“We’re a hundred years behind your country.”

The above line was said to me by a friend that I met here in India when we were talking about intercaste marriage.  I am aware of caste and its levels, but I never considered how large a role caste still plays in India (or does it really?  Let me know your thoughts).  Caste is something I never felt comfortable asking my Hindi professor or FLTAs about despite them talking about it in class at times.  I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up with my host family either; the only time it came up was when my host father’s brother in law said that my host parents both come from good Brahmin families.  My friend with whom I had this discussion, too, is from a Brahmin family and the issue came up because he said his cousin is engaged to a Rajput, which I didn’t think was a big deal.  He said younger generations tend to ignore caste, but that it is the parents who make a big deal out of it.  He also has two friends, one Muslim and one Hindu, who are dating but cannot get married because their parents would not allow an inter-religious marriage.  I said “Really?  It’s that big a deal?” and he said “Yes, because one is a Hindu and one is a Muslim.  You know why their parents feel that way, right?” and again I said yes, but again didn’t think (whether naively or ignorantly, I’m not sure) it still resonated so much today as to affect the viability of a marriage.  I told him not to say that India is 100 years behind the US, but he said it is, and then moved on to another topic: arranged marriage.

My host parents had an arranged marriage and they’re very happy.  Once in my cultural anthropology class, we had to read interviews with girls (from India) who preferred an arranged rather than love marriage.  Many cited school commitments, but more cited the fact that their parents would know what would be best for them.  It makes sense, or as much as it can to me.  My friend was engaged to someone he had been with for almost a decade but they recently split up and now he told me he’ll accept his mother’s suggestion for an arranged marriage in a year or two (both of their parents were happy for the love marriage).  I asked why he wouldn’t want to try dating again, and he said that he trusts his parents.

Those two conversations obviously made me think about myself.  When I took my Indian Philosophy course a couple years ago, my professor (from India, did all of her schooling through her PhD here) made it clear that we were to no longer think of India as a place of spirituality or religion.  She said that there is nothing about India that makes it intrinsically spiritual or religious – a place for people to “find themselves” – other than the imposition of that image from the outside.  From then, I stopped thinking about India that way.  So it was a bit jarring to me when many of my classmates asked about my faith, assuming I had one.  I was able to tip-toe around my answer most of the time, only using “atheist” once, and “I don’t believe in a god” once more.  This surprised them, prompting them to ask me why I did a BA in religion if I didn’t have one (a quite logical question, though).  I also began to think about how my religion (or utter lack of one) totally does not affect my life at all at home.  My fiancé is also an atheist, so there’s a double dose of religious irrelevance in our relationship.  My father hated my fiancé for the first half of our five-year relationship (actually maybe a little longer) and he and my mother actually had a falling out over his poor treatment of him (my mom loves my fiancé; I always say she loves me more by obligation but likes him more as a person).  I’ve never been able to sit down and really talk about the cultural differences that seemed quite obvious to me but that I learned were indeed quite novel.

I’m beginning to recognize the very clear distinction between learning and living.  I’ve learned about caste in my Hindi, History, Sociology, and Anthropology courses, and my professor at my university in Delhi even went off on an hour-long tangent about caste, jati, and varna (though I can’t remember why – it’s a class about state building and state formation in India), but I’ve never really talked about it with someone who is personally familiar with it.  And by “really talk,” I mean sit down and ask difficult and uncomfortable questions.  I’m afraid of both sounding ignorant and offensive, but more the latter than the former.  The same is true for arranged marriage.  My friend told me it’ll be unlikely someone will find my question offensive, but it’s still something I’d rather not touch unless someone else brings it up.  I’d feel like I’m prying into a life that isn’t mine, because it is a life that is not mine.  That’s the same reason I tend to withhold my opinions during class, especially during my class about Partition.  I’d prefer to listen, but not prod or pry.  I’ve read many books and articles about Partition, but I’m not personally connected to it and as a result, uncomfortable voicing my far-removed opinion about something that deeply affected a country.  Ask me about the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese or the systematic abuse enacted by the Japanese during the 30s and 40s and I’ll have opinions (I did my senior thesis on wartime nationalism during World War II and textbook censorship during the US occupation, in conjunction with oral histories of people who lived through, fought during, or otherwise contributed to the Japanese war effort of World War II).

I’ve made very few Indian friends here, so I’ve had very little reason or opportunity to even inquire about caste or Partition.  And by “Indian,” I mean the way people would think of Americans in America (kind of like how my host mom refers to “Americans”).  Most of the friends/acquaintances I’ve made at school have been from the Northeast (Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya).  None of my professors knew I was the foreign student because I don’t look as foreign as I could – like a typical “American” student.  This is kind of a segue into my next topic – slightly derogatory comments slanged at me?

Prior to coming to India, my Hindi professor and FLTA (both from Maharashtra – Pune and Aurangabad, respectively) told me that people wouldn’t look at me and think “Japanese”; they’d think “Northeastern” or “Chinese.”  Most of my classmates have broken the ice with me by asking if I’m from somewhere in the Northeast.  Numerous people on the street (young boys, of course, probably late teens), however, have walked/driven past me yelling things like “ching chong” or “CHINEEEEEEEEEESE” or “CHINAAAAAA.”  This has happened about seven times now.  And I get why they’re doing it (racially and historically).  I think it’s funny and I giggle when it happens, but my friend feels bad about it, as if those boys yelling at me are misrepresenting the entire young male generation.  It happened on Saturday while we were walking near Jama Masjid (“Chiiiineeeeeese”) and again today while we were walking through the Garden of Five Senses (“Chiiiiiiinaaaaa”).  He apologized when he heard the guy who said it to me, but I really don’t care.  I will never see that person again and I know I’m not Chinese and even if I were, I wouldn’t feel bad about being born into my ethnicity.  It’s funny to me because I’m rarely mislabeled at home (Hawaii) because everyone is Asian so everyone can tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, etc.  If I’m ever mislabeled at home, it’s as Korean (my friends say it’s my eyes and cheekbones).  I’m actually half Japanese and half Okinawan, but only Japanese and Okinawan people tend to care about this difference (I take more pride in my Okinawan side, and my surname is Okinawan).  Most of the time, I think the China comments are funny.  But catch me on a day when I’m tired from school, hot from Delhi being Delhi, and cramped in the metro, and I’ll probably snap at someone one of these days (regrettably, I’m sure).

Also…before arriving in Delhi (and once after by my friend/Hindi FLTA, about Lodi Gardens to which to refused to accompany me for this reason) I was warned about certain places being “couples’ points.”  I knew the Garden of Five Senses was most likely one of these places, but I foolishly underestimated the monicker and dragged my friend there…only to be surrounded by a sea of cuddly, lovey-dovey couples who stared at us for intruding in their love space.  It was a nice place to visit though, and we had a nice pizza (and me, a Moscow mule) from Fio.

 

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