Here, I am different


The first thing that hits you is the smell.

“It’s the body odor, I think,” my aunt said.

I am 100% Indian, and yet India is a foreign place to me. There you go. Here is another story about an American-born Indian discovering her roots.

I stepped into the airport in a country that I hadn’t visited since I was very young — too young to acknowledge the difference in culture that came with this difference in race. Every single observation I had on my trip to India led to

my understanding of the extent to which that difference in race can change the culture surrounding me.

The first thing that hit me was the smell.

The next thing that hit me was the heat. The type of heat that you remember because of the sweat at the base of your back and the back of your neck. The smell and the heat together carried thoughts.

They carried thoughts of all the aspects of this different culture I had missed when I was younger..

They carried thoughts of large, black mustached men who scratch their balls and women who smack their food in their open mouths; thoughts of aggressive traffic; thoughts of the fear that someone will steal your bag; thoughts of milk smells tastes different, sugar that tastes different, and water that feels different. I’m still in the airport but I think of the rickshaws outside, the dirt covered roads, the stick shift taxicabs with drivers who spit paan and excessively sweat, the lack of seat belts, cars that travel on the wrong side of the road, the honks and horns, and the forgetfulness and hearing impediments of my elderly relatives.

One step outside, and my nose is already blocked. The dust in the air consumes my breathing. My skin itches. My mouth is dry. But I’m distracted by the intensity of the traffic. There aren’t any clear roads. The red light can sometimes mean “screw you, I’m going”.

The streets are lined with stray dogs, motorcycles, bikes, men on the street and palm trees.

“You have to see chaos and you have to see order also,” my mom said. But what hits me about this culture and this race is chaos — as superficially American that makes me seem.

And then I reach my aunt’s home. All I can focus on is the mosquitos, the dingy elevators, the peeling wallpaper, the toilets made from a hole in the ground and the lizards sitting next to me.

I look to the right of my aunts’ balcony (on the 5th floor) and see just into a person’s house. A teenage girl walks out and grabs some towels from the line across the balcony ceiling. I always forget there are no dryers in India.

She looked as if she could be the house’s maid. She was probably younger than me.

My aunt and my mom told me about how the movie “The Help” is a parallel to class distinction in India, except for America’s race distinction. Within one race here, people are stratified to such a great degree.

These young maids leave their kids to take care of someone else’s kids. They eat after us, they wear no shoes and they can’t use our bathrooms.

Although I have always seen and noticed race in America, it is only after I stepped into a developing country that I realized the way race changes culture in all these varying aspects.

Whether it was because of what the overcrowded streets exposed or because of what the maid next door to my aunt exposed, I finally could register that, yes, this completely new race is accompanied by a completely unknown culture.


The milk smells different, the sugar tastes different, and the water feels different. And I realize: here, I am different.