Kolkata looks and feels a lot like Hanoi. My two visits to Hanoi have minimized the culture shock here so I have to presume that those who’ve warned me about the challenges haven’t been to a similarly chaotic historical city. Kolkata is certainly larger and more populous than Hanoi, perhaps even a bit dirtier, but English is much more widely spoken and the people a little friendlier. I’m already experienced in ignoring the stares and questioning looks so that’s not troubling. the
I felt a little bad about refusing a group of teenage boys a selfie with me. I might have agreed but it was in a mall (I packed very lightly knowing I could get some towels and necessary sundries) and malls are so middle class and Westernized it felt weirdly uncomfortable. I hate admitting it but I might have been more amenable if they approached me on the street and weren’t dressed in fake, dated designer clothing. That makes me feel hugely patronizing and a little like a colonialist tourist but there you have it. On the other hand, I imagine if I were in an American mall and saw a group of teenage boys approach someone in a turban or Sari and ask the same thing I’m sure I’d think it was the boys who were being patronizing. I comfort myself for turning this around like that but I also wonder if what was being expressed wasn’t so much “look at us with this exotic specimen” and more an expression of acceptance and international brotherhood.
Most who know me will probably be surprised that I have to resist the urge to hold on to this momentary and minor incident and lose myself in an internal conflict far longer than is reasonable but this is emblematic of one of my inner struggles which is a conflict between a desire to live up to an idealized image of myself and acceptance of the fact that my judgement is merely that of an average human.
Survivors of childhood abuse learn early on that a minor misread of a situation can have devastating consequences so we tend to hold unrealistically high expectations for ourselves knowing exactly what to do in any given situation. Letting go of this feels risky but that’s an improvement over feeling like a mortal peril.
Another thing that makes Kolkata feel friendlier is that there are far fewer people trying to lure me to their shop or into their taxi and none of them persist when I politely decline. Sales pitches in Viet Nam were usually accompanied by grabbing, clutching and dragging. No one here has asked me for money yet. The most aggressive solicitation thus far was an over enthusiastic handshaker who seemed a little obnoxiously fake friendly. Admittedly I’ve been here less than 36 hours and I’m not in Mumbai or a major tourist mecca. I’ll be out in the streets more over the next three weeks and I expect to have a rich experience.
The most exotically ‘other’ scenario I witnessed, my “not in Kansas” moment, would have made a beautifully evocative Vine video (max. six seconds, in case you don’t know) but it was through the back seat window of a quickly moving car and I don’t use Vine. Nor would I have been able to get my phone out in time (if you’re asking who makes videos with their phone, the answer is everyone except me and people who will soon be in need of assisted living). So let’s use an old fashioned movie production method: imagine a small cow enjoying a snack of green leaves on the sidewalk suddenly being run off by a dog, for whatever reason a dog might want to do that, with a very large crow watching the affair from a perch on a handrail about two feet away.
There are a lot crows here. Most of them are quite large and many sound very angry at 5:00 am.