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Ignorance is Not Bliss, It’s Just Embarrassing.

By Anoushka Shah

I’m from India, born and bred. The land of people (there’s over 1.2 billion of us), spices, colors, festivals and nope— not curry. Now, before you think anything— yes—I know how to speak English. Although I do occasionally speak in Hindi here, and back home in Mumbai, (yes, it’s Hindi, not Indian, in case you were wondering), English is my first language. I may not know what floccinaucinihilipilification means, but

I. Can. Speak. In. English.

When I first came to the United States for college, back in 2018, I was in awe of this country and its people. For some reason (maybe it was the engrained social mindset), I thought Americans were so much cooler than Indians because in India, we’re inherently taught that everything from the Western world is better than anything Indian—except your husband, he has got to be Indian as hell—no, not like Apu from the Simpsons, he isn’t real.

Anyway, during my first semester at Boston University, I decided to take a travel writing class. Given my love for travel and learning about different cultures around the world, I thought this class would be perfect to meet other eager college students who were passionate about travel and learning about diverse cultures. Big freaking whoop. Ten minutes into class, there I was introducing myself, “hey, I’m Anoushka, I’m from India…” and I was interrupted by an American girl sitting beside me.

“Oh my god, that’s like so exotic, did you like, go to school on an elephant or something? I would like be totally freaking out O-M-G!”

Oh, I don’t know Cali-from-the-Valley, do you like, live at the mall, get your Starbucks-staple Chai Tea Latte, and eat avocado toast every day, just to post it on your social media?

While I was shocked that this girl actually thought that what she saw on one episode of The Big Bang Theory was really what India was like, I honestly felt sorry for her, and was appalled by the extreme lack of cultural exposure that not only she, but most Americans in this country have. All the overly fantasized ideas that I had about life in the United States of America rapidly eroded with the variety of stereotypical slurs that came my way.

While there have been many jabs at my culture since I moved to the U.S. for college, (trust me, I could write a book), this next one definitely takes the cake for creativity.

It was my first year at college, so just like every other eager freshman, I, too, was putting myself out there, grabbing every opportunity that I got to make friends. There I was, a 5-foot-5-inches-tall, skinny girl trying to find an empty chair among the crowd of students and busy tables, when I saw an opening next to two brunette girls, who seemed inviting and equally excited to make a new friend. So, I did the usual “hey, I’m Anoushka.” They went on to introduce themselves too—one, a freshman from Seattle and the other, a sophomore, from North Carolina, majoring in international relations.

The conversation had been going great. Surprisingly, they even seemed interested in Indian culture and said they wanted to visit India! I was ecstatic. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? I was away from home for the first time in my life, missing my family and friends terribly and I thought to myself, “this is so great, I found some friends who haven’t been living under a rock for the past 18 years of their lives.” We bonded over our favorite childhood shows on Disney Channel while we ate the same mediocre dining hall food—overcooked green beans, poorly seasoned mashed potatoes and a slice of bread. The evening was going so well, we even exchanged numbers, and of course, social media handles.

So, understandably, what happened next completely threw me off and quite honestly, turned the whole evening sour. Just as I was hugging them goodbye, the sophomore briefly paused, then exclaimed, “I have to say, I’m so relieved you don’t smell like curry!”

A+ for creativity, am I right? Well, it’s safe to say that I’m so relieved we did not keep in touch after that evening. I just hope she switched majors since then, because if not, God has really got to bless America.

Although my travel writing class did have a few cultural hiccups, it inspired me to delve deeper into the genre and write about my experiences as a tourist in different countries around the globe. In fact, I was recently talking to someone about my experience going on a wildlife safari in Kenya for a travel writing piece I’d been working on, and he politely said, “I may be wrong, but is it true that there are cows and bulls on the roads in India, too?” While that definitely wasn’t the first time I’d heard that, for once, it was refreshing to hear what seemed like a genuine question rather than a condescending assumption about my home country.

I don’t expect everyone here to know everything about my culture or the place that I’m from. All I ask is for people to stop assuming. Frankly, I did consider the first couple of instances to be offensive, and was taken aback by them, especially since I had never experienced anything like it before college. I did not know how to respond to a lot of them, and I even caught myself feeling embarrassed about how people in America, a country that I’d been in awe of my whole life (until then), perceived my home country, me, and the rest of its people.

Now, quite the contrary, I actually feel sorry for those people and everyone else who chooses to live in their ignorant bubble, called the United States of America. If this were the 1970s, I’d still brush it off, excuse their ignorance with lack of tools to gain exposure, and go on. However, we are fortunate enough to live at a time when we don’t have to be well-travelled to be well-read and culturally competent because, guess what? We’re blessed with this thing called the Internet and I say it’s high-time people start using it to culturally enrich themselves because ignorance is not bliss, it’s just embarrassing.

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