Sunday morning, Reni knocks on my door and we walk three doors over to her home where she shares a bedroom room with her sister and parents. “Been awake for a long time?” she asks, smiling. “No,” I say with a yawn. “Have you?”
“Yes. We have been awake for a while, preparing the home for your arrival.”
Her mother offers to buy me a dress before I leave for America. Uncomfortable, I blurt out that it is I who should purchase a gift, for her girls, who I will miss. “Don’t want!” she professes, shaking this thought away with her hands. “Only want your love and affection.”
Suddenly I realize that in this moment, I can only see myself through her eyes: wealthy, Christian, lucky, strange.
It’s crazy because relative to many of the people I grew up around and go to school with, I am not privileged. How to embody an identity that is suddenly and relatively true? I know what it is like to share a bedroom with my sister and mother! I forget how to say. I uneasily learn how to wear this strange mask that obscures, reveals and complicates my sense of who I am.
Uneasiness is feeling equal parts gratitude and awe for the kindness of strangers and cynical, sinking suspicion that I could be any white-skinned exchange student at all and still you would feed me and treat me this way; unearned, artificial care.
As always, my stomach refuses to feel hunger, the food sticks in my mouth, and you all sit and stare, asking me questions I don’t understand. You seem so expectant but I am anxious and say yes to more food when I want to say, no way. I feel ridiculous and ungrateful for feeling upset, but the egg is cold and doesn’t taste like egg somehow, and is jiggly and raw-ish, and there is a speck of something blue. Eating a squishy egg with my hands when I already feel stuffed and unsettled is unappealing, so I guiltily explain that I am very full, it was all very delicious, I just am still not used to eating very much and am very happy to be here. I accidently assent to something you say next, and am brought a tin cup of something that I discover is wine.
I don’t want to drink the rest of the wine because it is 10:13am and I could be kicked out of the program so I leave it. Reni drinks the rest. You bring a dress you say is three thousand rupees, and tell me to put it on. I do. To complete my new look you poke heavy earrings through my ears, drape a gold necklace around my neck, replace my small blue bindi with a large red one that matches this new outfit, and take photos of me with your daughters. You ask me to come to your brother’s house for lunch. I don’t really want to; Ammaa had told me to come home for lunch, that she was preparing something special, and besides, I am here because I adore your daughters. I also would rather not eat again. I also do not want to make stilted conversation any longer but I don’t know how to say no. I go. I eat. I feel paraded around but also treated with kindness; I’m confused, and mad at myself for feeling annoyed with kind people who just went out of their way to feed and take in a stranger. It’s just, maybe my own cultural understandings of the way people are keeps me from feeling comfortable, confident, or fully able to embrace the kindness of strangers.
I finally come home, at 3pm. Ammaa is angry, and her eyes are worried. She scolds you over the phone for keeping me so long, explaining that if something went wrong she would have been responsible. Appa shakes his head and says that people like them will not understand or respect the way he and Ammaa live. I am exhausted. I take bath. I take rest. When I come upstairs at 6:30, book in hand, finally ready to start my homework for the weekend, Appa launches into a discussion about foreign policy, politics, terrorism, human nature. I cannot get a word in edgewise, and his points take so long to make. He speaks for over an hour and I grow panicked and annoyed because I have to read this whole book by tomorrow and I am tired of being lectured at; this is not an equal exchange of ideas, I just want to read. I finally tell Appa that I love hearing his opinions but I am anxious because I have quite a bit of work to accomplish before school tomorrow. He looks down. “I find myself so talkative around you, but please read,” and I instantly feel terrible; my frustration and despair fades away, leaving sad, sad guilt. How to interpret emotions that arrive like runoff from distant mountains, preventing lightness, patience, proper behavior? In Madurai, it seems I never know how to do make the right choices, and never feel at peace with anything I think or feel.