Taj Lake Palace
This is my first-world life.
I never wanted for anything, got a good education, found progressively responsible jobs, lived in nice places, owned my own cars and homes and in general have lived a pretty privileged life.
This is my life; I know no other.
But, funny thing about a visit to a third world country: it gives us new lenses with which to view the world around us. A new outlook on the world. And once seen, it’s hard to shake.
Oh, sure, it’s not like I was completely sheltered. I read widely and I know that my life isn’t everyone’s life.
But I didn’t sit right in the middle of it in all my shiny Americanism until I went to India.
In May I visited the 9/11 memorial in NYC, a big, shiny, expensive monument to lives lost. There’s so much suffering and need in our country and people who need our help. Why wouldn’t it have been a suitable memorial to use those millions to create something more important–services to people and animals in need? Why did we need an expensive monument to tragedy?
Because this is the way we think in America. Not in human terms. In big steel monuments where we can wallow in our righteousness.
And that upsets me. So I’m going to wander a little around this topic.
India’s version of a big national tragedy was the November 2008 week when terrorist killed tourists and took hostages in 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. I didn’t see any big monuments, although smaller ones might exist, I don’t know. Maybe not.
The attack’s toll was far smaller than our Sept. 11 attack, but it was the catalyst for some serious security changes. That’s how India responded. India now requires hotels with three or more stars to install special security equipment.
In fact, every time we entered a hotel in India, we went through airport-level screening. Every single time. We walked through a scanner. We were wanded. Our bags and purses were x-rayed. We couldn’t enter or re-enter a hotel without a screening. We just did it. We didn’t complain. We didn’t think twice. We just did it.
If this were routine in our country, how long do you think it would take for someone in the U.S. to file a lawsuit that this kind of screening violated their rights?
During our trip we took three flights inside India and went through airport screening each time. It was elaborate.
First, men and women were screened separately. Two lines. The women’s line was much longer because, unlike men, we were screened in a makeshift curtained privacy booth.
After going through the scan machine, women stepped into a booth and up onto a small wooden platform. A crisply dressed female soldier asked us to hold our arms out and then went over every inch of us with a hand-held wand. After that, she used her hands to feel every part of us. One even lifted my shirt and felt underneath. Serious attention was paid to my underwire bra, which always set the wand off.
The military working airport security were focused and serious. They meant business. As a native Indian said on our trip: “Police? Corrupt. Military? Not corrupt.”
The screening was inconvenient. Still, we just did it. It was required. We knew it would help keep us safe. It was a very small thing to do for safety’s sake. So the female soldier touched my body. So what? There was no complaining in our long line, except for once, when we women were still in line dangerously close to our flight boarding time.
And again, it occurred to me that if this were the U.S., it wouldn’t take long before a legal complaint was filed that the female soldier got too personal with a screening. That it was inconvenient and unnecessary. Blah blah blah.
Traveling to countries so unlike our own prove out the many benefits we enjoy as Americans. But they also show in sharp relief an unflattering side of our country and our people. How we seem to be such an entitled people. Spoiled. Whiney. Complaining when our first world lives are inconvenienced.
Because we have nothing to compare it to, we live without even thinking about our entitlements. Our petulance. I can understand why those in developing countries might not like or respect us. The things many of us think are important are really not at all important in the greater scheme of things.
Many of us do not think about others because we’re so busy making sure we get ours, what we feel we’re entitled to.
Even as I walked through India seeing beautiful sights I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be mistaken for an entitled, Ugly American. Because I don’t think I am.
The best trips change us, and India has changed me and my point of view.
More on that shortly.