Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme
The Elusiveness of Fitting In or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stare
The five-year-old girl is sitting in her mother’s lap on the bus, staring at me. I smile. She continues to stare. Thirty seconds pass. More staring. She leans in to her mother’s ear and whispers something. Her mom looks up at me. I smile. She says nothing. The girl continues to stare.
Before coming to rural West Bengal, I was used to fitting in. Even in my previous development work in the Peace Corps in Moldova, my white skin, European features, and more than decent language skills allowed me to blend in seamlessly. When I spent three months working in Guatemala, I was in a city with enough expats that even though I was a full head taller than nearly everyone in the country (I’m 5’10”), I never got a second glance from passers-by. When I began my master’s program at UC Berkeley last year, I was confident that I could fit in anywhere in the world. Mostly because I had never gotten The Stare.
It’s different here. Or rather, I’m different here. Men riding past me on bicycles stop pedaling and stare back at me, trying to figure out what a foreigner is doing in a district that the Indian government describes as one of the most “backward”. When I talk to a group of five young teachers, one of them takes out his mobile phone and films me as I sit with them. When I tour a local high school, 40 members of the tenth-grade class swarm around me, literally climbing on desks to get my autograph. (After 15 signatures, I start signing as Kobe Bryant, Wayne Gretzky, and Mark Zuckerberg.)
But just as I don’t fit in here, neither does India fit in my previous hands-on understanding of developing countries. I had seen poverty in my life, but never before have I seen so many of the Bottom Billion, those living on less than $1.25 a day. Never before have I seen public school class sizes of 70 or 80 students. Never before have I seen a mosquito buzzing around my bathroom and thought of it as a disease vector. Never before have I dealt with daily load shedding, and that terrible feeling when the ceiling fan stops and you know you have two minutes before you and everyone in the room start sweating profusely.
After a few weeks here, though, I’m starting to see signs of my own acclimation. I no longer take it as a negative sign when someone here shakes his head. I carry an umbrella everywhere I go. The heat rash that covered my neck, arms, legs and sides for the first week is gone. I might even start wearing a lungi around the house. Most importantly, though, I’m beginning to understand that sometimes it’s impossible to “fit in”. I’ve learned to say hello to the kids and adults who stare at me, and ask people more and more questions about life here. India started by staring at me, but I’m turning an awkward moment into a conversation.