— Stared at, gawked at, photographed, pinched by sleazy men, feeling small and sometimes utterly helpless are just the few of the ups and downs I got to go through as a minority in India. “He who angers you, conquers you.” This could not be truer in a country where being fair-skinned makes you the minority, a first time experience for me.
I first realized that I was going to get to experience what it felt to be different when I sat waiting in the terminal in Dubai to board the final plane of my journey to India. As I looked around, it was then that I truly realized that I was the only one with fair skin getting ready to step onto the aircraft and that my world as I knew it was about to drastically change.
Stepping off the airplane in Mumbai was just as terrifying as boarding and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time. Not knowing exactly where to go, the heat hitting me like a winter blanket in my wool socks and sweatshirt I had dawned before leaving the cold forty-eight hours earlier. Going through customs was the easy part even though no one spoke English and no sign anywhere was legible to me.
After being shuffled through customs, security, and more security, I found myself at baggage claim waiting anxiously to see if my backpack had made it, through all three transfers on its’ journey from Spokane. Sure enough, after thirty minutes of intense waiting, being stared at and wondering just exactly I had gotten myself into, my bag emerged from the curtain and I almost cried.
But even now that I had successfully navigated through customs and had my luggage, I still had to find the people from K.K. travels that are supposed to take me to the guest house. They were actually there, misspelt name on the sign and everything. After being shuffled into a van, I had my first experience of having someone rip me off. The driver demanded a tip while pretending not to speak English, which I gave 200INR, later being told that 20INR would have been sufficient. A note to future travelers to the Pune program – you are not expected to give the driver of KK travels ANY money at all, it is paid for and a tip is not required.
A bit of background information: before we leave for this program, we are assured that the driver that will be there to pick us up will know where we are going and we won’t have to worry about a thing. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. The fact was, they didn’t know where they were supposed to take me (even though this had been set up by the Dabak’s, our local program coordinators, days ago) and if it wouldn’t have been for me having written the address and phone number down as well as printed the final e-mails, I never would have gotten where I was supposed to go. In fact, I would probably still be wondering around Mumbai lost, alone, and scared!
Over the past six weeks there have been a few things that I have learned and observed about Indian culture and about being a minority immersed in that culture. First and foremost you need to exercise what we in the fire service call “situational awareness” all the time whether you are paying for a rickshaw or simply crossing the street. In a very dynamic culture, everything is ever moving and changing and you’ve got to stay one step ahead to just keep up. The feeling of being small and inadequate gives me empathy for those who have ever been discriminated against because of their skin color. Just today at the coffee shop, three Indian men were blatantly served their food and coffee before me even though they came in fifteen minutes after me.
Without this experience, I feel as though I would never have gotten the chance to really feel what it was like to be discriminated against based on my skin color. It has been life altering. The feeling of being dissected and torn apart like a human cadaver has given me great empathy for generations of colored people who have had to suffer. Seeing the world through their eyes, a true minority, is something that I could have never guessed would hurt as bad as it does, for myself and those people who still have to live this reality every day.