For me, visiting India is not like touring other countries.
An average night is getting somewhere between ten and fifteen mosquito bites in spite of however much Odomos I apply, trying to fall asleep in a rock-hard cot in 90-degree weather as I try my best not to scratch the rashes from prickly heat or my eczema which has suddenly flared back to life. The fan doesn’t work, since Madurai and Trichi get frequent, unscheduled power cuts, and I lay awake wondering just how insulted my relatives would really be if we slept in a hotel.
During the day you lean back against a hot, cement wall, exhausted with the three or four hours of sleep you got the night before. You stare warily at the food that’s presented to you. Surely it must be three or four people’s worth. You try and explain that you really can’t eat that much, and that between the diarrhea and stomach cramps, even if you did, you’d probably vomit it all out. You try and not insult your hosts as best you can, but you simply cannot eat that much. Some relatives sniff and mumble how ‘regular water’ is apparently too good for you, since you’re a big man from America now. Only the best bottled water for the sensitive Americans.
Inevitably, three or four days in, you fall sick. Every. Single. Time.
It’s not that my relatives are trying to be difficult. If anything, they’re trying to be extra-welcoming and accommodating. We see them so infrequently, and they’re generally very excited to see us. Generally. They’re behaving how good, Indian hosts ought to behave. Be hospitable, don’t take no for an answer, and never let a guest leave without a full belly.
And some of the things they say, similarly, are just not insulting in Indian culture. It’s common for people to remark on others’ weight (negatively or positively). “Oh man how come you’ve gotten so skinny? You looked much better before!” Or equally common, “You’ve become quite fat, haven’t you?” These are just simple comments that, in their eyes, are just the plain truth of the matter. Why would anyone be insulted by a fact?
Or, perhaps more commonly, “So you’re working now. How big is the package?” I bluster and try and pretend I don’t understand, only to be met with “Package, package! Salary, you know package. How big is the package?” In India, it’s quite common for even strangers to ask about private financial details simply because it’s not viewed as private there. If anything, it would be rude not to. Any good host will want to congratulate their guest on how well-off they are, particularly in a country where wealth is still so uncommon.
Privacy doesn’t really exist, yet, in Indian culture. I think because so many have so little, sharing becomes the obvious thing, rather than a polite thing like it is in the US. If you have a smartphone, it’s expected that you allow people to play with it, thumb through your apps, etc. I’ve walked in on relatives idly fingering through my passport or other documents - not malicious in anyway, just out of simple curiosity. And if I’m only seeing them for three or four days every three years or more, is it really worth explaining that these things aren’t okay? Probably not. Just bear with it and move on.
Bearing with it is the general theme of all visits to India. I bear with the food and weather that makes me sick; I bear with relatives asking me deeply probing questions; I bear with personal space and privacy violations constantly; and worst of all, I bear with people looking at me as if I were a child who didn’t know basic manners.
That is the great irony of cultures meeting. Things that so many people take for granted are simply not known by the other party, and so it’s natural that animosity might spring up. Take eating for example. South Indian Brahmins have a concept called Echal, which roughly translates to dirty or unclean. For Indians, the saliva is probably the least clean part of the body. Echal has many rules - you don’t touch your plate with your left hand, ever, because that’s the hand you use to serve food. If you touch cooked items, like rice, with your left hand, you wash it before touching curries. There are numerous more, but suffice it to say it’s complex.
Growing up in America, no one really cares about these archaic rules. My relatives stare at me like I’m inept - and from their point of view, I probably am. Even children know these basic rules. No doubt I’m irking them as much as they irritate me. And from my point of view, I don’t care how dirty you think I am, I’m simply not eating a dosa that you dropped onto the floor on which we all walk! Traditionally, after you eat (on the floor), you wash it with water. But even more traditionally, you are meant to use a little bit of cow dung. So now my dosa has touched the floor that’s been cleaned with cow dung. And you think my cleanly-washed left hand touching my plate is what’s unclean?
You can imagine how the conversations go.
But perhaps the most infuriating aspect of going to India is the phone policies. In India, picking up a call is free since the caller pays. And, since frugality is something on which Indians pride themselves, the culture has evolved to where it’s never considered rude to pick up a call, no matter what context you’re in. We stood in line for six hours at a state bank, only to have the teller talk on the phone for twenty minutes when it was our turn. There are few things that try one’s patience as much. How anyone has important business meetings in such an environment is beyond me. I’ve had cases where we only had two hours to spend at an uncle’s house, and they spent nearly the entire time talking to someone else on the phone! See you in another six years I guess. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
And of course, all of this is without mentioning the elephant in the room that is the caste system. Older relatives (and even some not-so-old!) will inevitably sit you down and convince you how marrying a non-brahmin will lead to your downfall; the Gods work in mysterious ways, and in some ominous future you will reap terror should you do so. All of which of course is a roundabout way of saying, “Well, we can’t prove that anything bad will happen, but God works mysteriously - and besides, the proof is there, you just can’t see it.” As I roll my eyes and let the senile banter wash over me, I can’t help but wonder what real tourists to India do.
Surely, they must have a fun time?
And all of this gets infinitely worse once I meet my boy-cousins. Indian boys - particularly Indian boys who are only children and are the eldest in their family group - are the worst spoiled brats you can ever meet. They’re treated as princes from day one, and the girl children are all taught to defer and dote after them. Cook for them, clean for them, do anything they ask, and if a single thing doesn’t go their way, the boys throw a temper tantrum. Is it any wonder that they turn out so wretched?
My male cousins have done the following: snap at their mothers for attention rather than addressing them as a human being; clap their hands to get their grandmother’s attention; kick my baby brother across the room because they wanted to get a TV remote; and, possibly best of all, steal my belongings and wonder why I got upset. Their entire life they’ve been brought up to be ungrateful - so much so that if, after a long and hard day of work, my aunt doesn’t prepare a perfect meal, they’ll simply get up and walk to the restaurant next door and eat there instead, remarking on how awful the food was.
I suppose the worst part of it is this strange smugness that pervades the air; we were born Brahmins and that somehow absolves us of all our character flaws. Meanwhile, they prance around judging others for their birth and dismissing all the virtues they worked hard to earn. Eventually, my anger at the hypocrisy fades to indifference as I start ignoring them completely. Honestly, I’ll only be here for a couple weeks. What do their opinions matter? And so I shrug it all off and spend the next few weeks in a cloud of uncaring ignorance.
All my Indian-Indian friends smile and laugh - “Oh I can’t believe you got to go to India, I’m so jealous. I can’t wait for my next trip.” I smile and nod. Perhaps in three years it will be long enough for me to forget how irritating India trips often are. It’s not something I enjoy; it’s not something I look forward to. It’s something I bear because I have to.
And it’s not all bad. I visit some friends from US that moved back, and some of our family friends who aren’t so traditional make life there more bearable. We usually tactically schedule those visits right in the middle of our trip, so that as we reach the breaking point and are about to leave early, we have a nice reprieve with people who have some semblance of sanity.
I’ve never felt as American as when I visit India. Conversely, I’ve never felt as Indian as when I speak with Caucasian American families. It’s definitely not a unique situation - I think most first-generation children feel stuck in between two cultures in which they belong to neither.
Visiting India is painful partly because I’ve told myself and nearly every American I’ve met that I am, undeniably, Indian. And going back is an irrefutable slap in the face that I’m most certainly not Indian. I read and write Tamil at about a fifth grade level; my knowledge of my own Smarta tradition is sorely lacking; heck I don’t even know the basic geography of India besides the three or four places my family goes to visit relatives.
At best, I suppose I can claim a loose cultural connection with India. I take off my shoes before entering someone’s house. I’m vegetarian. I understand colloquial Tamil. I know some few Hindu prayers. And I think studies are very important.
And for the most part, I’ve done my best to try and learn more. I’ve YouTube-ed and Wikipedia-ed my way to some satisfactory knowledge base of Hindu traditions. I’ve taken Tamil classes, and I’ve subjected myself to numerous Tamil movies to try and maintain this connection - all out of some vague sense of familial obligation.
Many of my friends joke about how I’m a coconut - brown on the outside, white on the inside. Usually comments like this have bothered me, but for the first time, I think I can honestly say: No. I don’t want to be Indian.
Thanks very much, but you can keep that title all to yourself. Enjoy your cow dung.
Of course, there is no one, unique Indian culture. India itself speaks around 700 languages, and traditions vary immensely from area to area - even within states. Heck, we weren’t even a single country until the British deemed it so. So it’s hard to say.
I can very well imagine that people who have families in larger cities who are more modern have a completely different experience. They look at my family - the Indian equivalent of hicks from villages - and can’t help but stare.
And many of these issues are problems that simply exist within any family - like my diabetic grandmother who can’t understand why we won’t ‘share’ chocolates and candy with her. She’ll insist with righteous anger that if we mistreat her in this way, she’ll just leave. We all stare and wonder if she understands what diabetes is (she does, by the way - age truly does not confer maturity nor wisdom, merely the opportunity for both).
Visiting India isn’t all bad, in case that wasn’t clear enough. I just need to get the point across to all those Indian friends and relatives who simply cannot fathom that visiting India could be anything less than the perfect vacation.
In general, I think many intellectuals in America have this strange, unproven notion that all cultures are equal in some undefinable sense. I’m not sure how this came about, since we know for a fact that not all people are equal, and it’s demonstrably untrue that all groups of people are equal; yet, the opinion stands and if anything, only grows stronger. The Indian culture of eating 80% rice for every meal has produced diseases unique to us, and yet you’ll find people defending that diet tooth and nail without any regards to evidence. The Indian culture has relegated millions of people to a life of poverty simply based on their birth. And I’ve seen firsthand how the Indian culture has spoiled good boys and men into pricks who make the lives of women miserable.
Here is usually where historians and scholars step up and talk about how the caste system wasn’t nearly so damning before British colonization, and how codifying it made it worse and how the British are responsible for everything. Bah. I wonder how long they get to point at someone else without ever taking responsibility for their own actions. They’ll point the finger at the British while maintaining that Dalits are unclean and shouldn’t be let inside the house. Quite an impressive hold the British have.
In general I’m very skeptical of the notion of ‘culture’; it’s just shorthand for ‘shit we’ve always done and will continue to do because we’re scared to try anything else.’ I’m not really sure why I should respect that - particularly in light of the outcomes we’ve seen.
A lot of people have asked me what I have against Tamil movies. I have nothing against them; I just don’t personally enjoy them. I think entertainment and distraction from the daily hardship is important - particularly for the poor in a developing country. I just find that, personally, they have no subtlety. It’s not something that’s yet appreciated in Indian culture. Take Rajini movies, for example. In nearly every movie (in which he’s a hero), it’s not enough that he’s just a normal, good guy. No, he has to be so good and so wonderfully spectacular that everyone kneels at his feet and worships at how wrong they’ve been to doubt him, etc etc. It’s so incredibly over the top.
There are very few movies where there the protagonist has a character flaw, and even fewer movies where any other character has a shade of grey. Kamal does this better than nearly everyone, but it’s still a chore for me to weed out the awful movies from the good ones.
Personally, I’ve found much the same thing in food. The flavors leap out of the plate at you; the only difference is I’ve grown up with that food, so I have a fond affection for it. In comparison, most American foods are incredibly bland. But Indians have no real appreciation for subtle tastes. Try feeding them steamed vegetables, and they’ll stare at you wondering why you haven’t added flavors to the food. Not bad, per se, just something that I’ve noticed.