Sunday, March 30, 2014

Once upon a time, I was an idiot. An idiot I continue to be.

A few years ago, I was at a social gathering where I was the only non-White.  An elderly gentleman, with whom I shared the table as we had cake and coffee, asked me "if you are from India, how come you are not wearing a turban?"

Whenever I tell such stories of interactions across cultures, and of people asking me questions like that, or "I bet you cook spicy food" only because I am from India, most people think that perhaps I get offended with each and every interaction along those lines.  I do not.

I am not offended when people ask me questions, or make remarks, if those came out of a sheer lack of awareness about the complexity of India, or because of their complete newness to who I am.  After all, we are not born with all the wisdom about this world and we have to consciously work towards learning about our fellow humans and our different ways in which we eat, live, love, die. Unfortunately, we are often too lazy to engage in this--it is way easier to stick to what we knew and how we want to view the world.

When I started graduate school, which was also my first ever exposure to people from the world over, it was humbling to realize that I knew nothing at all and that I was pretty much starting from a blank slate.  I found that most of what I knew--and I thought I was well-informed!!!--were atrocious caricatures.  In 1987, I was still thinking of Chinese women and their feet binding.  When a grad student from Syria was emotionally discussing with me "Zionism is racism" I realized that I had no grasp of the finer points other than the big picture of there are some serious issues out there.  I didn't even have a clue that Nigerians ate spicy foods.  Or that I would love Greek music.  It was quite a realization that it is a huge world out there!

Life since then has been a work in progress.  It is too damn slow a progress for my liking, but I do know for certain that I have progressed a little bit more than where I was, and am hoping that I am inching along in the correct direction.

Which is why I am not at all offended when people ask me questions because of the limited exposure they have had.

I certainly am offended when people who ought to know and behave better do not, and make comments to me or anybody else that piss me off.  Like how in my early years of teaching in Oregon faculty colleagues often chatted with me only on topics about India--they ought to have known better than that, and should have known that just because I am from India it does not mean that I know only all things Indian.  That they can chat with me about "normal" stuff too--about American sports and American politics and American movies and American music.  An American, am I not?  Or about the global topics.  Not talking with me anymore, and excommunicating me from their tribe, has certainly taken care of this problem ;)

A new academic term begins tomorrow.  I will try my best to provide students with opportunities to proceed along in this enterprise of understanding the world in which we coexist.  If experience has taught me anything, it is this: not to expect too much, and take even an itsy bitsy tiny positive change as a huge success.

Here is to looking forward to an itsy bitsy tiny positive change.

BTW, yes, I did find out that Chinese women bind their feet no more.


Ramesh said...

Indeed - can we even begin to appreciate all the wonderful and myriad cultures around the world. Travel helps, at least to understand how much we do not understand !

There is a thin line between ignorance and condescension. The former is fine. The latter is a bit more difficult.

On foot binding - the origins seem to be obscure, but the practice really came into prominence during the Song dynasty. That was one of the highest points of culture in Chinese history - probably at that time the Song Dynasty was the greatest culture in the world. And yet, such a terrible practice also grew at the same time. Complex, our cultures are, isn't it ?

Sriram Khé said...

Travel helps a lot, yes. But then it all comes down to our own individual selves--the people who travel to places in different cultures but do not go beyond the clicking photos at touristy spots might not learn much about how much we do not understand the world. I have seen plenty of those types, unfortunately :(

Yes, crazy that societies with high culture simultaneously have awful things too. Even now ...

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