At times, being in India brings a strange-but-welcome sort of loneliness. Having now spent many months here on successive trips, I have found myself to be a solitary traveler. I enjoy keeping quiet in the midst of a cacophony of unknown languages; sitting by myself in buses and walking unaccompanied in crowded streets; and eating alone at busy street-side restaurants while watching the groups of people around me have their meals. This “solitude” is my preferred way of taking in this still-foreign country: placing myself right in the middle of the billion-plus masses, observing every new detail and experience while moving about in my independent way.
Despite my isolation, people here have ways of pulling me in. An overnight train ride to Chennai produces an unexpectedly heartfelt conversation with a young woman working at an IT company, heading back to work after visiting her family. A quick stop for an ice cream cone in Madurai attracts the attention of a young man who worked in California for several years, and who becomes a good friend and local accomplice. A stay at a bare-bones YMCA hostel in Bangalore introduces me to a group of young female architecture students from Gujarat, who proceed to adopt me for the rest of their stay and take me on a thorough tour around the city.
But perhaps my most amusing experience was when a brief visit to an engineering college in rural Tamil Nadu turned into an all-campus affair, with me up on a stage giving a speech about America in English and broken Tamil in front of hundreds of students.
During the summer of 2009, I was living in a small village outside of Madurai, doing some observational research on an NGO. Nearby, there was a small college established by a man from the area who had lived in the U.S. for several years working as a nuclear scientist. One day, the chancellor, this Indian American, invited me to meet him in his office. After introducing myself I was asked many now-familiar questions: Why are you here? Do you like India? How do you find Indian food? Do you like America or India better? Do you like Bush or Obama? How about Clinton?
When I thought our conversation was nearing its end, the chancellor asked me if I wouldn’t mind talking to a few of his students, “just fifteen or twenty, no problem?” I agreed — how could I refuse a request like that, especially as someone who was in India as a student? He sent one of his assistants off to gather the group.
I entered the room, and immediately felt two-hundred-plus pairs of eyes on me. The chancellor hadn’t gathered a handful of students; he had gathered the whole school — students, teachers, administrators and all — into the auditorium. I was quickly led up onto a podium on a stage where the chancellor proceeded to introduce me to the audience.
“We have today a very distinguished guest. She is a student from America!”
“She has come here to learn about the Tamil language and culture!”
“She has traveled very far from her country to come here and talk to you!”
He then turned to me. “Please, will you tell the students how America and India are different? Then they can ask you questions.”
I approached the podium, and launched into the most fluent Tamil I could muster for an introduction: “My name Kassia. I from America come. I in Tamil Nadu studied. I little little Tamil can speak.” Then I switched to English, simplifying my sentences in hopes that all of the students, with varying levels of English proficiency, could understand me: “America and India are both great countries, but India is very old and America very young. So, India has many customs and a culture which is much older and very different from American culture.”
It was here that the chancellor interrupted me to translate in Tamil. I could follow along at first but grew steadily dismayed as a few minutes passed, and I realized that his Tamil translation was taking much longer and sounded much more detailed than the few short sentences I had just offered.
The chancellor paused his translating and turned to me. “Now, I’d like the students to ask you questions!” He looked to the audience, full of young and timid faces. “Raise your hands if you would like to ask Miss Karr a question!” No one raised their hands. The chancellor began to chastise the students.
“This young lady has come here all the way from America. Why won’t anyone raise their hands? You are losing an opportunity!”
Finally, a young man in the audience stood up.
“Why do you think the American way of eating food is better than the Indian way?” he asked.
For a half-second I was baffled — when had I said that? I quickly realized that the chancellor had been putting opinions in my mouth when he was translating for me. I went to the mic to try to clear up the confusion. “I do not think America’s customs are better than Indian customs! I like them both the same,” I said, almost pleadingly, trying to indicate the mix-up with an exaggerated expression of worry. But then the chancellor started translating for me again, and I did not return to the podium again as he regaled the students with his opinion on why eating with a fork and spoon, American style, was more proper and more hygienic than the Indian way of eating with hands.
Despite the offense I had supposedly incited by claiming that American culture was better than Indian culture, the audience still clapped when the chancellor finished his fork vs. hand rant and thanked me for visiting. I walked out of the auditorium somewhat sheepishly, knowing that, despite my best intentions, I had no way of redeeming myself in the eyes of these few hundred engineering students. To them, I assumed, I had acted like a “bad foreigner” — an identity I have always tried to avoid, wherever I am.
After declining the chancellor’s invitation to join him at his house for hamburgers and hastily leaving to make my way back to the village, I realized that the whole situation was not so embarrassing, but rather funny. It was a classic traveler’s gaffe. Drifting through the country like a one-woman cultural observatory, I still managed to find myself giving an extemporaneous speech to hundreds of strangers, and not just any speech, but one which apparently came off as rudely disparaging toward Indians and their hand-eating ways. How could that cultural comedy of errors have played out any better?