I’ve been a tourist in a lot of places. My father loves travel, and his kids were dragged along on as many trips as the school year would allow. My younger brothers spent a lot of time in our fancy hotels (my father also likes luxury travel), playing video games and watching TV and ordering pizza like there was no tomorrow— a freedom reserved only for vacations. But during my childhood, I was the one that tagged along with my parents, going to castles and galleries and lakes and museums. When my brothers came, they usually trudged and grumbled. I traipsed. (They hated me for it). Though they’re more grown up now, and much more excited by the prospect of journeys to other lands, I always won the best traveler award back in the day— mostly because I agreed to everything my parents suggested back then, but also because my head was always full of faraway lands and magic adventures.
On every holiday, we saw other Indian tourists. Scores of them— and my parents always had the same comment. “So many tourists!,” they said disdainfully, because somehow we were better tourists, or not tourists at all. I usually nodded my head and voiced my agreement, echoing the seemingly obvious fact. What makes you not-a-tourist anyway? Do you have to stay in hostels, or “eat local”, or go to hole-in-the wall eateries that you’d never find on Lonely Planet? From what I understand, a tourist is simply someone visiting a foreign place for fun. But as the world became increasingly globalized, tourist became an adjective. “Oh going to the Bean in Chicago is such a tourist thing to do,” scoffs someone. Tourist is a pejorative adjective now, and that intrigues me.
When we saw other Indian vacationers, everyone went into competition mode. We had to look better travelled, more at home, more classy, more like citizens of the world. We scoffed at those unsophisticated idiots distributing smelly Indian snacks, and god forbid someone showed up in a saree— that was foreign vacation faux pas. At the time, I followed my instincts, and did what I saw around me. I looked our competitors up and down, I put on my shades, I laughed nonchalantly and strolled around with the self-assuredness of a local. It was all a show of course. I loved overreacting to regular tourist sights; squealing excitedly and taking a 100 pictures is part of my personality. So why this charade? To be honest, I never understood at the time.
When we saw these other Indian families, I always seeked out the girls. I looked at their outfits, and made sure to smooth my own. I gave them looks of unclear purpose— what exactly was I trying to convey? That my vacation was more Instagram-worthy? We had to be the BEST Indian family in that area. The stereotypes about dirty, uncivilized Indians who spoke broken English and asked silly questions always hovered in the backdrop, making us determined not to be them. And so when we saw someone acting— to put it simply— very Indian in a foreign land, we disassociated immediately. Why are they so noisy? (Read: uncivilized) Why are they eating paranthas on the train? (Read: uncultured) Why are they dressed like that? (Read: not Western enough). This unreasonable, strange competition extends into a far more alienating pattern: that of pitting members of minorities against each other. We were scared of being judged, and so we judged others, secure in our own little bubble of superiority. I never admitted that I really wanted a bite of that parantha. And it wasn’t just us, it was everyone. When I darted my territorial eyes around, I found ten more staring back.
But I’m beginning to gain some clarity, and to understand how layered and deep this problem really is. Growing up as a woman, I’ve bought the disturbing competitive tendencies that are packaged and sold to girls by the mass media, by consumerism and the society around us. We’re somehow, implicitly, taught to compete with other women. “You’re not like other girls” is every cliché romance novel’s favorite compliment. But why can I only win when other girls lose? Why do I only shine when other women are trampled on? Girls are shallow, girls are bitchy, girls are out to get each other— these turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. When I tell people I went to an all girls school, the first reaction I get from many people is this: “Wasn’t that an extremely toxic environment to grow up in?” And often times I agreed, remembering a fight I had with someone over a leadership position. I misinterpreted it as the norm of female behavior because that was the meaning society gave it, and not as a normal consequence of students reaching for their ambitions in the same space. But I’ve grown so much since then. Being nurtured by so many women has fundamentally defined who I am, in more positive ways than negative— I was surrounded by women who had ambition, strength and compassion. Besides, boys fight and gossip and talk behind each other’s backs too. It’s a human phenomenon, not a female one. All I know is that women are pitted against each other constantly, and that we’ve been ingeniously molded into instruments of our own oppression by the patriarchal hegemony.
That’s why my eyes always found the other girls first, because despite all the amazing women I knew, I felt the need to prove that I was better than them. This disturbing pattern of behavior is apparent within and across minorities, but I remained blind to it— I had never experienced its debilitating force.
And then suddenly I was on the receiving end like I had never been before. On a school trip to Malaysia with my classmates, we visited an amusement park and screamed our lungs out and giggled like 13 year olds discovering The Princess Diaries for the first time. Our teachers rebuked us lacklusterly, they didn’t really mind. But I saw our then Head Girl, sniggering with her friends in a corner, staring very pointedly at us. I was crossing their path when I heard her say—”Look at the way they’re behaving, I bet they’ve never been abroad before”. I stopped, shocked. The Head Girl, our supposed role model and guide, was talking about us. Fears I did not know I had at the time were materializing— suddenly I was the barbaric Indian. How had this happened? I thought long and hard. Her comments reeked of privilege. Does going abroad make you a better behaved person? How could it? Then I thought again. This was me. These were the words all my subtle actions were whispering in these past few years. I reeked of privilege. We needed solidarity, not more competition. Divide and rule. That was the Britishers’ number one strategy when they colonized us, and somehow its echoes were still rippling all over the world.
There is so much glamour associated with travel. #wanderlust is plastered over people’s Facebook timelines and Instagrams and whatever other social media accounts. While I’m no stranger to the thrill of exploring new places, there’s so much elitism attached to these fantasies. It seems unfair to use travel as a metric to decide how “cool” a person is. The farther away you vacationed from India, the cooler you became. Extra points if you brought home expensive foreign gifts for all your friends.
On the flipside, people romanticise small, developing areas (such as places in India) as “uncharted territory”. This is to ignore its nuances and problems and simply turn it into the new hipster hotspot. This is to strip a country of its complexities and turn it into its stereotypes, for some kind of self-given tag of “explorer”. I don’t mean that travelling is a no-no. It can be eye-opening, beautiful and truly worth it. But what we have to realize is that travel is inaccessible to so many people, and our privilege in experiencing it does not render us more worthy in any way.
Now that I’m a student in the United States, I marvel at how differently I feel about fellow Indians. Navigating a strange country when you don’t look and speak like its residents can be a lonely upward climb, and suddenly (and hypocritically, might I add) Indianness became my favorite cushion of comfort. I was one of those annoying children who said things like, “I want to branch out of my comfort zone in college”, cimplying that I wanted some foreign friends too. Yes, having friends from all over the world is fun and opens your eyes to new experiences and other such tropes from a college brochure on diversity, but there’s nothing like home. And when home is on the other side of the globe, your people become your home. Seeing a complete stranger who happens to be Indian no longer merits the usual sizing up. Now it’s the look of kinship as we cross each other on the street, heads bowed against the steely cold wind. It’s the shared eye roll of “White people, am I right?” in a class when someone inevitably makes some problematic statement casually. It’s the ability speak in your native tongue without being afraid that you’ve accidentally slipped into it and no one knows what you’re saying. It’s not being self conscious about how your Indian accent sounds against the chorus of American voices, and I need that for my sanity, my well-being, my peace. We don’t need to be the best Indian in the room, or in class, or at the museum, or on the train. That’s us succumbing to the dividing, and allowing the ruling to continue for the unforeseeable forever. There are no better tourists, there is no winning at the game of foreignness. There are just tourists, and just foreigners, and there is just one way to travel— in unity. Besides, how else would I squeal about tourist sites in both Hindi and English?