Saturday, April 21, 2007

The British Weren't Movie Stars, And Neither Am I

Did you know that colonial era British people employed upwards of 100 servants while living abroad in India? All Indian of course. There were servants to hold the British people's hookah, servants to fan them, to dress them, wake them, serve them food, carry messages, manage their horses, etc. Pictures of such scenes cover the walls of the museum in the Victoria Memorial, a large colonial era monument in Kolkata.

Walking through the halls, looking at the pictures and reading the accompanying text, I was thinking to myself that if I was India, I would be f-ing pissed off at the British. Yes, it was about 60 years ago when British power in India finally ended, but still. Looking at the pictures, you can see how the British used India as their own personal playground. Just the idea that Britain called all Indians their "subjects" is galling.

As an American, I feel a certain kinship with other countries, such as India, who once suffered under British rule. However, I quite doubt that the majority of the Indian people visiting the monument assumed that I was harboring anti-British sentiments. Instead, I suspect they saw me as a member of the white "other." I started suspecting this when a young Indian man started following me around the Memorial, and then asked me for an autograph. I felt bitchy, but I politely declined. Worse yet, the reason I declined was because I had no idea what his motivations were. People are constantly coming up to you here, pretending to befriend you, giving you directions, offering assistance, only to ask for money in return. I don't begrudge them their attempts to earn some cash. However, because that is so prevalent, you start to become suspicious of everyone's motivations, and you start closing down so as to prevent an awkward situation from developing.

I also felt bizarre about the idea of giving anyone my autograph since the basis of my autographability is the fact that I'm a white American. I don't want to be infamous for that! If I had given that young man my autograph, it would have been almost like buying into racial/class/cultural stereotypes. No one should want my autograph because I'm white or because I'm an American. Both are merely accidents of my birth. The situation reminded me of walking through the streets of Playa del Carmen in Mexico where I heard more than one man say, "Hello, Movie Stars!" A movie star because I'm white and I look more like the models on the American Billboard advertisements and in the American TV shows than they believe that they do. Both scenarios made me feel uncomfortable, because I don't want to be the other.

But, it didn't stop there. Not one but two Indian families approached me shyly and asked me to take a picture with them. At first I thought that the husband wanted me to take a picture of him and his wife, so I agreed. But, no. He wanted to take a picture of his wife and me. The wife, though she did not speak to me in English, seemed very sweet, so I posed for the picture. But, afterward, to even the playing field, I had the husband take a second picture with my camera of his wife and me. Later, a young man wanted his friend to take a picture with me, and again he was really sweet (and I still felt like a Bi-atch for not signing the other boy's paper) so I agreed.

I guess the people who approached me just wanted my autograph or picture because, as a white person in India, I'm something of a novelty. Although there are most definitely many other Western travelers in India, I haven't seen a lot of them. This may be because of the sheer size of India, or it may be because not many travelers come to Kolkata. I'm not sure.

Maybe they don't link me with the British and their colonial past on the basis of my whiteness; maybe that's just coming from me (but I think an understandable conclusion when you're in a museum surrounded by pictures of white people and their Indian servants, and you're the only white person in the museum and almost everyone around you is staring at you as if you're an alien life form). As African-Americans and people of color in the U.S. know, it's disconcerting to be viewed, on the basis of your skin color, as the "other." Nevermind being the "other" because you come from (on of) the richest, most powerful countries in the world, and are assumed to be rich and to support the actions of your moronic President. It causes you to do things like reach out to other people of your same color looking at Lonely Planets in book shops; not because they're white, because they, like you, are also experiencing being the other, and sometimes it's nice to be around people going through the same experience.

Luckily, I don't feel like the "other" at all with the activists that I'm working with. They could not be more welcoming, amazing, and inspiring. Tomorrow, I'm going to spend the day with two of them, going to two temples in the North of the city and then where ever else they feel like showing me around. I'm psyched. They're both super cool, incredibly smart, and very sweet, and I think we're going to have a lot of fun. It's always better to see a place through the eyes of people living in the area. It allows you to ditch the tourist, "other" identity, and just relax into the enjoyment of getting to know new people and experiencing new things. It also guarantees that I won't be ripped off tomorrow! Yay!


Starshine said...

What an experience you're having! There is always an added level of exhaustion that comes when one travels and moves about in a culture that is not her own. :)

Thanks for keeping us posted on your experiences.

Buttercup said...

Starshine - I'm definitely experiencing a little culture shock, which is in part what I wanted, but you're right it can be a little exhausting!

Prue said...

I am so impressed that you're volunteering with an aid organization during your vacation. That is really wonderful and I hope to hear all about that experience as well as all of the other adventures you have in India.

Sparky Duck said...

ya know you could have signed it buttercup