A few days ago my husband and I flew from Honolulu to San Francisco. After a two-hour flight delay, hungry and cranky, I saw our seats. We were in the center aisle which has four chairs. Of course, my husband’s long legs took the aisle seat. On the other end sat an old lady. She wore glasses and chewed gum. The lady and I gave each other sympathetic looks about the tight space; we grumbled in unison as we try to position our bodies.
While we waited for other passengers to fill-in, we wished that the fourth person in our row doesn’t show up. As I hung my purse using Clipa in the space where they keep in-flight magazines, she grunted in approval. I showed her the product and she pointed to her two purses on the floor. Obviously, we started discussing the absurd baggage fees. This opened a floodgate of all grievances about everything related to flying. For the next five and half hours, we shared our traveling tips and tricks. We shared the difficulties of being a vegetarian on travel. We shared our germ phobias. We swapped names of travel-made-easy products on Amazon. We told each other travel secrets that we would never tell another living being. As the plane landed, we didn’t exchange names or addresses or phone numbers or visiting cards. We wished each other best and hoped that we will cross paths again.
This social interaction is not new to me. In fact, I prefer interactions like these—social conversations free of social pressures. By choice, I am not a social person. It is not that I am a social pariah or uncomfortable with people. Chatting with people comes easily to me; I chat with the ladies in the checkout lines, strangers in an elevator, and receptionist at the doctors. I shocked my therapist when he found me laughing with other patients in the waiting room. My only requirement is that they have to absolute strangers and they have to be non-Indians.
I have my reasons. Years ago, I became friendly with my new neighbor. We exchanged mobile numbers, in case we need each other in an emergency. That is neighborly. Right. My neighbor started frequently texting me random FYI messages. I am not a teenager; I prefer a phone call or an email instead of a twenty-line text message. To stop my neighbor’s umpteen text messages, I gave my neighbor my email address. My neighbor stopped texting me but started emailing every thought to me. I received 67 email in three weeks. It took a lot of machinations to become free of that neighbor.
I find that being social means going through a dating kind of ritual. The moment I meet people who have future friend potential, they have questions–what and where and why and how of my past. I have a standard answer. I say, “I am estranged from my family.” Illogically, to them, this sounds an invitation to dig deeper. Which usually results in another one-liner from me. I say, “Both my parents were abusive, so I don’t talk to and about my family.” I assume that this should shut down any future questions about my past. Usually, I receive two kinds of reactions. Some who have been pursuing me for months for a social meeting, behave as though I a leper and don’t contact me again. Whereas others want to understand the reasons of my being a normal sane person. Every conversation with them is an explanation and exploration of my past; every meeting with them is an amateur therapy session in which their questions make me relive my past.
Until now, I have only discussed the non-Indians, as Indians have a different behavior pattern. Two weeks ago, a night before my early morning flight to Hawaii, I visited the nail salon in the nearby mall. The salon has all Vietnamese staff. It was near the closing time; I was the only customer. I closed my eyes and concentrated hard on relaxing. While I soaked my feet, two Indian women walked in—a middle-aged woman in salwar-kameez and an older woman in a sari. Immediately a commotion erupted. The nail-lady asked the Indian women to “pick a color.” The salwar-kameez woman cajoled the sari woman to sit in the massage chair. The nail-lady waved the nail menu card in the sari woman’s face. The Indian women couldn’t understand the Vietnamese accent; the salon ladies couldn’t understand the Indian women’s want. I tried hard to hold on to my inner peace and ignore the kerfuffle as long as I could. Until I gave in. I became the language go between. I understand most Indian accents and years of nail salons have made me an expert in navigating my way through Vietnamese accent.
Soon things settled down. The sari woman soaked her feet; the salwar-kameez woman sat in the nearby chair. I looked at the salwar-kameez woman and smiled. She woman asked, “Do you come here often.” I gave a convoluted answer. She asked, “Where are you from.” I gave a truthful answer. She continued pushing and asking personal questions about where I lived and worked, about my husband, and on and on. I tried to brush past every question. I smiled, I laughed, I gave vague answers. Ultimately she said, “What is your name?” I should have let that slide, instead, I retaliated. I asked her what will she gain from knowing my name. She gave me a look that said that I have offended her. I felt guilty. I smiled. She made a face, turned her back to me, and started scrolling through her smartphone.
This was not the first time an Indian stranger interrogated me. Asking intrusive questions of absolute strangers runs in Indian culture. During my time in India, strangers asked about my whole family history while I traveled on a train or bus, or when I stood in a line for any ticket counter. Invariably the first question is, “Where is your home.” Then comes questions about my father’s occupation. Followed by the need to know the number of siblings I have. All this leads to personal questions, like why I don’t have long hair. Or why I wear western clothes. Or why (at that time) I am unmarried.
Of course, I have learned my lesson. In future, I shall not even smile at Indian strangers. Lest they ask me about the balance in my bank account.
In future, I shall be selective to whom I give my phone number and email address. And I shall learn to use the ‘block’ feature.
As of right now, I find that with strangers I can talk and stay in the current moment. I can discuss the issue at hand. There is always a common thread. Like the lady in the airplane or the couple, my husband and I met during our vacation. With strangers, I don’t have to explain my past. They accept me for what I am at that particular moment. I don’t have to impress them. I don’t have to pretend with them. Years ago I had the best political discussion with a campus security officer at three in the morning on TAMU campus. With strangers, I don’t have to worry about hurting their feeling, as I don’t know their past emotional baggage. I don’t have to feign interest, as the moment they or I get bored, we without regret or emotional upheaval have the option to just walk away. With strangers, I can connect on a singular issue. I am more present. I don’t have the pressure to be ‘nice.’ I can be me in all my glory.