22 September 2011

People Watching

August 8
I am sitting in the Chicago O'Hare airport, domestic terminal, just past security on a cushioned chair (a chair with a back, mind you) beneath the massive departure screens. I am between my fifteen-hour flight from India and my three-hour flight to Salt Lake. I'll be here for another seven hours, though, so I don't know which gate to go to yet. In the meantime, I'm people watching.

The long flight was 98% Indians, which was surprising to me considering the many vehement complaints I've heard about obtaining an American visa. Unlike my flight to Delhi, though, this proportion didn't make me feel slightly uneasy at being so obviously a minority. After going through customs, I took a train to terminal three and walked back into America.

I felt an unacknowledged kinship with the few Indians I could see. One guard insisted a woman take off her bangles for the security check. He was a bit short with her as he demanded she remove the symbolic equivalent of a wedding ring. An elderly woman was helping a frail little relative to remove his jacket. A family checked their boarding pass as they searched for the proper gate. One woman walked by with a shaved head and maroon robes. Part of me wanted to call for the attention of these people; they were more familiar than the bleached-blonde tourist wearing booty shorts and carefully applied make-up. Last year that man wearing a turban and black-rimmed glasses would have been strange to me, but now all these Caucasians are strange.



There's a twelve-year-old boy with a plaid shirt and a mullet pulling his brown belt on to his khaki pants. An overweight couple hurries by, wheeling their carry-ons and sporting bright polos. Handsome young businessmen in sharp black suits. An athlete in Nikes. A girl dressed in neutral colors carrying a hot pink bag labeled "LIVE" in block letters. I suddenly remember that the young girl looking at my notebook can read English just as well as I can. A semi-Jewish college student from Massachusetts sits next to me and strikes up a conversation. He'd spent a month in Israel this summer. We talk and people watched for over an hour. He was late for his flight when he left.

I've forgotten what it's like to understand what the people around me are saying. I'd forgotten how different this place is from the other side of the globe.

There's a girl with her brown hair tied back in a ponytail wearing a striped sweater, jeans, and moccasins, lugging two enormous bags on her shoulders. There are Africans and Asians and Mexicans and indistinguishable whites. When we make eye contact we quickly look away.

But the longer I sit here, the more normal it becomes. Yes, my seat has a back and leather-covered padding--so what? Isn't that normal to dress and act as Americans at the airport do? It's not long before the woman in the elegant brown sari is less natural than the woman in the super tight jeans and wedge heels. Rachel was right; I probably won't have a lower standard for public restrooms in the U.S.  after India. I will probably revert to the same standard as before.

But in some ways, I have changed. These are specific and blatant, like my views on the politics between Tibet and China and the way that I went through that new security scanner that shows an x-ray of you beneath your clothes without batting an eye, but also subtle and undefinable. I gained confidence as I came of age in India. I also gained a new understanding of life and humanity. The American way is not the only way, nor is it always the best way. This isn't the first time I've thought that, but it's the first time I've understood and believed it. Wearing a sari, squatting on the kitchen counter to make chapatti, honking instead of signaling--these are foreign, not inferior. A bucket shower saves water; walking keeps you fit and cleans the air.

The woman behind me is telling her husband that she read about people in the States who don't have cars. She is wondering how they shop for groceries and concludes that they must shop every two days and not entertain guests for dinner. "It's just a different norm than the one I've known all my life," she said.

In short, Indians and Americans are "same same, but different." We both hang out in the Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Our lives are different, but under the skin we're the same.

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