I miss anonymity. It was one of the things that most attracted me to New York City. The sense of millions of people, each in their own world, not required to pay attention to even their neighbor, let alone someone of a different color. In India staring is not considered rude. New York is such a diverse city, and in my neighborhood of South Harlem, I’d hardly say I, as a white girl, am a common sight. But even as a minority in the predominately African neighborhood, I have a certain sense of privacy. Nobody really cares. New Yorkers are pretty happy to totally ignore each other unless someone’s in their way. If someone looks at me on the street it’s usually a man commenting on my pretty face or my ass. Even this is can deal with! I’ve even come to appreciate this unfair, but unavoidable form of street harassment. More likely though, nobody even bothers to give me a second glance.
But here in India I’m feeling the full effects of being a minority in a culture that doesn’t find anything wrong with staring at the unfamiliar. Thankfully, the neighborhood of Gokulam where our yoga shala is located is immune to this, due to the high number of white western students that visit the shala yearly to study at the KPJAYI. The residents of the community have pretty much embraced us (both the sight of us, and the power of our wallets), and I don’t ever feel uncomfortable here. But to leave the confines of the yoga community is to really become visible.
Children usually say hi to me. If it’s a small, curious, seemingly well-behaved group I usually say hi back, or at least smile. Women state at my hair and clothes. Men stare, but not in a sexually harassing way, in fact there is an overwhelming sense of asexuality in this entire city. I’ve never felt objectified; partly of course because of the modest clothes I’m careful to wear. But I’m sure to get stares from many people, wherever I go.
The most frustrating experience I had with this was certainly my trip to Chamundi Hill. The Chamundi Hills lie on the outskirts of Mysore and are one of eight sacred hills in south India. According to legend the goddess Chamundeswari killed a demon here and there is a temple dedicated to her on the summit of the hill. About half way down the just over 1000 steps is a statue of Shiva’s bull. This is a holy site. This is also a tourist attraction; it’s also a common field trip for youngsters in the area.
One the afternoon I visited with my friend Shanna, we took a rickshaw to the top of the hill and planned to walk down. We quickly realized it wouldn’t be the relaxing and spiritual afternoon we’d anticipated. Kids, mostly boys, from age 8 or 9 all the way to age 15 or 16, mobbed us. A few girls talked to us and wanted to know where we were from, but they were gentle and shy. The boys followed us down the entire hill. I’m sure they were the kind of kids that would create a ruckus no matter the situation, and it’s certainly not indicative of the entire Indian population of pre-teen boys. I certainly felt harassed by them. They threw bottles at us to get our attention. They wanted to touch us. A particularly mischievous bunch would even stop and taunt us each time we tried to pause to let them pass us. We’d motion for them to continue and they’d reply, “oh we take rest now,” only to get up and follow us. We turned to ignoring them, and even at a low point, to yelling and feigning an open palm, ready to slap! This trip down a holy hill quickly became a test of our emotional stability.
When I told my boyfriend, he smiled and responded, “suddenly not so east being white, huh?” I understand that it’s silly to feel a victim because of my white skin. Certainly I am not a “minority” in the larger sense of the word. People of my skin color have long made those of darker skins and different races to feel small and inferior and unimportant. I have no connection to these feelings of racism in any context. I just find the feeling of discomfort in my own skin here in India a new and interesting experience. Another interesting part of the equation is the prevalence of skin whitening creams and procedures. The darker south Indians actually want to have whiter, lighter skin! Do they know about the tanning craze we have in the west? That all we want is to have a healthy deep glow to our skin. Is this just a classic case of the grass is greener, or is a deeper cultural issue, a classic case of culture shock on both our sides?
Aside from the boys on Chamnudi Hill, I have really felt welcome here, despite the staring. The picture at the top of the post shows a window full of sweet, curious kids at a school I visited. The residents of Mysore seem to just be interested. Next time I’m in India, I’ll be more prepared for this experience. It’s unavoidable. Thankfully, every day I spend here I feel more comfortable, but still some days I have an urge to don a veil just to stop the stares!