Preparing to travel to India (I’m leaving on Thursday!) has been nerve-racking with all of the documentation, visas, vaccinations, and other never-ending to-do lists. Certainly all of these things are really important, but they are probably not particularly interesting to read about. Instead, in a post before I leave, I’d like to focus on other things that have kept my mind running while preparing to be abroad.
Quite a few months ago I read an essay in the New York Times written by Mohsin Hamid entitled “The Great Divide.” Throughout the essay, Mr. Hamid notes different ways in which we build walls between ourselves and the things that we view as “different” or “uncomfortable” or “other.” However, by the end he has used his hometown, Lahore, to illustrate that “within our walls, like fertile soil forming in the crevices of a rock, we find flux and fluidity.” His last lines are:
Perhaps we favor walls and watchers because we desire to be closer than what we know is safe. We are repelled by what is different, and we are fascinated by what is different. We long to mingle, and we long to protect ourselves. We are alarmed by what we might want. And yet we wander, and in doing so, we hope.
In the time since reading this I’ve been thinking about the walls that exist in my own life. Many things are usually divided using these walls: Race, Gender, Sexuality, Religion, Ethnicity, etc. Often, we try to create simple binary solutions (e.g. Black vs. White, Female vs. Male, Homosexual vs. Heterosexual, My religion vs. Their religion, My ethnicity vs. Their ethnicity.) This is a gross and unfair oversimplification– Each of these walls demands to be approached complexly and thoughtfully. I have been trying to keep this is mind as I am about to enter a culture that is different than my own. I have been trying to remember these classifications are not solid walls, so much as they are walls that invite “flux and fluidity.”
I’d like to pay particularly close attention to religion and ethnicity, especially the way that things like race, gender, and sex are approached within the different religious and ethnic norms of India. This is very important on a we-are-all-humans-and-while-living-on-this-earth-we-ought-to-understand-each-other-as-much-as-possible type of way, but it is also quite important when considering developmental economics. Many, many, many people have gone to societies around the world with economic fixes they developed at home only to find that they didn’t work because they didn’t appreciate or understand the complexity of the differences that exist across vastly different cultures.
On a similar note, I have been thinking about the ways in which I may be “desiring to be closer than what [I] know is safe.” To me, Michigan is safe. The United States is comfortable. It is a place where I have been for nearly all of my life. Many walls do, on the surface, exist between a young adult from a predominantly white small town in Michigan and people currently living in India. Some of these walls are what make me feel comfortable because they are what I am accustomed to, but by working in India I hope to extend these walls beyond my own comfort and fill them with constantly changing intricacies rather than solidifying them.
I don’t want to seamlessly live in India for two months as if I am entirely comfortable. Rather than being comfortable, I want to be uncomfortable. I want to break down walls that may already exist between myself and the people I will meet in India. I want to gain a broad understanding of Indian culture that I wouldn’t be able to gather by reading articles and books. I want to learn about what make us different. I want to learn about our similarities. I want to begin to find the flux and fluidity in the walls that seem to separate us.