by Xiang Siow
Guest post by former Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program intern Xiang Siow. He is currently studying abroad in India through the University of Chicago.
Greetings from India! I’ve only been here for a short while but I’m already feeling quite at home and getting back into the school routine. I’m keeping busy with three hours of class a day, including one hour of Hindi. I’m even able to read some of the street and store signs now! Aside from learning Hindi, what we’re learning in class about Indian history and current events is definitely helping me understand this tremendously complex and interesting country.
I’ve heard so much about India from Indians I have met at university, people who have visited here, and of course, through depictions of the country in movies, books, and music. Perhaps most so, I recall Indian American friends speaking of their experiences in India and how their extended families there always welcomed them warmly when they visit. I remember stories of abundant hugs and kisses, presents, and of course, food. I can definitely see and feel that culture of hospitality in the extremely gracious way I have been received by the staff at my hotel, various tourist sites, and local stores.
As an Asian American who has been to other countries in Asia (often to visit family—and be stuffed with food), I am struck by the similarities I see between India and other places in Asia. Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt the same amount of liveliness, excitement, and energy on the streets as I’ve experienced elsewhere. Some would describe this as overcrowdedness and sheer chaos. I like to think of it instead as a passionate intensity of life, with merchants vocally trying to sell items to us foreigners at exorbitant prices, street vendors selling local drinks and food, and people always rushing to another place. These strong sights, sounds, and smells have been some of my fondest reminders of being in Asia.
There are of course differences between my experiences so far here and in other Asian countries. There are sights, sounds, and smells unique to India, like the autorickshaws looking for customers, delicious dosas and wada pav sold on the streets and the vibrant colors of the numerous fabric shops.
One thing that is definitely different for me is being immediately perceived as “foreign” by the local population. In my previous travels around Asia, when visiting family, for example, I’ve been able to “fit in” a little better because I look like most other people on the street. Here, however, I’ve had the experience of being pointed at and stared at by people who have never seen an East Asian face. The other day, when I was in a store buying a hat, the storekeeper even took a video of me! I was quite flattered by this “paparazzi.”
I do wonder exactly what I am perceived as. Unlike most of the other members of my group, who of course have had similar (and more extreme) experiences on the streets and in stores, I am not sure I am immediately seen as American. One of my Indian American classmates used this ambiguity to her advantage by getting a 95-rupee discount at a historical fort we visited. (There are sharp discounts for Indian nationals at historical sites; foreigners often have to pay up to 20x more for entry). I, however, could not pretend to be Indian and had to pay the foreigner fee. Exactly what type of foreigner was I though? Perhaps after I open my mouth it is obvious enough that I am an Asian American and not just Asian—but do everyday Indians have a consciousness of the Asian American community to recognize that people like me exist? If they don’t, I wonder when and if such an awareness will develop. As countries throughout Asia rise on the world stage, what role will be played by Asian Americans of all ethnicities, especially those who have spent considerable time in Asia? Might we, as Asian Americans, be able to impact how the rest of world understands America and what “an American” is?