Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir

“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but are you a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’?”

The security guard at the Taj Mahal looked at me earnestly. He was helping me figure out where to store my daypack. The lockers were at another entrance, I’d found out. I couldn’t bring in my computer that was tucked in the depths of my bag.

But first, he had to know this one thing.

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When I left for India, I had all the intentions of passing as a man. I was worried about safety. Boyeon and I bought matching rings so we could pretend to be a married (heterosexual) couple, if necessary. I was totally prepared.

Except that I was also totally silly. Continue reading “Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir”

Wild Haven

If I’d known how amazing Roshan’s family’s resort in Tamil Nadu would be, I might’ve asked that we go there first.

After all our driving, all our exploring, he finally took us to his home in Masinagudi, the place where he’d grown up, the village where he works.

And what a place it is. His father owns and runs Wild Haven Resort, an old colonial hunting lodge that he turned into a set of lodgings that would be memorable even for the most seasoned travelers. The accommodations were, of course, lovely and well-kept.

But more impressive were the views. And the nightly bonfires. And the calls of tigers we could hear while sitting around said bonfires.

Because, as the name implies, Wild Haven is in the wild, surrounded by mountains, almost encapsulated by the nearby wildlife refuge.

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And if there’s one thing I love as much as water, it’s the mountains. Waking up to them. Breathing in their heights. Marveling at their beauty. Feeling that quiet invitation to come join them, wherever the path leads.

I think that’s one reason I loved my Korean hometown Yeosu so much—all those green mountains pressed right up against the sea.

But now, I had another place to love: Wild Haven. Continue reading “Wild Haven”

The Backwaters of Kerala

There is something inherently peaceful to me about water. Be it rain, ocean, river, lake, or otherwise, being near water almost immediately soothes me.

I remember when I was younger and the summer thunderstorms would come in, and my dad and I would sit on our screened-in back porch in Raleigh and wait for the rains to come. We’d count the seconds between lightning and thunder and guess how far away the storm was. And when the clouds finally broke loose over us, there was something beautiful about the rain pounding on the roof, pooling around us, while we were watching from safety.

I felt the same comfort waking up every morning to the strait between Yeosu peninsula and the small island where I lived with my Korean homestay family in my early 20s, watching the water lap at the banks and the fishing boats puttering by. I would breathe in and out and feel inexplicably comforted.

This was no different when Boyeon and I went to Kerala. When we got there (after a long, arduous journey), with Boyeon’s friend Roshan as our guide, we went immediately to the water, where we stayed at a lakeside resort that looked out at the sunset moving swiftly across the waves and the boats criss-crossing their way to their finishing places.

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When given the chance, we also decided to take a houseboat on the Keralan backwaters. For that, we have Roshan to thank. After his friends and friends of friends said that they were all booked up (Roshan’s social network is amazing), he managed to find a boat in Alleppey that had space for us for an overnight cruise. Continue reading “The Backwaters of Kerala”

White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

Let’s face it: I have a problem with being a white American traveling in India. Chalk it up to white guilt or simply a recognition of (historical and present) privilege, but my whiteness preceded me everywhere I went and reminded me of echoes of the past—the white, British colonizers who oppressed and dehumanized Indians for years, who demolished their culture and devalued their lives.

Admission: I am not an expert on either Indian history or British colonialism. But I couldn’t help but be aware of the damage wrought by people who looked like me, worshipped in the kinds of churches I attend, and spoke my language.

I guess it was a good thing to be aware of. But beyond awareness of privilege, I’ve wondered what I could do. Colonization is over, but the real inequalities are still there—because of nationality, class, place of birth, first language—all of those things.

Boyeon and I had some interesting conversations about this. How she, as someone from a country that had been colonized (by the Japanese, for those of you who missed out on East Asian history), felt a certain kind of empathy for (and to her, perhaps from) the Indian people. How walking down the street, she felt a kinship—both as someone from Asia and from a formerly colonized country.

For us, this sometimes played out in how we interacted with people on the street. For example, Boyeon frequently was ready to ask questions, get directions, and get answers for other basic travel information. I, however, was not. Granted, this is partly because she’s more extroverted than I am, and I’m self-reliant to a fault. But one of my major hangups, as I told her, was really my lack of knowing the local language and how imperialistic (and particularly American) it felt to expect everyone to know English. (And our cramming of Hindi did not help us at all in the Bengali-dominated Northeast or Malayalam-speaking South.)

And while I didn’t feel the Indian people holding me accountable for British failings, I did realize that I wanted to find a way to acknowledge those failings, to recognize my positionality within that space, to work to counteract any ways in which power and privilege became barriers between me, the place, and the people. Continue reading “White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)”

An Inauspicious Arrival in South India

I knew I would like would like South India even before I landed there. I heard the Indian South described in a similar way to the American South—slower, friendlier, and with better weather. Sure, maybe the roads were worse. Maybe they were further from the seats of power that other states (though I was told that the southern state of Kerala is the richest in the country). But there was just something about it that was different—and different in a good way.

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Relaxing by the water in Kerala

Our beginning there was not auspicious, though. When we landed in Bangalore, where Boyeon’s friend Roshan was meeting us, we got a text from him telling us things were “a little tense” but he was on his way. Earlier, a friend of my sister’s in Bangalore had warned us that there was an impending conflict over water supply between two states (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) that was about to get heated. Turns out, the conflict boiled over right in Bangalore. Continue reading “An Inauspicious Arrival in South India”

Exploring the City of Joy

My introduction to India began in Kolkata (also known as Calcutta). After weeks of researching, numerous warnings from friends and loved ones, and days of saying goodbye to Korea, Boyeon and I landed in the City of Joy.

And we began at once to feel the pulse of things, to enjoy the kindness of strangers, and to understand the wild, living, breathing thing that is Indian traffic.

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Continue reading “Exploring the City of Joy”

Bowties, Binders, and Binaries

Keyes and I were sitting on the top ledge on the South side of the State House, looking toward Main Street and USC’s campus and Immaculate Consumption, one of the my favorite coffeeshops. It was dark, but the lights from downtown shone all around us.

“But what about—” I stopped myself. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. “What about countries with strict gender binaries—you know, for dress and where you can go and stuff. I want to be culturally sensitive, but I’m not growing my hair out.”

Keyes paused and looked at me as if that were the most absurd concern ever. “Of course not,” they said. “You’ll pass as a man.” Continue reading “Bowties, Binders, and Binaries”