Jai Shri Krishna! It’s been nearly two weeks since we began interning at the MINDS Foundation, and it’s been quite the two weeks. We’ve stepped in heaps of cow dung, fallen in monsoon-muddied fields, and exhaustedly swatted at the same 20 flies examining every inch of our bare skin they can find. People must be breeding them, because they’re everywhere. It’s a stark contrast with life in Seattle, and it takes a massive adjustment to familiarize yourself with the expectations every day brings. Exhausting is not an inappropriate word to describe it. I feel that I’m learning more slowly than sap hardens into amber, but at least I can recognize that something inside of me is analyzing the world around me and trying to make sense of the chaos that drives it forward.

The city is huge. Vadodara has a population that tops 2 million, more than thrice the population of Seattle. And everywhere you go, people stare. They too are familiarizing themselves with you, a foreign concept, a foreign reality. They look you up and down for a moment, then look away, stealing a last glance at your blindingly white skin before sauntering away. Some old ladies stand directly in your path, stony-faced with their hands planted firmly on their hips, unafraid to stare you down until long after you’ve passed. I must be very strange to them.

Indeed, the German word fremde (for “foreign”) also shares its meaning with “strange”. The word “foreign” conjures an image of lines meandering across a map, whereas the word “strange” produces dark, fearful prejudices. I have never considered myself to be strange, only a stranger to others. Perhaps foreign. Like Newton’s third law, the people I have seen have seen me with an equal and opposite curiosity, fear, or astonishment. Certainly appropriate reactions to something that is strange. I am both foreign and strange here, both a foreigner and a stranger. It leaves me with time to consider how others might feel strange where I do not.

To me, the concept of the home is of paramount importance. It encompasses not only the roof under which one sleeps, but the streets they walk and the ecosystem they inhabit. A house is the home of a family, a neighborhood the home of a community, a country the home of a people. Wherever I go here, I am in someone else’s home, and I’m worried I am ill equipped to treat it as such. I can’t be angry with someone staring at me, I can’t get frustrated they don’t speak my language, and I can’t be irritated by a request for a picture. All things I would feel free to feel and deal with in my home (if only those issues existed there).

Aquatinting myself with these differences is a struggle, and I’ve never felt so stupid and pink. I feel so diminished by the scale of things around me, but so individual in my strangeness and the attention that my strangeness garners. In everything I do, I must be conscious. A simple hello will not do. A cheery Jai Shri Krishna is better, and I must remember to take off my shoes as I step into someone’s home. Never offer your left hand to someone; don’t even consider eating with it. Master the art of body language and be quick to determine if the ambiguous Indian head shake means “yes”, “no”, or “ok fine”.

Thankfully, I have a whole team of American interns with which to fumble awkwardly through all of these lessons. But though we share similar backgrounds, we don’t always share the same opinions or practices.  Even with your close friends, you have opportunities in your life to learn much more about their “whats”: what makes them tick, what makes them angry, what makes their eyes light up, what makes them ponderous and pensive, what tugs at their heartstrings. People you’ve known forever will continue to produce “whats” and “hows” and “whys” for you to solve like a 12×12 Rubix Cube as long as you hang around them, and sometimes, like this six-sided behemoth, these questions will never be fully solved.

Regardless, all of these trials are part of being friends, part of being a team. I feel like Anna Leonowens trying her hardest to make the best of her time in a foreign land, not quite alone, not quite at home. I am sure that like her, I will be getting to know the culture and the people around me, but such things take time and patience. In the meantime, I’ll continue to whistle a happy tune to show that I’m not afraid of the challenges that are coming. And though the challenges are hellishly daunting, they are just as beautiful and strange.

A potent piece of advice en route to India

Namaskar, Riley

Getting to know you; getting to feel free and easy
When I am with you, getting to know what to say
Haven’t you noticed, suddenly I’m bright and breezy?
Because of all the beautiful and new things I’m learning about you
Day by day

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