“Oh, so you’ve learnt to eat with your hands.”
I chuckle and shrug, continuing to tear the chapatti with my right hand. I remain casual, yet I do feel quite proud–finally, some approval. Nearly every time I have sat down to eat over the past two months, it has been an anxiety provoking experience that made me entirely too self-conscious.
“Do you need a spoon?”
“Wow, she finally finished.”
“They don’t have forks.”
“Is it too spicy?”
“Can you eat with your hands?”
“Take your time.”
“Sorry, there are no forks.”
During one of my home visits in Calicut, we stopped for some biriyani at a roadside hotel. I was, gratefully, given a spoon without a fuss. While eating, however, I was discreetly watching the nurse eat her biriyani with her hands, trying to understand the technique she used to pick up so much rice at one time. She ate so skillfully, her hand nearly clean despite the fact she was eating such a wet curry. She spoke in Malayalam to the English-speaking volunteer: “She said this must be one of the first times you have seen someone eat with their hands.” I shook my head no, shoveling more rice into my mouth with my spoon, my face red due to both the spice of my lunch and my embarrassment in having been caught. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t surprised or disgusted, just hoping I could learn from her. As I swallowed my rice, however, the moment passed as the curious volunteer questioned me about the United States. I continued eating with my spoon.
On my very first “work day” in India, I sat down opposite of Dr. Nagesh at Karunashraya Hospice in Bangalore. He offered me a tea or coffee. I instead opted for water. Dr. Nagesh watched as I took a sip out of my cold, plastic water bottle. He smiled and began to explain what I will start to learn about the new culture I had just entered.
“Your water bottle, for example. As you took a sip, you put the bottle to your lips to drink. That is perfectly normal to do in your native place. This I know, I have been there. Here, however, we never touch our lips to the bottle.”
He could see the puzzled look on my face. “For sanitary reasons. Yes, that is your bottle, it is your water, but by allowing the water to touch your lips, it is now dirty.” He almost shrugged as he said it.
I started practicing the “waterfall” technique almost every night as I would sit alone in my hotel room. Holding the water bottle inches above my mouth, I strived to attain a perfect stream so that I could drink without spilling any water on myself. I wanted it to look effortless, natural, like something I had done for years. Yes, I knew that I could not eliminate the stares entirely, but if I could do something to attract even one less watchful eye, it seemed worth it.
Since I have left the United States, I have constantly tried to make small changes that would help me blend in. In Ecuador, I changed my accent and grew my vocabulary, adopting local words with Quechua influence that I never learned in my academic courses. I always wore leggings and a long-sleeve shirt when I ran, because that was what I saw other women working out in, and I only ran in the park, because I didn’t see many people running through the city streets. I changed what I ate, grew to love encebollado, and only cooked on the stove because I never saw my host mom use the oven. I hugged and kissed people when I greeted them, asked “¿Como le va?” instead of “¿Como está?”, and started wearing lipstick to fit in at parties.
I have changed homes in India almost every two weeks, each change in location provoking at least one change of self. In Bangalore, I traded my sneakers for sandals. In Kerala, I stopped tucking in my shirt in an attempt to cover more of my legs. At Manipal University, I always carried a backpack, readily reclaiming my identity as a student. In Goa, I wore skirts and dresses. In Pune, I happily road around on the back of my friend’s motorcycle, although I had always been too afraid to ride one at home. In Mumbai, someone finally noticed I could more or less successfully eat with my hands.
Even in Delhi, where I stayed with my former college roommate and her family in their comfortable home surrounded by familiar company, I found myself altering my behavior. I went to the salon instead of washing my own hair. I tried to use less slang when I spoke with her family, all of whom are incredibly articulate. At the parties to which my roommate so kindly invited me, my performance continued. I described my project with more enthusiasm than I had before, trying to dazzle my new friends, trying to seem interesting and worthy of this unfamiliar social scene. At a rooftop brunch on Christmas eve, while sipping on Hendrick’s gin with a splash of tonic, standing by the sushi bar, an acquaintance and I discussed his newly developed app: “The problem is right now it’s only affordable for people like us.” People like us. I guess this was the acceptance I had been looking for.
If your only personality characteristic is adaptable, who are you really?