What is American Hair?
My threshold for absurdity, and for being compassionate in response to ignorance, and for energy to progress through the day feels lower in these relatively early days back from India. I can diagnose it: Part of it is sheerly not exercising enough and so feeling low on energy, part of it is being anxious about my mother's condition and part of it is the reverse culture-shock that a colleague who has been on a number of international assignments promised me I'd feel.
Would I have even noticed the bizarre name of the beauty salon in North Castle on my way to Armonk prior to my six-month assignment in India? What is "American Hair?"
"Sarah, probably, it was opened by immigrants," Pat suggested when I told her about it at dinner on Friday night.
An Accidental Defender
How about when a guy shook our hands in synagogue on Friday night and then in response to our friend Gloria, telling him that we'd just returned from six months in India, said, "Well, then, I hope you washed your hands [before shaking mine]."
"You'd better watch it," I shot back, "As Pat has a super-witty tongue and I think she's restraining herself right now." I never bargained for being India's defender, but it has turned out that way in some particularly ignorant cases.
(Just as an example of Pat's typically irreverent way, later in the service, Rabbi Cohen said from the pulpit, "And we are praying for peace."
"It ain't working," Pat said not quite in a whisper.)
When a few people have said dismissive things to me about India, mostly revealing that they're in awe of what they've read about it in parallel with being afraid of the current state of its infrastructure, I've felt fierce, rather than patient.
God always does that to me: God helps me champion communities in which I have had historically zero investment by placing me among them or having me become friends with people from them, e.g., I might never have worried about anti-Semitism had I not been Jewish; might never have cared about the GLBT community had I not been a lesbian; might never have cared about the disabled had I not become friends with some people with disabilities, and then been diagnosed with otosclerosis myself.
Having been among Indians for half a year of my precious life, negative or naively generalizing comments -- which happily aren't too frequent -- feel personal. I think of the specific people with whom I became acquainted while there, or of the friend I already had there, and become angry -- angrier than most of my friends, family and colleagues will ever know. It's the alienating kind, too -- the righteous-indignation sort -- and so I have to watch myself.
I do not want to be condescending when a family member makes a sweeping statement, saying, "I think that Indians and Jews have an affinity for one another. I think we're very alike in many ways."
Huh? First, her experience has been only with Indians, who are immigrants, and second, her experience doesn't include having learned about their Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Christian... rituals and holidays, which differ quite a bit from Jewish rituals and holidays in my experience...just as one example.
I'm in a weird limbo place right now, where I don't feel as socially at home in my own country as I did before we left it to live for six months in another part of the world, and I must recall how socially distant I felt frequently while in India, whether or not I told my Indian colleagues.
On Friday morning, I arrived at work and began the day by starting an e-mail letter to my best friend in India until psychically, she instant-messaged me and we spoke by phone. I wrote:
Music you'd hate, "No Scrubs" and Janet Jackson's "Come On, Get Up," serenaded me up 287 this morning and I felt sad, wistful, bereft, comfy, luxuriant, indignant, inarticulate, ashamed, relieved....
Sad that you're not just a one-button call anymore; wistful about and bereft of gorgeous weather -- it's freezing, with dead-leaved trees here; comfy and luxuriant in my new car with its heated seats and good radio, and how it stays far away from the cars in the other lanes, and how the cars in the other lanes stay far away from it; indignant at the expectation that I will provide Americans with entertainment about India on demand; and inarticulate in trying to select and express the best stories of my experience; and ashamed that I'm not more flexible in re-adapting to my environment; and relieved to be back in my own home and to be able to see my family....
Please, God, help me raise my threshold again; I like being relatively non-judgmental, energetic, compassionate and comfortable with where I am. I want to re-gain all of that...or if I can't, then please reveal to me more visibly what I've gained in exchange, so that I can feel more grateful and express my gratitude better. This is my prayer for inner-peace. And I don't want to conclude, in Pat's words, "It ain't working."