India: a new view of ourselves

December 19, 2013
taj lake fb

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.

goats n men

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.




14 comments on “India: a new view of ourselves
  1. Allen H says:

    And do you see no connection between the attitudes of Americans vs those if Indians and the wealth of America vs the squalor of India? We have a lot to compare ourselves to both today and in historical terms. Despite your apparent willingness to believe that it is merely a fortunate accident that we live as we do in this country, But it is not merely our Karma. There is cause and effect! We (mostly) complain not so much about inconvenience as we do about inefficiency, not so much about Government intervention as about inept Government programs. We are driven, impatient and intolerant of sloth and disregard – and there is a positive result. It may be kinder to accept mediocrity from everyone – but is India that you get not a less driven America.

    P.S. As a security professional I assure you that the Indian security process was inept and useless except as a public works program to employ folks doing nothing of value – precisely like our TSA.

    • admin says:

      Your questions are good ones and I’m going to have to think more about them.

      But right off the bat I can say that I believe there is more to life than technology, progress and efficiency. These things make our lives much easier and I’m thrilled that I was born into a society that has them. But why was i born here and not there? And what is the role of spirituality in all this? I know that you have an engineer’s eye but there is also heart, at least the way I view it. I’m re-reading Autobiography of a Yogi right now, which no doubt has had an impact in that regard.

      In my world I see many people complain of inconvenience vs efficiency, you’re lucky if your life doesn’t expose you to them. I live in a place where there are many spoiled and “entitled” people, the kind who feel they require special privileges over the bulk of society. I may or may not be one of them, but either way, it would be a conceit to think that I represent the bigger world, because I don’t. Not everyone is impatient of sloth and diseregard, Not everyone thinks like me.

      I can’t agree that India ‘s situation is a result of accepting mediocrity. It is to some extent a result of its history (as we are of ours). It’s got a long way to go.There is no way it can be the US at this early stage of its independence.

      I just finished Dalyrymple’s City of Djinns: A year in Delhi. He’s quite an historian about the Moghuls etc and I recommend it.

      As a lay person I have no idea if the Indian security measures were effective, you know more than I in that regard. My observation had more to do with how we respond to inconvenience–so quick to call the ACLU, etc. And yes, I’m a big-time liberal but that doesn’t mean I’m blind.

      Thanks for thoughtfully adding to this discussion. I know that Michael and I are going to talk about your observations and maybe we’ll have more to add then. (We have a houseguest for the next few days)

      • Allen H says:

        You speak of India as being in an early stage of independence – but to be honest I don’t really know what that means in the terms their social and economic values. We learn that it is among the oldest civilizations on the planet, with the oldest religion. Their value system has almost nothing to do with the brief period of British conquest. It is not the US because it chose not to be, not because it only recently got rid of the British influence – which be no means injected a cultural change to a market economy or a meritocratic value system. The British have ben gone since 1947 and India has been truly free of the Commonwealth since 1950. Just compare what they have done in the 63 years since the Indian Republic hit the world stage with what the United States achieved from 1776 to 1840. Oh, we were still slave based (as if india is not as we speak) and not comparable. OK then take the us from 1865 to 1928 as the comparison….or if you like take any, absolutely any 60 year in American history and compare the improvement in the general standard of living to the recent Indian experience. What India accepts is Karma rather than accountability, fate rather than current consequence of personal choice. Entitlement by birthright is an Indian concept not an American one – you have the shoes on the wrong feet.

        • admin says:

          More good points and yet I feel like there is more to it—this is a super-complicated subject that needs to be discussed 1/1. Entitlement that I see is not by birthright, it’s by wealth. Michael and I live smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley and that gives us a little different view. One day when we are in the same city we really do need to discuss this topic 1/1.

  2. Seeing our own ‘privilege’ can be very uncomfortable. I lived abroad for a year in the early 80’s and was struck by the crassness and materialistic nature of the US as I saw it from that distance and in comparison to the country I was living in.
    Funny, my post today touches, in a lighter way, on similar issues– of haves and have nots. Thank you for being so honest about your experience and feelings.

  3. Doreen McGettigan says:

    This post is thought provoking. I know there many ‘entitled’ Americans and I also know that there are many extremely generous and kind Americans that donate so much to countries like India.

  4. I just returned from Vietnam and Cambodia and, like you, thought I knew, in an intellectual way that we are privileged. But while I was there, I felt it more than thought it, and that made all the difference. On my return now, I am working to sustain the feelings of patience and a gratefulness (overused word) that I genuinely experienced while there.

    I am planning India in May 2014 and I am enjoying your posts on India. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post,

  5. Two years ago I read the novel Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts. Though it is autobiographical fiction, and nothing like anything I have ever read before, it opened my mind to the extreme complexity of all social/economic issues. The violence, distress, tragedy, and also beauty and kindness in the story, sticks in my mind. I realize how very little I know and have experienced in my middle-class US life. How small are my perspectives and beliefs. I’d like to think each of us has come into this particular life with a defining purpose. It would be the greatest gift for us to realize our purposes and clarify our connections and influences so we may do the greatest good. Personally, I see great beauty in diverse textures and color and form. You bring this out so well in your photos, Carol. I, for one, choose to focus on beauty where it is found. It is good for our souls, and good for our hearts and minds and bodies.

  6. Patricia says:

    Look what good conversation this started. Self- discovery is awesome.

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  1. […] novel I read several years ago- Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Her recent blog post: stuck a cord with me enough to elicit a response. See my comment […]

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