Being an Indian abroad might not be exotic but everyone knows about India unless someone was living under a rock. I have been fortunate in having the opportunity of understanding more about my country through the eyes of people from other countries during my travels. The good news is that most of the opinions of India, though at times in bits and pieces are pretty flattering. While India is grappling with the effects of globalization on its culture. Indian culture has long since been globalized. As India reaches out to the world, people elsewhere absorb and understand more of Indian culture.
Sometimes aspects of Indian culture are more popular than in India itself, it amazes me when an American girl has more understanding of yoga than I have. My understanding of yoga is unfortunately limited to shavasana (the pose where I can close my eyes and sleep). Bikram made yoga quite popular in the US but yoga has been known and practiced long before that in other countries. Every year people come to India specifically to learn yoga at month long retreats or ashrams. For some yoga is a way of life, like the lady I met in San Diego who had tea with me one morning at a beach side cafe. She followed a satvic way of life and had adopted an Indian name from her Guru. I also remember a conversation I had with a young girl in Conshohocken, Pennslyvania. We were walking together to the hotel we were staying at and she told me that she had selected Ayurveda as one of the subjects in her course and was writing a thesis about it.
Bollywood is a topic most people get excited about when I tell them my country of origin. Be it a Nigerian man confessing his love for Madhuri Dixit while singing ‘Dhak dhak’ or an Indonesian boy extending his arms Bollywood style and exclaiming, “India,Shahrukh Khan!” What made it more interesting was that the Indonesian boy was at the time standing on a rock with me in the middle of the sea at Tanah Lot temple, Bali. In Switzerland an old Swiss man inquired if I was an Indian actress because of my not suitable for snow attire! All thanks to the countless Bollywood songs shot in Switzerland with the actor swathed in a jacket and the actress wearing not much other than a skirt or a dress. The love for Bollywood extends to Iran too. Once an Iranian friend told me that during the 80’s and 90’s, Indians were called ‘Vijay’ there because of the cult popularity of Amitabh Bachchan movies in Iran.
Indian sarees, bangles and bindi is another topic of conversation I have had with strangers in other countries. A man in Thailand came to the conclusion that my husband and I were not honeymooners from India as I wasn’t wearing red bangles that most newly married girls from Punjab and a few northern states wear. I didn’t explain to him that I was from the south of India and did not have that tradition. I also have had the bindi conversation a couple of times, once with an Australian lady who was herself wearing a bindi and once with a group of young boys in Washington D.C. I tried to explain the third eye concept of the bindi without really having much success because the concept is a bit vague for me too.
I have had some very interesting conversations with people about Indian turmeric laced curries and food. Some liked Indian food, some not so much and some wondered how we could have curry everyday. Well most have the idea that curry is one dish and I still haven’t found a way to explain that Indians have different recipes and names of different dishes which are unanimously called curry by the West. But with more Indian restaurants and Indian food becoming popular, I believe there are many who can beat any Indian in a cook off ‘curry’ competition.
Religion is another aspect of India that fascinates many abroad, an American lady in L.A told me that she had a small Ganesha statue with a mouse behind his ear. Beef and cow worship is also a topic I have had many interesting discussions about. A lot of people who come to India are taken aback by the cows we have on Indian roads. As an Indian I have become quite immunized by the sight of cows on Indian roads and markets. Sometimes acting as a road divider and sometimes sunbathing on a beach. In most American restaurants the waiter would make it a point to double check with me, if I ordered a cheese burger. I find this gesture sweet and respectful to Indian culture. I have many such conversations and anecdotes filed away and it has become the best part of all my travels.
This post is written for the More Indian Than You Think contest by Lufthansa