pretty much never goes unremarked.

I should add here that this is in no way a judgment of people, but rather my perspective on my experiences. I understand that they are curious, and in their situation I'm sure I would be too. I know I have done similar things to foreigners in the U.S., on occasion. Even knowing that, it still makes me uncomfortable. One reason it is so uncomfortable is the fact that it comes across as reverse racism. Some people go on to tell me how ugly their own skin tone is. Another problem is that I understand what they're saying. So even when they think they can talk about me without my knowing, I comprehend what they are saying. This happened to another friend of mine as well. She had somewhat of an acne problem. Some women on the bus noticed, and began discussing in Tamil how ugly they thought she was. Even when she told them she could understand they kept talking about her. It was very hurtful to her to hear people discussing that. Anyway, please don't take this as a negative judgment of the culture, but rather as an account of my frustrations with the limits of my own understanding.

I posted before here about the amazing pattern of similarity between people in Tamil Nadu and the questions they inevitably ask me when they meet me for the first time. "What are you doing here?" "What are you studying?" "How old are you?" "Are you married?" These are the most common questions, and I was asked again today, by relatively small children. I guess you could say kinship matters. After being told that I am not married, people usually ask either: "Why not?" or "Would you consider marrying an Indian?" And today, on top of being asked by a group of small children, I was also asked by an adult man, who proceeded to give me a full 10 minute discourse on why I should marry an Indian. It was all in Tamil, and I didn't understand every word, but one of his first reasons was that I have studied and learned Tamil, and in India this will cause men to be interested in me, but in America, men will not care that I have learned Tamil, and then my learning Tamil will have been a waste. In addition, in India, I have the positive feature of being foreign, and thus being more attractive to men, while in America, I am just like all the other women, and will have a much harder time finding a husband. He made several other points as well, but I didn't understand them as clearly. There was something to do with the central government (of India) giving some kind of benefits to my (future) children, and something that sounded like the idea of them (my future children) having dual citizenship, and access to the amenities of the west. It was an interesting conversation to say the least.

All in all it was a pretty average day. I was stared at almost constantly in public, got asked personal questions that I don't really like answering, got lectured on how to live my life by a total stranger, and was generally treated as an object rather than a person. I know this summary makes it seem pretty horrible, and honestly, it feels that way sometimes. My sister has now coined the term cultural depression. It came about because I happened to mention that I didn't leave the house all weekend. I didn't go out on either Saturday or Sunday for anything. She said, "So, you're depressed." And I said no I'm not in general, just sometimes I don't feel like facing the world outside." And she said, "So, it's situational depression." I said, "No it's cultural. It's not really depression. It's just that sometimes I feel like I can't face the fact that it's India outside my door." So she concluded, "It's cultural depression." And I'd have to say that's pretty accurate. I've been in India a long time now, and before coming to Thanjavur, I felt like I was pretty well adjusted to the situation. Over the culture shock, and adapted to the various differences in the daily life. But Thanjavur is different in that it lacks the same kind of community of American friends that I had in Madurai. Without at least a few people to hang around and just be my own cultural self, I guess I do begin to feel a little depressed. Partly, it's due to the objectification, which in itself isn't SO horrible, but is rather frustrating because it takes the place of culturally satisfying interactions.

Here is my (psycho-cultural) analysis of the situation: I, as an extrovert, and generally as a human being, depend on receiving what I perceive to be positive feedback from people around me. I would say the simplest form is the American "friendly smile". The smile, that as a part of American facial expressions means, "you're ok," "I like you," or simply "hello". But without any Americans (or other westerners) around, and when most of my interactions involve people stereotyping and objectifying me, I don't get the quotient of positive feedback that reinforces my sense of self worth. Not only do I not receive this culturally conditioned form of psychological stimulant, I have to restrain myself from showing that friendly smile to a large portion of the population here. The largest portion that I have to refrain from smiling at are men, because, what in America is considered a friendly smile, in India is viewed as interest or an invitation. Further, giving people, men or women, that friendly smile is what most often precipitates them feeling comfortable enough to ask me the long list of personal questions I'd rather not answer.

Certainly I am not trying to argue against having cross-cultural friendships. They can be wonderful things. Though they often require a large expenditure of energy in order to come to an understanding about the simplest things. One positive aspect of these cross-cultural friendships for me is the practice I get in speaking Tamil. For instance tonight, we were discussing William Shakespeare, about whom my 16 year old friend, the younger sister in this family, is studying in school. She said they were reading the stories of Shakespeare, and in her experience they were all comedies. I said, "No, there are comedies, tragedies and histories." She asked about the most famous example of a tragedy, and I immediately said Romeo and Juliet. Then she and her mother asked me to summarize the story of Romeo and Juliet in Tamil. So I did. It was certainly a challenge, but I think I did alright.

I am certainly happy to have made a few friends, however hard it may be to communicate and understand each other. I just hope I get accustomed to this new version of the Indian cultural experience, and get over my "cultural depression" soon. It's no good for me to be here, if I'm constantly wishing I were somewhere else. I wish I had something more positive to say in conclusion, but I think it will have to wait for another post. So stay tuned...