(For C, because he asked, and is very like the only person I know who has not heard this story 12 times already.)
I went to India while I was in grad school. My friend Rashmi invited me to her wedding and I thought, “Screw the panic attacks. I’m going.” It was the farthest (furthest?) I’ve been from Louisville – after a 22 hour plane ride, then a 2 hour plane ride, then a 10-hour train ride later… I got to Palagkat, India.
This story isn’t about the whole trip, just a couple of moments. Moments where something got lost in translation.
Like when I asked Rashmi, “Should I bring enough clothes for the whole three weeks, or can I do my laundry?”
She laughed and shook her head in the charming way some Indians do that makes them look like bobbleheads and can mean anything from “yes” to “I’m listening” to “no.”
“Oh, Sara,” she said. “We have help for that sort of thing.”
Translation: we have a house maid who will beat the life out of your clothing on a huge rock, then hang it to (never) dry on a line in a place where it is so humid, there is just enough air to breath the water.
“Rashmi, do I uh…need to bring toilet paper?”
Laughing, head bobbing: “Oh, Sara, no. We have toilet paper.”
Translation: “We will offer you goofy Westerner something on a roll that is thin enough to read through and then you must not put it in the toilet, lest you clog it. You must put it in a plastic bag and the above-mentioned house maid will clear it away.”
None of the house servants spoke a word of English, so there was a lot of smiling and nodding and pointing on my part.
My mom gave me a silver ankle chain for my birthday, a few months before this trip. I wore it, one of the only pieces of jewelry I took with me, thinking I didn’t want to keep track of that stuff on the way to and from other side of the planet. I also wore a lot of long sari-ish skirts and modest t-shirts, thinking that I would be somehow less offensive this way.
It didn’t seem to matter though. I wasn’t offensive, for the most part, but I was in a very remote part of India – surrounded by farms and the occasional Ayurvedic center (which, sadly, were all closed at the time of year I went). I am a very, very, very pale person. I have dark hair and light eyes. This is an unusual combo to see in southern India. I never got used to be stared at or pointed at, or, on one occasion, gripped in an old woman’s hands as she implored me to, “Go back to America and tell them about India.”
You think I’m going to keep this a secret? Not a chance.
The night before the wedding, almost forty people were at the bride’s parents’ home, just talking, relaxing before the big day. I’d been in India for almost two weeks and while the jet lag had abated, I was still uneasy all the time – people staring at me was part of it, but also just culture shock.
I sat in a corner, drinking tea, and trying not to look so uncomfortable. To my right sat the groom’s grandmother, a Buddha-woman with glasses, wearing an orange and green sari. She didn’t speak English, so we didn’t have much to say to each other. But at some point, she seemed very interested in my legs or feet.
She looked down at my lower half. Per local custom, I was shoeless. I wore a long navy blue linen skirt. She frowned and turned to her right, speaking rapid Mallayallam to the auntie on the other side. Auntie leaned around and looked at my legs as well.
Now they were both frowning a little bit.
The house was too crowded for me to really get up and go anywhere, so I sat. Frowning granny and frowning auntie continued their concerned conversation.
Eventually, the party broke up and I tracked Rashmi down.
I asked her about the frowning.
“Oh, Sara,” (headbob laugh), “they wondered where your other ankle bracelet is.”
“My other…? This is from my mom. I only have one.”
“Yes, well, the only people who wear one ankle bracelet here are prostitutes.”
She continued, “The servants have been asking if they can help you find your other ankle bracelet. They assume you lost it.”
Right, because there’s no way mistress brought home a dirty American whore.
The day after the wedding, I bought a pair of ankle bracelets for myself, my sister, my mom, my best friends.