Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Influence of US

It all started with the first trip to 3rd mile. Shrijana, Bipana, Sasha and I had just left the Ashram and were beginning the 35 minute walk down the steep paved road that winds in and out of the breathtaking hills that Kalimpong sits atop. There we were, hand in hand, talking about life in US, life in Kalimpong, teenage fashion, how and why I have locs, and of course the never ending subject of boys. We passed men and women working on damaged roads that suffered from constant erosion and small kiosks run by tiny Indian women who hesitated to smile but eventually returned the friendly gesture. Everything around us—the hilly expanse, the distant fog, the clean mountain air combined with burning shrubbery—was entirely unfamiliar. That is, everything I was looking at was entirely unfamiliar. I paid little to no attention to the jeeps, homes, English billboards, men in suits, and all the other obvious signs of a growing Western influence on this remote community. And then I did. It was startling to realize that the indispensable automobile and the business suit come from none other than Western society and there I was, moments before, staring at the trees and the mountain scenery. How could I have been so blind? Western culture was all around us. In fact, to these people, we were Western culture. The ways we spoke, walked, smiled, dressed, and ate were all Western in nature.

I expected the people in Kalimpong to be surprised and generally interested in locs, but I could never have imagined them to take to them like they did. It was like flies to a flame. Little children especially couldn’t help themselves from grabbing my hair and asking me how locs were formed. The older children automatically assumed I played soccer and many of the younger ones were convinced that I played for a national team. And who can blame them? Their appetite for understanding of life in the United States is satisfied with television channels like MTV, USA, Spike TV, HBO, TNT and many more. They are fed a Hollywood version of life in the States and that is exactly what they come to see it as.

On this same long walk down to 3rd mile, I remember asking the girls why there was so much fuss about Avril Lavigne, the Canadian-born punk-pop musician. They looked at me like I had two heads. Through our talking I discovered that to Shrijana and Asha (Bipana isn’t a fan…thank goodness), Avril represents what a lot of what it meant for them to be an American girl. They view Avril as a girl who knows what she wants and goes for it. Whether she’s in a music video rebelling against the authorities or telling a boy that she should be his girlfriend, Avril represents independence and the freedom of choice—principles that supported the foundation of the United States.

After hearing them explain this in far fewer words, and arguing with them about whether or not Avril Lavigne is fashionable, the conversation inevitably shifted back to boys and my attention to our surroundings. I took in everything I could and yet I knew, even then, this trip was flying by. It wouldn’t be long before we returned to the US and all this would slowly fade from experience into a kind of dream. I thought about the girls and what they must be feeling. Kalimpong is the only home they’ve ever known.

It wasn’t until my return trip home that I thought about the dinner awaiting me when I returned to the Ashram. It was then, in the van on the way up the mountain, that I knew Kalimpong would not be the only home they would ever know. The more those girls discover, the bigger their world becomes.

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