Andrea Orji, ’21
There is a common phrase in Hindi: ठीके (“teek-hey”) meaning “all is well”. Many times in my discussions with people at work, at the market or anywhere else I found myself at some point in the conversation they would nod their heads (side to side, not up and down) and assure me that all was well. At first I clearly didn’t know the meaning of the word, and was thoroughly confused by whether the side to side head nod meant yes, no or neither so the phrase didn’t mean much of anything to me. However, by the end of the trip it almost became a sort of mantra for me. Don’t be fooled, accepting that all was well and would continue to be definitely did not come to me very easily in the beginning but it did come eventually so here is the story of my quest to ठीके.
Golconda Fort was what I would call my first TWB experience (“Traveling While Black”). It was my first outing since coming to India, and I was really excited to spend some time with other people my age! Working at LVPEI, doing research I was mostly surrounded by ophthalmologists going through their fellowships, with families at home and a mindset of just getting through the work, not enjoying the city. So that weekend I Ubered to old Hyderabad, and found myself about 10 minutes ahead of the people I intended to meet up with. I bought my tickets and headed toward the entrance to wait for their arrival. Very quickly I realized I was attracting a lot of attention. People would point, whisper and laugh as they walked by. Some would openly walk up and circle as they inspected me. Still others would see me, gape and come back shortly after with their entire families who would do the same. Within a short time, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of people closing in on me as they laughed and pointed. My initial instinct was to yell, to slap away the phones taking unsolicited pictures of me, but I knew it was my temper talking and that it wouldn’t be wise to listen. So I just kept moving, and each time a new crowd started to gather I would walk to a new place. I repeated this sequence over and over, even getting followed by one man who would sprint after me, daughter in tow, then simply stop and stare with his camera in hand. This went on until the students I was meeting up with arrived, and the pressure seemed to dissipate as the 2 MIT students brought along some of the Indian friends they had made at the school they were doing research at. From then on, I tried to put aside the strong feeling that I was an animal at the zoo. I ignored the people who would go out of their way to roughly push past me, laughing as they walked away. I struggled trying to decide if I was imagining it all. Was I uncomfortable with the attention and picture requests as part of my nature or had people really been more aggressive to me because of my race?
Either way after that trip I found myself reluctant to go out. I focused on my project, shadowing and MCAT studying with little interest in leaving the hospital campus except for food. About a week into this lifestyle and extensive rumination, I decided that I didn’t want to allow people I didn’t even know affect my experience in Hyderabad. It seems fairly obvious, and in most ways in my usual life it was, but I had never experienced such intense/constant forms of discrimination and I was forced in that moment to reaffirm that choice for myself.
Once I did that things got a lot better. I still felt like I had to exude a certain energy when I went out to feel safe and it was exhausting, but definitely worth it. I found myself calling people out way more than I had ever been forced to before. When people literally spoke down to me, face contorted as if I were a baby; when I was ignored at grocery stores in favor of other customers after being told there was another task that needed attention; when I had racial slurs yelled at me on outings with my roommate. Every one of these experiences forced me to consider what it meant to be a black female in an international context more deeply than I had before. While the picture I was getting was not pretty, I still found myself grateful for the fact that I had figured out how to navigate and enjoy the good and beautiful things that I did encounter in the moments that I encountered them.
I don’t share this story to make you worried or afraid of travel, but I don’t think I adequately prepared myself for what I had to face and I hope that my story will give you what I did not have. The only person who really could have prepared me was someone who had gone through something similar, and I believe that if I had gone in with a more accurate idea of how people would treat me I would have figured out how to enjoy my trip much sooner. Regardless, I learned a lot on this trip. About myself, India and the career I am working to pursue. I can’t and don’t deny that it was fruitful, but it definitely wasn’t easy either. Ask me now and I would definitely tell you that given the chance I would go back to India. Now that could potentially be my stubbornness talking, but I do think I have grown to understand some of the bias that comes with the country a little more, in a similar way to how I am accustomed to the bias that comes with living in America. It was simply a matter of getting used to it and deciding to not let it infuriate me as it had in the beginning. However, just because I understand doesn’t mean that I think some of the things that happened were ok. I really encourage people interested in travel to challenge the stereotypes they are faced with, encourage conversations regardless of whether you think people will be responsive and not be afraid to explore. I think some of the people I spoke with got to learn about my culture and life and hopefully it dispelled some misconceptions they had before, and maybe you can do the same for any one person you encounter as well.
Stacy Igwe, ’22
If you asked me to describe my time in India, I would repeat a three-word phrase that I feel sums my experience up best – “I’m constantly amazed.” Nothing could have prepared me for my experiences in India. Each morning on the way to work we rode an auto rickshaw and zipped through the busy streets of Ahmedabad. There were cows lying idly off to the side of the road, cars doing their “I’m coming through” honk, and workers and sellers weaving their way through the traffic. I can’t believe at some point I was used to all of that. At first, I was terrified to cross the street, but the best advice I was given was to eye the road and march straight ahead. To my American eyes life there seemed chaotic but things somehow worked.
My experiences hadn’t always been so amazing, partly because of interactions with those I encountered. Colorism is definitely a thing. A co-worker was nice enough to get us a discount at a nail salon and once there an employee to my dismay began to put skin whitening cream on us. One of the women tried to pass it off by explaining that it helps with tanning and I kept thinking “Yeah, I’m not this dark from tanning.” I also heard the occasional “African” or “Greencard” muttered in between Gujurati and curious looks – some people simply wouldn’t believe I’m American.
Even though I had done GTL Kazakhstan months before and was as a result sort of used to the strange and burdensome experiences that came with being a noticeable foreigner, there was one incident I never really talked about that stuck in my mind that pretty much sums up how I feel about my time in India.
We’d just wrapped up our tour of Delhi at the Qutub Minar – a UNESCO world heritage site – when a heavy downpour accosted us that left visitors scattering for cover. I was following our tour guide back to the van when I spotted a vending stand covered by an umbrella with others huddled under it. Grateful to have a way to escape the pouring rain, I made as if to take cover under the umbrella but the owner (I assumed) looked me in the eye and shoved me back onto the street. I was a little shocked but continued on when I couldn’t locate the tour guide. He had actually been behind me and began yelling angrily at the man who had just pushed me, threatening to call the police. The entire time our guide was shouting the man kept apologizing to him and not me – and even when I demanded an apology it took a full embarrassingly long minute for him to relent and do so. It was as if I’d been invisible, but not enough to be pushed by a stranger.
I really wonder if I should be relieved that someone was willing to stand up for me or if I should be worried that incident happened to me because it didn’t happen to anyone else. I think people underestimate how difficult it can be to travel as a black person, because as I said to a close friend of mine, “When it’s bad, it’s really bad, but when it’s good, it’s really good.”
Though, I can’t describe how amazing my experiences in India were and just how much I grew and developed as a person. I visited the Taj Mahal and touched it – this place I’d wanted to visit since I was a kid and pieced together on a “Wonders of the World” puzzle. I tried so many cuisines and came to love Paneer Tikka Masala. I met new people and made new friends who showed me around Ahmedabad. I even found a bookstore and constantly read books about Indian history or politics and drew parallels to Nigeria in how colonialism has seeped into the language, beauty standards, and structure of society. Those experiences remain with me despite it all. All this being said, I’ll will definitely travel again in the future. I can’t help it – there’s still so many countries, cities, and wonders I want to explore and learn from. The best piece of advice I can offer as a black traveler is to accept how you feel. I was told to accept having my picture taken as a part of life, but it made me uncomfortable, so now I say no. It’s possible that non-black peers may not fully relate to your experiences, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen, and that you can’t be upset when they do. If after reading all this you’re like “I don’t want to travel to India” – that’s fine too. If you are, be prepared for an overall awesome experience and just know that I believe you can do it.
In MISTI trainings, the concept of identity is heavily emphasized – who we are and what it means to be that person in a different country. Spending most of my life in a country where black people are the majority, and coming to the States where I am part of a minority, and where the history of African Americans is so different from my own, was an adjustment in itself. Being in India presented a whole other kind of culture shock, where I was in most settings the subject of pure curiosity and fascination, sometimes with an undertone of hostility.
At first, this fascination baffled me. I think I have taken for granted that my country has had wide exposure to people of different ethnicities, due to a variety of reasons; for example, Arabs were the first visitors to the East African coast in pre-colonial times when they came for trade, and the Swahili culture that is widespread on the coast is a result of intermarriage between the Bantu who had migrated to East Africa from Central Africa, and the Arabs. Kenyans of Indian descent were officially recognized in 2017 as one of the forty-four tribes that Kenyan communities are classified under. India was Britain’s largest colony, and in the Britons’ ‘development’ of the East African Protectorate, they enlisted Indians to build the railway from the Kenyan coast into the interior, all the way to Uganda. After independence, a lot of Indians opened up businesses and settled down in the Continent, and were quickly assimilated into the community.
Because of this, the fascination with which black people are regarded in India struck me not necessarily as negative, but just as different and interesting to consider. I got people asking to take pictures with me a lot more times than I could keep track of, especially when we took excursions outside the city. I would be in a group with my friends, having a good time, chatting and laughing, and someone would come up to me and ask to take a picture and the atmosphere would change. No one really knew how to handle such a situation, and I would be at a loss myself, and so in such settings things quickly became Very Awkward. I got a lot of questions about my braids (I still do even at MIT, surprise). I got a lot of people tugging at my hair, sometimes without asking. I could feel the stares I drew in public, though they weren’t as intensely focused on me when I was with the other MIT interns, since we were such a mix anyway. These things totally threw me off in my first few weeks, and I didn’t know how to react. I was having an amazing time learning all these new things and exploring all these different places, but I was also having a rough time coming to terms with the perceived identity shift that I had to deal with.
Despite skin colour of Indians ranging from very light to darker shades, the idea of fairer skin being better and more beautiful is very much ingrained into the culture. Companies profit off colourism, promoting creams by promising lighter skin after several weeks of continued use. I began an exercise where every time I walked through a store or saw a billboard, I would note the complexion of the models used in advertisements or products packaging, and I rarely saw a darker-toned model, despite the reality being that a significant chunk of the population has darker skin. More times than I’d like to admit, I felt the urge to yell at a billboard, “Positive representation is important and dark skin is beautiful too!” As a result, I was very particular about the creams and body washes I used, since a lot of products were advertised as having skin lightning elements in them (not sure if they were actually genuine, but I didn’t want to take the risk).
Another cultural factor that stood out to me was the very apparent patriarchal society that was in place. If I went to a restaurant with my friends or colleagues, the servers would ask the man nearest to me for my order, and no one thought that to be weird. I was interning at the tech branch of an oil and gas company, a field where women are historically underrepresented. Add this to the patriarchal nature of the culture, and the result is dismal numbers of females in tech-related workspaces. On my floor workspace which had about sixty people, there were about twelve women, some of whom were interns. I think that having spent most of my life in spaces where great strides have been made in addressing gender disparity had made me almost complacent on the issue, and my experience made me realize that we’re on our way, but we aren’t there yet. The reason for this gender disparity is certainly very systemic- the opportunities different people are exposed to starting from very young ages is in many ways dependent on their socio-economic class. In cases where parents have limited resources, it might make more sense in the cultural context to educate the boy. A series of missed opportunities or difficult circumstances add up to a massive difference in where the two children end up later on in life. Context matters- not to serve as an excuse for how people treat you, but to help understand why things are the way they are.
As a black person, especially being from a continent that is overwhelmingly misrepresented and has a history of incredible oppression, I see the effects of white supremacy everywhere I go. Black skin has been criminalized, ostracized and fetishized all at once- before I quit decoding the stares I got, I could see a mix of fear, disgust, and suggestiveness in the looks being tossed in my direction, and it left me confused, hurt and above all, tired.
Some things made my adjustment easier and my experience more bearable. The biggest factor was the fact that I had an amazing set of friends in the other MIT interns. Even though they couldn’t really relate to my experiences, just having people to talk things over with and do things together with helped me get out of my own headspace. It took me some time to quit doing things that were meant to make me more invisible and deflect as much attention away from me, like wearing a baseball cap while out to keep my braids under wraps or not wearing my ankara shirts to avert backhanded compliments. I read up a lot of travel journals by other black girls who went through a lot of what I experienced, if not worse.
I found myself in a lot of situations where I had to take a deep breath and force myself back to my zen state, and I think these situations were precisely where the growing and the learning was taking place. I come out of it with thicker skin than I had before, and a certain level of fearlessness that I know will help me be adjust better and faster to other environments in future.