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prejudice

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They are Indian, We are Tibetan

There was a pile of at least twenty milk cartons on our front stoop yesterday morning.

Although there are heaps of litter everywhere and no garbage cans, there is a collection service — an open-bed green truck that charges up the road every morning — and I have never found trash like that in front of the cafe.

My manager discovered a small booklet lying amongst the refuse, one that is used to record orders in a restaurant — a particular restaurant (the name printed upon it), one “Taste of India.” It’s just down the road.

They walked uphill at least 100 feet to dump their garbage on our doorstep.

“Should I go down there and say something to them, or is that too American?”

“Too American. They are Indian, and we are Tibetan. There is not a good relationship between the two communities,” she waved her hands around a bit, “…”

“Conflict?”

“Conflict.”

She explained that there would be no point in talking to them, nothing would be done. I bet there was a bit of a peaceful Buddhist perspective in there as well; here, I am more aware of my American upbringing than ever before. We spent the morning discussing local stories of discrimination against Tibetans by Indian police, and I shared a little bit about Chicago.

Out of respect for her, I won’t say anything directly to the restaurant. But I stopped eating there long before this, and I am spreading the word amongst the travellers I know. Just a little organizing, just a little sprinkle of American resistance tactics.

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Gender Issues

With no man by my side to address, shopkeepers and drivers must deal directly with me. I would be expected to fade behind my chaperone, appropriately silent and demure. In this country, men lead public lives. They are largely the shopkeepers, clerks, drivers; and dominate restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Some women populate the streets, sometimes not even with men, but as clusters of school girls or with children. But I wonder where the rest of the women are, silent faces behind walls and curtains, waiting above the shop or back in the kitchen.

With prejudice and assumptions to overcome, I put on an aggressive, self-assured performance when I need to make a deal with a man. I force them to take me seriously. I walk with confidence even if I am a little lost, my face displaying a serious expression. I stare back, toss a quick glare, or ignore them completely. Although I have met many kind, gracious Indian men, in general I assume that any man who gives me information is lying to me. I check with someone else to confirm it, preferably a woman.

Waiting in lines in India is a competitive sport: people seem to cue, and then at the very front, four or five men will bunch up around the ticket window trying to order all at once. And men cut in front of you, especially if you look distracted or happen to be female. I learned to maintain my spot by elbowing my way through the clump, trying to make my body occupy more space. And, for the first time, when a man cut in front of me, I tapped him on the shoulder: he protested in Hindi but I waved him away. And he LEFT!

I realized that I am most likely placing myself into the male category, more easily done, I am sure, because I am a foreigner and other women have opened the path for me. It became clear upon arriving in Agra with two friends, a man and a woman; I charged forward and bargained with a rickshaw driver in my typically extroverted way. Once our packs were tucked into the back shelf and the three of us were squished into the seat, and the driver had dried off the windshield (wipers were broken) and punched his headlight to get it started, we set off for our hotel. Throughout the ride, the driver addressed his questions to me. My heightened need to establish myself when alone had made me a temporary man, the leader of the group.

Which continued the next day when it became clear that all the trains to Delhi were full: our options were to sit in steerage (no assigned seats, launch into the carriage with a hundred other people, I was the only one willing to try) or to commandeer a taxi to take us back to the city. We gathered all the tourists we could find to split the fare, ending up with seven people – from the United States, Ireland, South Korea, Croatia, and Holland. An intense 40 minutes of haggling commenced, led by the Croatian guy, the Irish fellow, and myself. Periodically we would circle up the group and announce the most recent developments in the deal, get a consensus, and then return to the battle. These were determined, manipulative, aggressive businessmen we were dealing with, and they were forced to bargain with a woman. In the end, the foreigner group handed the cash over to me, I finished the deal (only once everyone was loaded into the car), and we began a miserable seven-hour ride into Delhi with a coked-up driver.

Finally back in Delhi, I stopped by the train station’s ladies waiting room. Two young male teenagers entered. I informed them that they were in a women’s only space, and, when they hesitated for a moment, waved them toward the door. They left amid the smiles of waiting women, but followed me around the train station once I had met up with my two friends again, standing together a few feet away, staring at me. Some sort of childish attempt at intimidation. They were harmless, just humiliated by a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who seemed alone. My friend Paul told them to get lost, and that was that — no shame in taking an order from a man.

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