Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Stranger in my Own Land
When I lived in Kushiro, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, I was one of about 20 foreigners in a city of 200,000. As a blondish, blue-eyed person who was taller than half the population, it’s fair to say I stuck out. Once when I was taking a walk off the beaten path, a child ran screaming from me, which was only funny later. At the time, it felt like what it was: utter rejection based on nothing but my appearance.
A year ago, my family and I went to India for a wedding reception my in-laws gave me and my husband, Mowgli (not his real name). There, I experienced something similar, but more intense, as it was combined with open staring of the sort that’s somewhat evident in the photo above. It’s not malicious, it’s just unapologetically open.
The local Hindu temple is a place I adore; it is peaceful and beautiful and full of the vibes of people worshipping and meditating. The feeling I get there is akin to how I feel in an empty church. There are rituals I find comforting in both Hinduism and Catholicism, but it is the quietness inside me once the rituals are done that keeps me coming back to the temple.
We went to the temple last Sunday – they are open seven days a week, but we tend to go on Sundays because that’s when they serve the best masala dosas in town. When we walked into the basement to order food, I received an open stare, which I greeted with a smile, as usual. Because of space restrictions, we ended up sitting at the staring guy’s table, which was fine. I was occupied with Mowgli, and he was occupied with his companion. I didn’t talk with him, he didn’t talk with me.
The episode got me thinking, though, about the usefulness of feeling like a stranger in your own country. There is a visceral understanding that comes with being made to feel like an outsider, and it fosters empathy – always a good thing in my book.