You are pretty because your skin is white and your eyes are light. I shake my head. Please-please know beauty is not a color, and I tell her; I think you’re beautiful! No. Not like you. I am a blacky. Beauty is a social construction, I say; I truly think you’re beautiful. You look away, unsure what I mean by truly and social construction; you are fourteen and English is a language you of course speak only when you must. You are shocked that I have friends who are male, hamburgers for dinner, divorced parents, short hair, bears, snow, and potentially a life without a husband. Do you like America or India better? You ask. India, I say, though in reality I feel ambivalence towards both. Ah! A waste, you say, tsking. You are so lucky to be from America.
I am both ashamed and proud to tell you about where I am from. My country is my identity and it is something I often feel alienated from; something I came here to escape, and understand better from far away. You think I am wealthy, privileged, lucky, crazy. You are kind but it hurts when you treat me like a higher being. I try to speak your language, but I stumble over the words and you laugh but patiently help me, spend as long as it takes for me to clumsily express something in Tamil. I know I am a lucky person, but I want to explain to you that it’s easy to see what is beautiful about America, but not what is terrible – how can I explain ruthless consumption, inequality, sadness?
Then, there is this view: You people in America have become weak-hearted, says Appaa, my father. You people have every luxury, so you’ve lost your fire; now you’re lazy. In India, we provide for each other; in America, you pay for your cats and your dogs and food for people in far-off countries, but you do not help your own. Isn’t it true? he asks. No, I say. Well yes, maybe. I agree that struggle can cause strength, and that America is anything but perfect. I just don’t think it’s fair to characterize a whole nation this way…
In both interactions, America is understand as far away; as diametrically opposed to India. Distance, media, national pride, colonialism and probably many other factors have allowed the U.S. to be imagined as a paradise (Lexi) and as a fallen, immoral land (Appaa). In Lexi’s mind, the U.S. is something “new that is ‘imagined to lie ahead’.” (Mines 60) Appaa, I think, sees mostly negative western influences on India, and idealizes America’s past but not its present. As a wealthy, established member of Indian society who is also well-read and aware of the evils of colonialism, maybe Appaa’s sense of national identity and national pride are much stronger than Lexi’s. She is very poor; she is young and female. I am interested in the way differing worldviews and cultures interact with each other from afar; the way other cultures are imagined in such complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Hearing about my country from Indians I’ve known for a week now, and constantly being asked to explain a place while learning how to navigate a new one, has made me careful to avoid seeing India in similarly generalized or stereotyped ways.
After all, I came to India because it is the birthplace of Buddhism – “the only place Buddhism could have come from,” and I wanted to know difference; to see how eastern thought and culture could stand in opposition to my own, but I also imagined that I would be critical of India’s caste system and treatment of women. I don’t know about all of these things yet. All I know is that when Lexi told me I was beautiful, it made me think about beauty in the U.S., and how it is similarly class-based, racist and socially-constructed. Here, out of my element, this problematic conception of beauty is easier to see in its new form, and easier to see as a world problem. In just two weeks, two places have become less-defined and less-clear in my imagination, and I am glad for that.