November 24, 2008
Personality & Self
What will it feel like to be a Western minority among India’s Eastern majority? This question immediately arose in my head when I applied to the University of California Study Abroad Program to attend Delhi University. The experience of being a minority in India or anywhere is one that many people of European descent have not had the opportunity to have; which is why my newly acquired status as a minority, and a Westerner in India has been such a curious and unique experience.
Membership to the "in-group", which happens automatically when a person is part of the majority, is something often taken for granted. As a minority one involuntarily becomes an “other,” an outsider, and the isolating effects of this can be stressful on the human psyche. Along with the psychological implications, certain socially established privileges given to the "in-group" also tend to be taken for granted when a person is part of that majority. Only when one is placed in the position of being an “other” can they truly appreciate the plethora of unspoken and unacknowledged social privileges that they absentmindedly enjoyed before their status change.
I took those privileges for granted in my many years living in the United States. In America, there is a popular song lyric that says, “you don’t know what you've got 'til it's gone” that is far too applicable to the human psyche. I have had the privilege and curse to experience the true accuracy of this statement first hand in my travels in India.
Many of my common daily experiences, both external and internal, were revoked from my sociological status when I entered India. The privacy of anonymity, respect for my personal space, being offered equal prices for equal goods and services, being left alone, and many other subtle and not-so-subtle privileges that had previously gone un-noticed in my life, were no longer there.
I have also experienced internal struggles stemming from the simple fact that I have immersed myself in a different culture: how to feel about poverty, death, spirituality, my health; how to feel at all. These are just a few things in the long list of experiences that I have struggled with. Many of these aspects of the human experience were simply not visible in my life in the United States; all things easily taken as "givens" and not acknowledged as the enormous sociological and psychological privileges of being part of a cultural majority.
Privacy is the first thing that I noticed slip away from me when I came to India. This privacy is the kind that comes with the ability to be anonymous in a crowd. If you are like every one else you can blend in and not have others focus on you, which permits you a certain amount of anonymity and therefore privacy. I have come under the watchful eyes of everyone around me through my status as a minority; my ability to blend in is no longer available to me and I therefore fall under the inspection of those of the majority. This detailed scrutiny, which generally begins with my appearance and then automatically shifts to my actions, has definitely been the most overt side effect of my minority status.
The first thing I noticed, in fact, as a westerner in India, is the unrelenting stares. As if I were a creature not from this earth, my appearance is scrutinized down to the finest detail. There is no respite from this focus; walking down the street, sitting on the bus, the metro, a restaurant, each place I am analyzed with curious eyes. This constant focus on my appearance has made me rather self-conscious; I have found myself analyzing my own “look” and finding it unacceptable here; the blond hair, the blue eyes, the western dress, all now things that I wish I could change for the time being in order to fit in and have my anonymity back.
This focus has also begun to influence my actions. This can be seen through an account of a train journey I took from Delhi to Bodgaya. It was a Tuesday afternoon at two o’clock when I boarded a train at the New Delhi station heading for Bodgaya. I sat in my seat, answered a few questions from my fellow passengers, namely where I was from and what I was doing in India, then settled in to reading a book that I had brought with me.
The train started moving and a while later I noticed out of the corners of my eyes that every other pair of eyes in the open compartment was on me. I shifted in my seat a bit uncomfortably and continued reading, thinking that perhaps they had just looked over at that moment and that they were no longer looking at me. Entertaining that thought I eventually managed to tune back into my book for about twenty minutes until again I glanced out of the corners of my eyes to find that everyone was still looking at me. At this point I could no longer concentrate on my book so I put it away.
I soon noticed that every slight movement or thing that I did fell under the attentive eye of these people of the majority. I tried to eat some food that I had brought from home but found it so uncomfortable to be watched so closely while I was eating that I began to get nervous and dropped some in my lap. I tried to write in my journal, but found that the person next to me was reading what I was writing as I was pouring my inner thoughts forth onto the page, so that stopped rapidly as well. Every time I moved to do anything more than scratch my nose, whoever’s attention that had wandered from me over the course of the train ride was instantly focused back. I eventually crawled into my birth hoping that I could gain some bit of privacy being above everyone; but their eyes had followed me and were now watching me attempt to sleep. I turned my back to the compartment, hunkered as close as I could manage to the wall and eventually drifted off to a world where no one could watch me.
This account of my travels illustrates how the analysis of my actions influence them in the moment. The scientific principle that simply the act of observing a phenomenon changes it, is one that is sociologically applicable in this situation. Unobserved and anonymous, my night on that train would have undoubtedly been more restful and pleasant, but my status as a minority drew the attention of those of the majority and forced me to act differently.
On the train I began to think that I was strange and that my actions were out of place, so I adjusted them to fit in, but every action that I tried was met with the same response and I eventually attempted something of non-action to gain some sort of imagined approval. Non-action was still not an appropriate way out and so I eventually retreated into my subconscious mind through sleep. These adjustments of my activities have continued for such an extended period of time that it has caused me to question myself, caused me to question my actions as to weather they are my own or a product of some psychological phenomenon of the majority’s will being imposed upon my own psyche.
Personal space is something that I have long since taken as an automatic and subconscious gift to other members of the human species. A good explanation of personal space is offered in a paper by the Department of Psychology at Princeton University, they describe it as follows: ‘Many researchers noted that humans have an invisible bubble of protective space surrounding the body, generally larger around the head, extending farthest in the direction of sight. When that personal space is violated, the person steps away to reinstate the margin of safety. Personal space, therefore, is the flight zone [space in which the flight or fight response is provoked] of a human with respect to other humans. The size of the personal space varies depending on context. A person who is placed in a potentially threatening context will have an expanded personal space; a person in friendly company will have a reduced personal space. In this view, personal space is fundamentally a protective space, a margin of safety.’
It is well known that Western societies, which tend to be more individualistic, subconsciously allot a greater amount of personal space per person than the more collectivist societies of the East. For this reason I have come to feel that my personal space has been lost to me here in India. A fine example of this lies in yet another train journey, this time between Old Goa and Mumbai. Admittedly the confines of a train require a certain adjustment of personal space, but in this particular journey my personal space was not only violated, but crushed to non-existence.
It was around five o’clock in the evening that three friends and I boarded a 20-hour train from Old Goa, in the unreserved section, heading for Mumbai. We had been on the waiting list for 3-tiered non-A/C seats but had not had the good fortune to get even one seat. When we entered the unreserved section of the train we found it pleasantly empty. We claimed one of the wooden benches and settled in. There was just room enough so that one of us could curl up into a small ball while the other two sat side by side (it was in this manner that we planned to sleep in shifts during the course of the night).
As nighttime fell, more and more people began to get on the train. People filled the luggage racks and we were eventually asked to move over by a small elderly woman. We politely obliged giving up any chance of sleep on the over night train. More people arrived and began sitting on the floor. Soon thereafter we were asked yet again to move over to accommodate this man’s wife; the only way we could do this was to sacrifice the few centimeters of personal space that we had managed to secure despite the growing numbers on the train. My friends and I stole a quick glance at one another conveying that we weren’t comfortable giving up the small amount of personal space we had left, so we told the man as politely as possible to find another seat. This was met with a verbal argument escalating to a physical dispute. While repeatedly telling the man that I wasn’t going to move I got shoved, shaken, and slapped multiple times before he realized that I, in fact, was not going to move. He and his wife were forced to find a seat on the floor.
I had never been assaulted like that before in my life. I realized later on though that, although the man’s actions were wrong and there is never any excuse to resort to physical violence, we were both coming from a place of pure misunderstanding. Our rather frightening interaction was simply the result of cultural differences in the concept of personal space. To him our refusal to move over was simply unreasonable and irrational; we had the physical space to fit one more person, and he was unable grasp why we wouldn’t move over. To us it seemed obvious that there is a certain amount of space that is necessary to be psychologically comfortable and we couldn’t grasp how other people could sit in such close proximity to one another without feeling that discomfort. We managed to keep our space for that train journey and ended up sleeping away our time in Mumbai.
Less blatant at first, but no less prevalent, are my interactions with anyone wishing to sell me something. They see that I am from the West and assume that I am not only wealthy but foolish also, and thus charge me an obscenely inflated rate. In the end I usually get the same price as a local simply because I have been here for so long and know what things are actually worth, but merely the initial perception and categorization as "other" puts me off enough that I rarely shop.
The most common and therefore the most infuriating of these interactions is with auto rickshaw drivers from my house to the metro. The distance is exactly three kilometers and should therefore be twenty rupees. But autos assume that I am lost, being so far away from any tourist attraction, and they therefore begin the bargaining process at ridiculous fares, the highest of which was one hundred and fifty rupees!
To alleviate the negative psychological effects I feel from getting over charged for things, I always bargain and often simply wait until I attain the correct fare. This can take as long as a half hour and involves much frustration before I can be on my way from my home; again my status as "other" affects my actions because sometimes I don’t leave my house for the day simply to avoid having to go through this unpleasant ordeal.
What makes these interactions particularly objectionable is that they occur near where I live and therefore where I feel the most like I belong, so to be treated as "other" so consistently near my own home feels like a personal offence.
I thought that since I would be living in Delhi for so long I would begin to fit in and would therefore be treated as a local and left alone. This expectation was never delivered and I have continued to deal with being an outsider even in my own community.
An example of this is the all too regular amounts of verbal and physical harassment I endure while walking anywhere. Particular culprits tend to be school age children who are trying to show off for their friends. The first thing I usually hear is the word “englesie” (meaning “white person”) followed by some sort of Hindi cuss word then an eruption of laughter. This is generally followed up by the word “hello” being called out an uncomfortable number of times until I am out of earshot. Conspicuity makes "other" into the targets of ridicule and harassment, and a scapegoat for majority's anger or frustration.
I have had to deal with many personal struggles while here in India, the hardest of which were internal struggles of morals and feelings. One such struggle was how to respond to the overwhelming amount of poverty I witness daily. It would be impossible to give personal aid so many people, so how does one cope with the feelings of helplessness surrounding this issue?
My first response was the response most people have when placed in a psychologically painful and unavoidable situation, apathy or non-feeling. ‘I can’t care for all of these people, so I wont care for a single one,’ is the alternative my emotional body jumped upon as the solution to what would have been an emotional breakdown.
This response pervaded for the first four months of my time in India until one night in Bihar, the poorest state in India. I was in Bodgaya, a town inhabited almost exclusively by Buddhists and beggars. Many of the beggars were children between the ages of four and fourteen, which put a particular strain on the emotional wall I had constructed to keep myself apathetic. I sat down to eat at a restaurant located on the main stretch of road where many of the begging children spend their days and nights. I noticed a boy who was probably 12 years old watching me eat. I sat and ate my dinner while this hungry boy looked on. When I got up to leave he asked me for money and I ignored him as I had so many others.
Later that night I lay awake in awe and disgust of how cold and hard I had become. My psychological response that had been created initially to protect me from the overwhelming experience of seeing real poverty for the first time had become out dated and was now bordering on becoming inhuman. I swore from that night on to help as many people as I could in however small a way I could manage. The following morning I purchased some packages of channa and peanuts and went back to where the boy had been the night before, I found him begging there and when he came up to ask me for money I handed him a package and went on my way.
I realized that this small contribution was what I could afford as a traveling student and that was enough. It was out of fear that I was not offering some sort of contribution; fear of being taken advantage of, fear of being mobbed, fear of opening the flood gates that have been holding me together these last months in one of the harshest environments I’ve ever experienced. But none of my fears came into fruition and instead I felt as if I’ve salvaged a bit of my humanity in my newly rediscovered conviction to give aid to those I can.
Of the many things that are hidden from Westerners by their own government and social structure is death. Regardless of whether it is animal death, such as in a slaughterhouse, or human death, such as in an old folks home, death stays behind closed doors in most Western societies. So you can imagine my surprise to come to a culture that believes and makes visible that death is simply part of life.
The visibility of death, while present everywhere, was particularly visible to me in Varanasi. Known by many to be the cultural capitol of India, it is in Varanasi that the holy Manikarnika Ghat resides. Referred to by tourists as the “burning ghat” it is the holiest place for a Hindu to be cremated. It follows that it is a place where, on average, two hundred bodies are burned every day. Having only witnessed a deceased person once in my life I was a quite nervous when I saw the flames and smoke rising high into the air from the Manikarnika Ghat.
My fears were unnecessary and I ended up having quite the opposite reaction I was expecting to have. I thought I was going to be revolted, I even went on an empty stomach, but instead of revolt I felt a certain curiosity. Having been protected from death my whole life it was fascinating to watch the process take place. I looked on for two of the four hours it took for the funeral to be completed... The body was dipped in the Holy Ganges where the ashes and bones of previous cremations floated thick and black. Then it was dried and placed on the funeral pier, which was ceremonially lit by a sacred fire that has been burning continuously for 14,000 years. The smoke rose thick at first as the body began to catch. It smelled of campfire and the occasional waft of sandalwood.
After a few minutes the cloth that was draped over the body was burned away and the scene became very graphic; the head, lower legs, and hands were visible on the outskirts of the flames. After a while one of the workers made the fire collapse, using a long bamboo stick, and rotated the body. After an hour or so the body was no longer quite so defined and after three hours the flames were extinguished with water from the Ganges and the remaining bones thrown into the river. The whole process was carried out with business like efficiency, illustrating just how integrated death and life seem to be in the Eastern culture.
Animal death is also kept away from the general public in most Western cultures. Perhaps it is this reason that the West consumes far more meat and has far fewer vegetarians than most of the Eastern countries put together. In Varanasi I got the opportunity to see this animal death up close.
I was walking down the street and I came upon a chicken shop. From afar all I noticed at first was that there was a general gleaming red about the open shop front. I got a bit closer and realized that the red was blood and they were in the process of slaughtering and cleaning a large crate of chickens. Again I was curious and watched for a few minutes as the whole process was carried out swiftly and efficiently. I am interested to see if I am able to have witnessed these animal deaths and continue to eat meat when I get home; I don’t think I can.
After seeing these things I have a better understanding of what it means to die, it is no longer as foreign and frightening as I had once thought it to be. I don’t believe that it is desensitization, as many would argue, but rather an understanding and a personal acceptance that people and animals die and it is simply a fact of life. I believe that keeping it behind closed doors had made it seem taboo in Western cultures and thus people have uninformed ideas about it. We fear what we don’t know and before India I did not know death.
The most prevailing thing I have noticed about Indian culture is the presence of religion in people’s daily lives. There are multiple temples in every neighborhood; miniature temples appear on the sides of roads, in people’s homes, in people’s cars, on bikes and in shops, restaurants, office buildings, grocery stores. At sunrise and sunset the air rings with chants, songs and prayer (This sound is currently resonating in my very own ears from outside). How do they do it? In a nation where thousands of people starve each day or die for lack of clean water, how is spirituality so prevalent?
There is a psychological phenomenon described and studied by Abraham Maslow called the “Hierarchy of Needs.” In this hierarchy there are certain basic needs that have to be met before one can pursue other endeavors. His hierarchy starts with physiological needs such as food, water, sleep, good health, etc… it then moves on to safety, then cultural belonging, then self-esteem, and finally at the very top, after all other things have been taken care of, according to Maslow only then can we pursue what he calls self-actualization or spirituality. Yet India, perhaps out of a necessity of its own, seems to be an exception to this phenomenon.
I have tried to fuel my own spiritual flame while here in India with very little success. I find that too much distracts me here; be it cars honking outside, bacteria and viruses ravaging my insides, mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, or pollution choking my lungs, it is impossible for me to find peace in the only place in Delhi where I feel truly safe, my room. I have tried to find some sort of spiritual respite in holy places as well, from the Maha Bodi Buddhist temple in Bodgaya, to the quiet riversides of Rishikesh, everywhere I go to shut my eyes and look inward I am questioned by those of the Majority.
I have had a bit of a “Pavlov’s Dog” experience in that every time I try to look inward in any sort of public place, and now even in private spaces, an anxiety builds in me. This anxiety comes from being consistently interrupted from a meditative state by curious people asking me where I am from and what I am doing here. Sometimes even when I have ignored such people they will go as far as touch my shoulder to satisfy their burning curiosity! Similar to Pavlov’s Dog hearing a bell and receiving food, I have gone into a peaceful state and been roused by direct contact consistently enough that my attempt to meditate directly leads to anxiety, making the actual interruption unnecessary. My spirituality has thus become under the influence of the majority, yet again, making me question whether my spirituality inherently belongs to me or if strangers too can influence that search for self just as they have my actions.
The Western, and especially the American, conception of health is admittedly very skewed. In a culture where dieting and self-deprivation are a part of every day life, you find yourself getting caught up in it all. When I was home I was running ten kilometers a day and eating mostly raw fruits and vegetables; this did, in fact, make me feel really great, really energized. So when I came to India imagine my distress when I personally found the air unfit to run in and the people in charge of my program told me that if it wasn’t cooked I shouldn’t eat it. This was a big change for me and it has taken me a while to adjust, at first I didn’t understand how anyone could adjust.
If there is one thing that has influenced my health here in India it is the air pollution. I have developed a chronic cough that has left me feeling out of breath and unhealthy. The cause seems to be that the majority of people are simply uninformed about the effect that their actions have on the air quality in Delhi and, for that matter, all of South East Asia. I have seen more piles of burning trash, and more cars with excessive amounts of emissions, in Delhi than anywhere else in the world. These practices are happening all over South East Asia and as a result there is a brown cloud forming over India and parts of China that is leaving the air unfit to breathe.
I was wondering if the people of Delhi find it hard to breath as I was coughing profusely on one particularly polluted day. My answer was given to me on my way to the metro. I was sitting on the back of a cycle rickshaw coughing up black stuff as the cycle driver puffed along just fine in the thick Delhi air. Some people to my left waiting at a bus stop smoked happily as an auto rickshaw drove by at top speed leaving a cloud of black smog to diffuse into the already grey air. Across the street to my right, what looked like street children danced merrily around a pile of burning trash, the fumes rising to meet their laughter.
I was having a moment of incomprehensibility about how they were not coughing, as I was, when I realized the nature of the human being, eloquently described in a passage of Viktor E Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ “I would like to mention a few similar surprises on how much we could endure: we were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water-pipes, and yet the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate. Or for instance, a light sleeper, who used to be disturbed by the slightest noise in the next room, now found himself lying pressed against a comrade who snored loudly a few inches from his ear and yet slept quite soundly through the noise… Yes, a man can get used to anything.” (Frankl; 1946)
That being said, I have adjusted to life in India. I have adjusted to cold showers, all manners of deep fried street food, lack of exercise, the unavailability of silence, and even, to a certain degree, the grey air that I grudgingly breathe into my lungs. Given a year or two I am certain that I wouldn’t even notice the burning trash on the corner, or the black fumes coming out of the back of a rickshaw; and I certainly wouldn’t notice that the air that I had been breathing for years was anything different than what air is supposed to be like. And so, as my health declines, I feel normal; my body and my psyche has adjusted to the changes that have occurred in my life and I, as a member of the resilient human species, regardless of my present minority or majority status, accept my condition and continue on.
I was told before coming to India that I should prepare myself to face the most emotionally trying and psychologically draining experience I would ever have. People warned me about the poverty, they warned me about the tourist scams, they warned me about the over priced goods, the pollution, the staring, etc… As a result my expectations for coming here were very grim, and I adjusted my psyche accordingly. I prepared myself to face all those experiences, and more, through subconsciously closing down my emotions behind a protective psychological barrier, thus numbing my feelings to a mere whisper of what they would have been otherwise. This strategy has served me well and I have found myself in a place of resigned acceptance of all that I see and all that happens to me here. But after that incident with the hungry boy in Bihar, this strategy stopped being okay with me. Here I was the minority attempting to make a small impact on what the majority takes for granted.
I have been trying ever since to dismantle my barriers, to really feel what it is like to be here. But my subconscious is too strong; I couldn’t break free of that barrier, and so, after a few weeks of being hard on myself, I have once again accepted it. I have changed my actions significantly so that I am mentally okay with how I am acting here in India, but I have kept my emotional barriers. I will now give food to the beggars on the streets of Delhi, but I can’t sympathize with them; I will now talk to the people who talk to me on the street, but I will not let them influence my decisions; I have softened in my actions, but have remained steady in my psyche.
There is a wonderful quote from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ that states, “But if in your fear you would seek only [life’s] peace and [life’s] pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of [life’s] threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.” (Gibran; 1923) I have essentially covered my “nakedness,” my vulnerability, and moved into a space where I am able to cope with the ups and downs of my minority experience on a more level field. I don’t feel that this is a good thing, I also don’t feel that it is a bad thing, it is just a coping mechanism that I, coming from such an entirely different culture, have to work with.
The experience of being a minority has been very influential on me. I feel that when I return to the United States I will be a much more culturally sensitive and racially tolerant person. Coming to India in general has been the most worthwhile psychological journey I have ever taken. The challenges that I have faced as a Westerner coming into an Eastern society have been great, but because of those challenges I am a more aware, open-minded, and well-rounded human being. The adjustments that I have made coming here will stay with me for the rest of my life as psychological tools that I may call upon when needed. Just as our immune systems remember foreign substances, my mind will be able to launch a much more efficient coping mechanism to all the various experiences I have had should they come up again in my life. Also, from this time spent as a cultural minority, I have learned how to be more effective in my personal experience as a "majority of ONE".
Frankl, E. Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.
Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Random House, Inc, 1969.
Graziano, S.A. Michael, & Cooke, F. Dylan. “Parieto-frontal interactions, personal space, and defensive behavior.” Neuropsychologia Nov. 2005: Department of Psychology, Green Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
“Maslow’s Hierarchy.” Changing Minds.org. 2002-2008.