After five days in India, I am very conscious of being “othered” and how my skin conveys privilege. I am so intrigued by everyone around me and often wish to smile or wave. I try and smile in a gentle and non-threatening way as I don’t want people to feel like I expect a smile back, or that I am some how entitled to it. It’s strange the things you worry about when you feel uncomfortable about your position and how it relates to those around you.
Our day in Amritsar was extremely overwhelming for me in particular. Amritsar’s Golden Temple is the major Sikh temple in India. The “othering” at the Golden Temple was far more extreme than in Delhi. As we were taking pictures of the temple, others were taking pictures of us. Two little girls approached me wanting to hold my hand for a moment. Later, a mother and daughter wanted to take a photograph with me. It was very disorienting. I felt as though I couldn’t say no, given that I was in their place of worship. A photograph didn’t seem like a lot to ask, but I was very uncomfortable and unsure of how to react. Our tour guide referred to us as “Canadian queens” as a group stood near us watching. It was a joke that made us all laugh (mostly Mike), however, it was an interesting comment. Our skin and position made us seem like celebrities in their place of worship. It made me reflect heavily on conversations regarding the power and privilege projected by our appearances.
As soon as we climbed the stairs and could see the temple, I was covered with goose bumps from head to toe. As we approached the temple, people all around me began joining the prayer together. There were so many people and yet it was so indescribably beautiful and peaceful, far beyond the physical beauty of the temple itself. Fifty to sixty thousand people are fed per day at the temple, all by volunteers and contributions from Sikhs around the world. It was such a different experience of “aid”, focused on people taking care of each other. The entire experience was so overwhelming and beautiful I started to cry.
New experiences now await us in Dharamsala. We seem to be well received by those around us. With a mix of Tibetans, Indians, and tourists, our “otherness” is less apparent here and we are less of a spectacle. A colleague at the health department warns us that Tibetans are naturally shy, but would generally enjoy a smile and a hello, or “Tashi Delek” (our very rough Tibetan translation). Despite my differences from those around me, I am surprised at how relaxed and comfortable I have felt in India for the most part. I was expecting to feel much more discomfort and insecurity. This is undoubtedly in part to the very good care and watchful eye of Raja, Dr. Paras, and the whole team. However, although we are foreign, I have thus far not felt unwelcome or unsafe in anywhere we have visited, even while being under the many watchful eyes in Amritsar. Today Asia and I strolled to a nearby café for lunch and tea, greeting Monks and puppies along the way. When there was nowhere to sit, we were invited to share a table with a mix of locals and European travelers. The Tibetan gentlemen beside me asked to have a glass of water from my bottle. I could not have felt more at ease.