When I decided to come to India, I not only had to prepare myself—buy a guidebook, research appropriate dress, learn a few phrases of Kannada—I also had to prepare my friends and family.
A good chunk of them knew very little about the country. What they did know they learned from the incomprehensive narrative written by the American mainstream media, which usually touches on two topics: rape and yoga.
In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert documented the Western practice of spiritual tourism in her “priv-lit” memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Six years later, a 23-year-old was violently raped in Delhi, dying soon after from her injuries. Though glaringly dissimilar, Gilbert’s novel and the indescribably horrific rape and murder of Singh captured the international public imagination, reducing popular discourse around India to rape and yoga.
So, when I told my friends and family my great news: that I would be moving to Bengaluru for a journalism internship and I would be doing lots of solo traveling before, during and after, well, you can imagine their reactions.
I was upset when expressions of curiosity turned to grimaces and I was enraged when those unfamiliar with India or really anything outside American borders felt justified in saying things like: “Do you know what happens to women there?” Let it be known that a straight, white male said that to me and I did not react well.
Sexual violence is a problem in India and political and social change is needed to ensure the safety of women here and everywhere. But relentlessly linking a country of over 1 billion people to these topics is excruciatingly unfair to its diverse population. It would be like assuming every American supports Donald Trump and gleefully shoots AK-47s for time-pass.
My experience in India has been wonderful, mind-opening and enlightening. I have traveled many places throughout the South on my own and haven’t experienced the slightest hiccup (Ok, one time I forgot which bus was mine after going to the bathroom at a rest-stop).
Maybe India was a scary place at first, maybe I nearly chewed off my fingernails as I adjusted that first week, but any dramatic transition comes with feelings of fear and anxiety. India and the U.S. are radically different places, so unless you’re a superhuman immune to culture-shock, some trepidation is unavoidable.
Next month, when I return to the U.S., I am going to tell my friends and family about my time in India—in Bengaluru, Mysuru, Chennai, Chidambaram, Panaji, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Mumbai. I hope my stories help them construct a versatile, whole image of India, something I myself am continuing to do with every remaining day.