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Learning to See Through Their Eyes

Kelly Pflaum

In May 2010, I participated in a Concordia College May Seminar with the English department that went around the world. Although I have traveled to various countries in the past, this trip was my first experience visiting a non-Western country, traveling to Hong Kong, India and Egypt as part of our itinerary.

While our small group of seven students and two professors, all of whom were white, clearly stood out as a minority in all of these countries, there was nowhere that I felt more like an outsider than in India. Our four-day stay in India was filled mostly with visiting the major tourist attractions of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, including the Taj Mahal and the Amber Fort. Together, the three cities are known as the Golden Triangle. Since we stayed in the highly toured areas, I expected the Indian people to be used to seeing white people and to not be too interested in us. Boy, was I wrong!

Entering into the Jama Mosque in Delhi, everyone is required to remove their shoes, and women must put on a full-body gown provided at the entrance. Our group did as was required, then proceeded into the mosque. We gathered into a small group, where we were listening to our Indian guide talk about the history of the mosque. This being our first day in India and our first real tourist destination, what happened next was remarkable to us. Indians, mostly men but some women, instantly began to gather around our group until we were surrounded. There were easily a dozen of them, and they just stared, very obviously. None of them tried to communicate with us, but when we started to head towards the exit, their eyes followed us all the way to the stairs where we had left our shoes. We assumed they were staring because of the difference in our appearance from their own, a sort of judgmental action.

As we walked down the street back to our bus, a second, very different phenomenon occurred. We were all of a sudden bombarded with Indian men and very young children all trying to get us to buy whatever they happened to be selling. They were yelling and grabbing at our arms, just hoping we would be naive enough to give them money for their goods. On other occasions, we were approached by people wanting to take photos of us. Some people would not ask permission but would simply stick a phone or camera in our faces to capture the difference of our group in their Indian society. No matter where we went outside of our hotel or our bus, our group was made into a spectacle.

Being a white tourist in a non-white world made for judgments from both sides. I certainly felt as though we were being harassed for being white, which is definitely a new feeling for someone coming from America. I figured the Indian people must have a stereotype, as I am sure many other cultures do, that white Americans are wealthy. This was expressed in their aggressive hawking of goods anytime we stepped onto the street.

Now, I do not want to come off sounding like I had a horrible time interacting with these Indian people, because that is not at all the case. One afternoon, a few of us ventured out in an auto rickshaw--a small, three-wheeled motor vehicle used as a means of public transport--through the streets of Jaipur, and actually were able to talk to the driver and get to know him. This was the first time we went out and tried to experience India on a more cultural level, without the assistance of a local guide, rather than watching it roll past our tour bus windows. This particular experience made me see some of our other experiences in a new light. After talking with our rickshaw driver, I began to believe that the Indian people had a genuine curiosity about our foreign culture. I do not think any of their actions, such as staring or picture taking--as uncomfortable as they may have made me feel--were intended to make me feel that way.

India has many poor residents who will never get to see the world like I have been so fortunate to do, and perhaps their stares and picture-taking are their only ways of experiencing foreign culture. We may be able to go to faraway places to experience the world, but they may have to let the world come to them through tourists. I certainly think that I held judgments and ethnocentric views against the Indian people while I was there simply because I was not used to the attention that they placed on us. However, once I was able to take a step back and really think about why they might be doing some of the things they do, I realized that they share the same curiosity about the world as I do.

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