We wake up to one of those horrible wake-up sounds that makes you want to scream and dive for cover under the blanket. It’s Sunday for *&^%$!’s sake! A very loud male voice on a very loud loudspeaker blares: “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” This goes on for quite some time. Does he NOT realize that he can be heard seemingly for miles?
We get dressed and go look over the balcony, as the voice is coming from right under our window. There are men in red caps running up and down the street, tying Communist flags to every tree and pole on the block. The street has been barricaded and large tarps are being placed on the pavement.
We head down, to find out what all these Communists are up to. We go to the head table to find out what’s going on and told that it’s the annual children’s ‘sit and draw’ contest in honor of Jyoti Basu, a long serving Minister in the Government who passed away last year.
Children of all ages are scattered on the tarps, eagerly bent over their work. They have all brought their own supplies. We wander in and out, photographing. One little girl is so good that I’d buy her pastel painting in a minute.
We are offered tea. We are occasionally approached by someone asking where we are from, what we are doing in Kolkata, some want our names and phone numbers.
One official keeps asking me to sit down. I obediently obey, wondering if he doesn’t like the fact that I’m taking pictures, or if he’s being considerate and wants to provide seating for a lady.
No one asks Alan to sit. Once his back is turned, I get up and get back on the move. After the 3rd or 4th “Madam, sit down please,” I stay put.
Within minutes, I’m surrounded by a group of the artist-children. One little girl saddles up to me: “………” (in Bangla).
“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.” She’s baffled and repeats her musical question.
“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.” This goes on for 2-3 times.
“Hindi?” “So sorry, no Hindi, only English.”
“Urdu?” “So sorry, no Urdu, only English.”
“Tamil?” “So sorry, no Tamil, only English” More quizzical looks, more “………”
I distract her by taking her picture.
Why would she assume that a white woman would speak any of these languages? What does this mean? Is she so accepting that there are no cultural differences between us? I was so taken by this raw innocence. When does it start to change? I feel a little sad. I prefer her beautiful naivety to the potential adult suspicion and harshness.
We have been in India for over 3 weeks now. We live in Lake Market, a fantastic part of town, with one of the best markets. It’s a middle/working class part of town that we felt comfortable in immediately. Kolkata has a soul that is palatable and our neighborhood reflects the city’s character. We rarely see a white person here.
But the other day I saw a white 20-something young woman, a graduate student perhaps, on the street. I was shocked, and my first reaction was: “What is she doing here?” I stopped short, a dangerous move on a crowded street as someone almost crashed into me. “So, sorry, so sorry.” Why did that thought even enter my head? I’m a white woman also. I was not questioning her right to be here, it was just a shock, as Alan is the only other Westerner I see. Occasionally our French friend, Julie, but she’s been here for so long, has some Spanish blood, olive skin, speaks perfect Bangla, is married to a Bengali, and I kind of see her as Indian. I just realized that I forgot that I’m a white person in Kolkata.
Alan and I love to travel, experience other cultures, other languages. I always want to blend into the country – I don’t like to be seen as a foreigner. I want to go incognito. Photographing helps me do that – I’m watching my environment carefully, connecting with my surroundings, with the people around me. The lens separates me and intently connects me simultaneously. Later, at the computer, or collecting and assembling objects for a piece, the relationship to the images deepens. Sometimes I can feel the chi in my fingertips.
Wanting to merge into the landscape probably has something also to do with my desire to belong. Before I was 6 years old, I had lived in 4 countries, been a refugee once and an immigrant twice. Twenty years later I immigrated again. This time I stayed put, rooted, and made Chicago my home.
I grew up in a household where two languages were spoken on a daily basis, a third one joined years later. My ears were accustomed to the different sounds, grammar and intonations. It was easy to flip back and forth, and often words from one language found their way into a sentence. When I moved to the U.S. from Canada, I heard and spoke only English – this was unnatural and I’d often get bored with the language. Upstate NY wasn’t even accented.
When I got a job working on the west-side of Chicago, in an African-American community, I was very excited. I was going to be part of another culture, learn to understand a different way of speaking… I then had to think about that. Was I thinking the kids were speaking another language, and if I thought that, was I being racist?
Whenever I hear another accent, I’m always curious about it’s ethnic origin. There’s something stimulating and exciting in the fact that someone looks and speaks differently from me – it makes me feel more alive. I also tend to mimic accents – I don’t mean to – it just happens. Sometimes I have to make a real effort to remain “me.” I don’t want to insult, I don’t want to patronize, I really just want to blend in and belong.
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