We four sat around a cosy dining table in West Seattle, three Americans and one Zealander, eating a home-cooked meal of dal, chard, rice, naan and roti, followed by in-season peaches and Trader Joe's dark chocolate for dessert. A shared connection kept us telling stories for hours, many recalled with laughter, others punctuated by weighty silences. The connection was not a person (although it often felt like it) but a place: we had all been to India.
Contrary to the foreigner-in-India cliché, we did not sit around talking endlessly about so-called 'spirituality' and gurus (although yoga, meditation and 'Eat Pray Love' were each discussed for longer than a passing mention). None of us went to India in search of The Answer, and none of us came away with it neatly packaged and ready for the mass market. I say this because I acknowledge there is a preconceived notion of the India pilgrim among residents of English-speaking nations. I spent three years in India but I too hold this preconception, fuelled by decades of long-haired weed smokers and incessant Om chanters monopolising the image of the India tourist.
No matter what I say here, and no matter how we present ourselves to people we meet, some will fail to see anything else in us except that preconceived image. That's the extreme, the cliché that gives rise to the accepted wisdom. The norm is a little less blunt and quite a lot more awkward. Each of us were somewhat surprised by the reactions we received from the folks back home, once we made it back home. In America, it went something like this:
“Oh my GOD, you went to India? Oh, wow! India! Well... what was it like?”
“Well... it was India, I guess. Kind of hard to sum it up.”
“I'll bet. Wow! India. Did you do the whole 'Eat Pray Love' thing?”
“...hah, maybe, I guess.”
And in New Zealand, it went more like this:
“So, I heard you went to India.”
“Yeah, three years.”
“Wow. Three years in India.”
“That's pretty... cool.”
It isn't that your compatriots don't care about your overseas experience. Starting a conversation about it is actually hard for both parties: you, the former expat, aren't sure what level of detail to go into or where to even start talking about it, while your fellow countryman often just doesn't have anything they feel they can relate to. For seemingly many former expats, the conversation quickly turns back to the present:
“So, anyway, what's going on with you?”
The conversation at the dinner table wasn't entirely focused on India either, of course. Our ongoing lives meandered in and out of the conversation. Plans for the near future were clarified and acknowledged. We have all moved on from our respective India experiences, some more than others, although we all hope to return someday.
India has become part of our own minor legends, though. Each of us is an artist in some form – not helping to debunk the foreigner-in-India cliché, I know – and the people, the traffic, the spices, the English, the beasts and the colour of India have all become valuable artistic, sensate and emotional resources. We accumulated enough of these resources and experiences to clearly picture whatever India story was being told at that dining table, and to be able to seamlessly offer a story of our own in return.
If it weren't for fatigue at the end of a long, warm summer's day, we could've kept talking all night.
Photo credit: theamericanresident.com