What India taught me about race and culture

Summer 2020 Episode 1

The little soldier boy I met on the outskirts of the Arabian Sea outside of Mumbai. Photo by EOlsen.

Hello, this is Emily Olsen, checking in from Salt Lake City. In this podcast series, I want to speak primarily about equality in the United States, hence the name Liberty and Justice For All — the “For All” part being the most important. I have always been passionate about how race influences freedom, but perhaps I gained a larger passion for race and culture when I went outside of this country for the first time.

In 2008, I took a trip to India. My employer sent me there to work with a company that we outsourced with, and I spent three months in Ahmedabad (which the locals call Am-de-bad), and I also took a handful of trips to Mumbai during my journey.

Ahmedabad is not exactly a tourist town — they had only recently built an international airport there. The town had been growing at lightning speed since internet-based businesses had developed, which allowed them to provide outsourcing services to the world. Locals with good English-speaking skills could get some of the best jobs in their economy.

It was only about every two weeks while I was there that I would see someone of European descent. Now, I am extra-white in my skin tone — something about my northern European heritage, I guess. And since I was coming from southern California at the time, my hair was a platinum blond, of course. I would go shopping at the mall in Ahmedabad, and children passing by would want to touch my skin because they had never seen someone like me. They thought I was ethereal, but it was them I saw as so much more beautiful than me. I began to understand what it’s like to be a minority in a foreign country. But unlike many of the immigrants trying to enter the United States, I would benefit from white privilege.

Especially when I first arrived, I was treated like royalty, and I soon learned they thought I was rich because I was from the United States. I spent a lot of my money buying survival food like cookies and crackers and soda pop, things that were outrageously expensive for them. The cost of taking a rickshaw for a mile or so was like a third of the price of a can of Coca-cola in rupees. So I soon learned that I was rich, from their vantage point. Of course, I still had to pay my domestic bills while I was there, such as my rent and car payment, which took up a chunk of my income each month. “Rich” is such a subjective term.

Me as a platinum blond at an outdoor bazaar I attended in the first week
I arrived in Ahmedabad. Photo from EOlsen collection.

Don’t get me wrong — I loved the local cuisine, although as a foreigner, I could only eat food that had been thoroughly cooked. Vegetable masala with Basmati rice and yogurt was my favorite. Everything came extra-spicy — enough to clean out your sinuses and leave your mouth burning, but I quickly became accustomed to it. Over the centuries, the locals had learned that super spicy foods would somehow combat the sweltering heat.

While I was there, however, I had little time to learn about the culture, unfortunately — I was working 12-hour days, six days a week, but I did learn a few things about their caste system. I learned about castes in high school history class as being the social set-up in pre-twentieth century Europe, where there were nobles and serfs, etc. I didn’t think the United States had much of a caste system anymore, although my opinion on that matter has changed more recently. For most of my life, I have been ignorant of the extent of the challenges faced by African Americans and Latinos which limit their ability to reap the American Dream.

But in India, the caste you are born into is the caste that you are assigned to throughout your life. They just consider it their lot in life and hope to reincarnate into a higher station in their next life. When an opportunity arises, someone of a lower caste will step aside without argument if someone of a higher caste claims it.

The slums of Mumbai. Photo by EOlsen.

Sadly, there are massive numbers of homeless people there — the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” is an accurate depiction of the slums of Mumbai. Endless shacks built right next to each other for miles and miles along the river and with no roads. They build with whatever supplies they can find at the dump, and there is no clean water, ever.

And in Ahmedabad, there are streets where homeless people live in little tents just inches away from where cars whiz past. There is no drainage system for the streets, and when the rainy season came, I didn’t want to know what I was stepping in. I would always wash my feet when I got home if I had gotten caught in a downpour.

I will admit that it wasn’t until I had been there several weeks that I realized the caste you were assigned to had a lot to do with how dark your skin was. The people with lighter skin were usually of a higher caste, and they often dressed a certain way to set themselves apart. There were castes for the homeless people who lived under my condo building and who would take the trash I left outside my door. There was a caste for the woman who swept my floor and washed my clothes (they didn’t have electric washing machines in order to provide employment for this caste), and there were castes for people like my butler (who bought me some of my groceries) and my driver (who was a friendly maniac). Regardless of how much or how little pigment is in their skin, I think Indians are beautiful, creative people.

I visited Mumbai about five or six times during my trip. I would take a day flight to get there, and the people I would see in airports were the most cosmopolitan group I have ever seen. India is right between Africa and Eastern Asia — and then you have the Pacific Islands not too far away from there. This area of the world is a complete melting pot of multiple races of people that has been mixing for centuries, and it is a cultural experience just to observe that.

During my first trip to Mumbai, my friends there gave me a bit of a tour. We pulled off at the side of the road before we crossed the river into Navi Mumbi (or New Mumbai). Mumbai’s slums were on one side of the road, and on the other were some locals washing laundry in the Arabian Sea. I took the photo of the beautiful little boy [see top of page]. He couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old, and he had been assigned to stand guard while his family was washing in the distance. I tried to be friendly and say hello to him, but he didn’t speak English. I would learn later that he didn’t even speak Hindi but only a local, unwritten dialect. He looked like a little soldier with his oversized walking stick, never wincing, until finally, I must have scared him because he ran away from us.

I have thought a lot about that little boy during the years since. I remember just wanting to pick him up and take him home with me. (Maybe he had a reason to be afraid of me.) Of course, doing so would not have been possible — it’s not like I could have hid him in my suitcase. But I have wondered if he has lived a happy life, if he is even still alive, since I know his life expectancy must be greatly limited. Would I have been able to provide a better life for him? In the same way, I have thought about the beggar who had polio and the little slave girl that would run next to me at lunch each day to beg for money. They were treated like animals by most, but as a Christian woman, I knew the truth — that they were children of God just like me. They each had a special light inside of them and had unique and special missions in this world. Perhaps one of their missions was to teach me about the hardships that their people experience and to help me gain compassion for these beautiful souls that live a world away from me.

A camel my driver passed on the highway on my way to work in Ahmedabad one day.
Photo by EOlsen.
The 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai with 285 rooms. It was built in 1898 and reminded me of Casablanca inside. The muddy space out front was actually a construction site, and my visit was on a rainy day. (Photo by EOlsen)
Inside Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai — its architecture is truly spectacular. (Photo by EOlsen)
Built in 1431, Haji Ali Dargah is a mosque and mausoleum of a wealthy merchant who gave up all his worldly possessions before making a pilgrimage to Mecca. (Photo by EOlsen)
Carved into the rock 2,000 years ago, this oversized Buddhist statue in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park reminded me of Lord of the Rings. (Photo by EOlsen)
Inside the Buddhist temple that was carved into the rock. The room was dark so it was hard to take a good picture, but the acoustics were incredible — when you spoke, it sounded like a chorus of monks (Photo by EOlsen)

I also got to see some amazing tourist sites there, including an ancient mosque and mausoleum in the bay, the Taj Mahal Hotel before it was bombed later that year (gratefully, it has been repaired since), and Sanjay Gandhi National Park just outside of Mumbai that contained a 2,000 year-old Buddhist temple and homes carved into the mountainside [see photos above]. I was surprised how little I knew about the history of India. It’s a very large country with an ancient influence on so many of the world’s cultures, but none of India’s story was included in my high school history classes. I hope that curriculum has changed today.

During the whole time I was in India, I felt safe with only a few exceptions — I sort of got mugged/kidnapped when I took a taxi at the Mumbai airport one time (I recommend reserving transportation in advance from a reputable service in that city). My taxi driver and his English-speaking friend charged me three times the going rate. Their yellow Fiat, which was about three-quarters the size of a traditional American taxi, started overheating when they arrived at the bridge that went across the river. When plumes of white smoke seeped through the air vents in the front of the cabin, I knew something wasn’t right. They demanded 900 rupees, which I happily gave them. It was only about $15, comparatively, but they were surprised that I was so willing to give it away. I could see that they were still scammers-in-training and were probably more scared than I was, so I kept a stiff upper lip with them. The guys started pushing me for more money after that, so I got out of the car and started walking. Gratefully a rickshaw driver in Navi Mumbi rescued me and got me to my destination only a few blocks away.

But there was a point about two weeks before my departure that I got a distinct impression it was time to return home. The year I visited India, 2008, was also the year of a string of coordinated terrorist attacks. Three places in a city would get bombed at the same time using a remote device. New Delhi and Jaipur were two of the first cities to be hit, and the police initially believed it was the workings of a militant Islamic group out of Pakistan. Shortly after I returned to the States, Ahmedabad was hit, as well. And then Mumbai. Gratefully, the bombings in Ahmedabad were across town from where I had lived, but a few of my friends in Mumbai were protected from the blasts through a series of miracles. One couple was on their way to the train station that had been bombed, but they missed the blast because they had been delayed, even though they were on their way to the airport and risked being late to board a flight. Another ex-pat who lived there with his wife and three young children was on his way to a business appointment, and for some random reason, that day his driver took a different route than the usual way they went, and they missed the blast that hit a parkway. The Mumbai bombings were traced to the WiFi at the residence of a British man living in Mumbai. After that, there was a fear that Brits and Americans would be targeted, so it was no longer safe for them to be there. The U.S. Embassy sent out messages to ex-pats and encouraged them to return to the States.

My flight to India had taken 25 hours. The first leg, from LAX to Japan, took 12 hours, then a 7-hour leg from Japan to Singapore. I had a 9-hour layover there, and then the flight into Ahmedabad was about 6 hours. In that time, you lose 12 1/2 hours because all of India is one time zone that they posit one half-hour off from everyone else. So I literally went halfway around the world to get there, and I realized that the world is a much larger place than I had ever imagined.

On the last night I was there, I was finally able to visit the local Hindu temple, which was practically within walking distance from my condo. It was beautiful and majestic and was filled with hundreds of very reverent people paying homage to a large, ornate, golden statue. I was amazed at how little I knew about these people with whom I had been interacting all that time and how little they knew about me.

I learned only superficial things about the people in Ahmedabad, such as that about 80 percent of Hindus living there had arranged marriages. The Gujarati people in Ahmedabad were some of the most conservative people in India and were almost completely vegetarian. The state of Gujarat is where Mahatma Gandhi had set up his office, and the people were very peaceful and family-oriented as a result. Only Christians and Muslims would eat meat there, or what they called non-veg. Many of them still wore the traditional dress — either a sari or punjabi that included pantaloons and the kurti scarf — almost always in spectacular, brilliant colors. Some of the young women I worked with would wear a punjabi with jeans. Most couples could only afford to purchase a motorcycle for the family transportation, so you would see these families packed onto one open-air vehicle, with the father driving, a kid or two sitting behind him, and then the mother riding side-saddle on the back with her bright-yellow or chartreuse kurti blowing in the breeze. The surreal images of families carefully but casually situated on these dangerous vehicles I crudely associated with Dr. Seuss illustrations.

I come from a conservative family and was taught to dress very modestly. Skirts at the knee or lower, and shirts with at least short sleeves. But my idea of modest was scandalous to them. The one day I wore my black straight skirt that came just below the knee would be my last. The mocking boys in the parking lot of my office let me know in their foreign language that a woman’s legs must be covered in their world, and apparently, my nude-colored pantyhose were not sufficient. I quickly bought some native clothing and wore that everywhere — out of respect for their culture of course, but also so that I would be taken seriously. And punjabis are one of the most flattering outfits to a woman’s figure. Plus, they were made out of breathable cotton, which really helped on those hot, humid days. And the kurti oversized scarves made of natural silk work better than sunscreen at protecting your skin and keeping you cool.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in India was about my own culture — that I had one. Americans take for granted that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Even if you are not religious, most Americans were raised at least recognizing that it is the moral thing to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In India, it is the complete opposite. Everyone is focused on taking care of number-one at any expense. Since there is no police but only guards hired by local landowners, people can get away with a lot more. While I was there, my personal cell phone was stolen, and so were several items of clothing — my driver was employed by the outsource company I worked with, and he received no punishment for these acts. The guards at my condo just laughed at me when I made a complaint about my phone. Little did I know that the money my driver got from selling my belongings helped fund the fuel for his vehicle.

Upon my return to Pasadena, Calif., I was astounded at the clean and spacious sidewalks along the streets by my office. India is one of the most populated countries in the world, and there are people everywhere. The elevator at the office there was always jam-packed, and I constantly had to navigate around people wherever I walked.

In California, I was relieved to be back where drivers stopped at stop signs instead of accelerating and honking their way through an intersection. People stayed in their lane instead of between two lanes, and they signaled when they planned to turn.

Oh, the little things we take for granted! In Ahmedabad, the split highway, which was the largest street in town, had only one signal that was on a large roundabout. The highway’s two lanes going in one direction were make-shifted into five — with handcarts and animals in the gutter, bicycles in the next lane, and the last three lanes for motor vehicles. Pedestrians dashed everywhere they dared through standing or slow-moving traffic, and cargo trucks had the most priority on the road because they could hurt you the most. Plus everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. It’s insanity.

Upon my return to California, I ate a juicy hamburger with fries as soon as humanly possible.

Just north of Ephraim, Utah, looking northwest. (Photo by EOlsen)

Only a week after my return, I moved to Ephraim, Utah, a small town off the beaten path near the center of the state. My employer owned a satellite office there, of all places, where I planned to expand the company. Having lived in Utah for about 15 years beforehand, I was thrilled to return and to be closer to my family. I sent photos to my Indian friends of my new neighborhood, that of farmland, mountain backdrops, blue skies and puffy white clouds. They couldn’t believe the landscape was real. And in Ephraim, there are even fewer people than in Pasadena. It didn’t take long for me to miss the heavily populated world of India. Although there is something preferable about what we find familiar and predictable, I would go back to India in a heartbeat.

Nayak, Polly and Michael Krepon. “The Unfinished Crisis: US Crisis Management after the 2008 Mumbai Attacks,” The Henry L. Stimson Center https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/Mumbai-Final_1_1.pdf


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