“Keep on walking”, I thought to myself, hoping to fight off the habitual feelings of discomfort and weariness from settling in.
These efforts, however, were in vain: only a few seconds later, a voice accompanying the footsteps jolted my alertness back to life– a male’s voice.
At first, it was little more than a timid, barely audible “Ma’am”. I looked around hopefully at my surroundings, desperately wishing to find another possible intended recipient. Unfortunately though, the emptiness of the sidewalk made it undeniable that this stranger was looking to get the attention of no one other than myself – but a man’s attention was far from what I wanted when walking alone on the streets of India.
Resolved on not turning around, I ignored the voice and made my strides longer. An uncomfortable feeling began to tighten my chest and shorten my breath, my mind once again playing back the countless well-intentioned warnings from friends and family back home: “Be careful with men on the streets in India”, often followed by a “Do you have pepper spray?”. Further explanation was neither needed nor given, their worried looks enough to reveal the subtext, to make me feel as though I was little more than blonde, innocent and defenseless ‘bate’.
No matter, by the third “Ma’am”, now much louder and more urgent than the first, I had little choice but to turn around (albeit unwillingly). I was bracing myself for uncomfortable small talk, for questioning, for staring. And yet, this was far from what I actually found: there this stranger was with my notebook in his hands, having no intention to harm me or start any undesired conversation, if only to return to me what had fallen from my bag.
Amidst a jumble of thanks and nods of appreciation, I was left feeling highly ashamed. Why had I immediately assumed the worst of a man who had no intentions beyond coming through with an act of kindness? Why was I constantly keeping my guards so high in a place I was beginning to call home? At that point, I had been in India for close to two weeks, yet when out alone, I continued to refrain from making eye contact with any male. I walked fast – faster still when I felt as though I was being followed (which, no doubt due to an exaggerated amount paranoia, was often). I counted my each step that was bringing me closer to ‘safety’, attempting to avoid allowing my mind to go rampant on all the possible encounters with danger. I limited conversation with the rickshaw drivers and the fruit vendors and the familiar faces. And all in the hopes of not coming off as an easy target…
A consequence of this, however, was that I lived my fist moments of considerable independence in a state of almost constant fear and mistrust. My mind was too preoccupied with worrying about safety threats to appreciate the colors and beauty and chaos of my surroundings. The possibility of friendly interactions were almost completely eradicated, and feeling at ease or comfortable or confident all became impossible when shielding my smile with a stone-cold persona. What’s more, I was letting myself buy into this single story of Indian men. I was doing exactly what I always hoped I would not – allowing stereotypes affect the way I perceived strangers, solely based on their country of origin and culture. And yet, all it took was an act of kindness as simple as picking up a fallen notebook to force me to reconsider my pre-conceived judgments, to recognize that my single-story of Indian men was in no way automatically applicable to all.
This acknowledgement comes with its own set of challenges: now no longer satisfied with a one-sided narrative, I find myself struggling to find the balance between too much trust and naivety, and not a sufficient amount. I’ve heard enough stories and I’ve felt enough intense, undesirable stares to know that a certain degree of caution is warranted. And at the same time, I’ve also found myself, more often than not, in awe of the genuine kindness sent my way.
When, then, is it to be too weary? How much caution is it acceptable to forgo in exchange for a deeper sense of comfort, without putting yourself or your safety at risk? At what point does fear begin to get in the way of your immersion in a community that is not your own, and where can the line be drawn between living reasonably cautiously and unreasonably fearfully?
With each passing day and outing and interaction, my answers to these questions evolve. They adapt to my experience. They grow as I grow.
And that’s ok.