I was about to discover for the first time that most curious of phenomena that occurs midway through each Spring semester in US universities. Hollywood had suggested to me that hormones and adrenalin ran riot during this mid-season, weeklong holiday known bountifully as Spring Break. For most students, various regions well south of the 39th parallel beckoned – parties overflowing with tequila in a Cancun poolside for the slightly better-heeled; the august dwellings of a distant cousin who sold weed in Tampa for others.
In Gannon University, I was soon to learn that some even utilized this break from undergraduate scholarly activities and dorm-room angst to embark on Bible-thumping retreats. (You know, the scary kind, on a ranch and everything.)
The break however took me by surprise and not in a good way. I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t just bury myself in the library or computer lab to escape my living quarters. The prospect of spending an entire week cooped up with my housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist, for company sent a cold shudder down my spine. I also realized that the Hollywood representations of said holiday break didn’t exactly work for struggling, international grad students from India. I didn’t see too many brown folk in those representations save for the wait staff and entertainers. In any case, I didn’t have the friends or the money for anything resembling raunchy hedonism, and even if I did, my in-built cultural gene of prudishness would have kicked in.
So I needed something to do. Something where I could connect with a few more people and maybe make a couple of friends in the process. I decided to ask Jane, the feminist, anti-racist Catholic nun, who was now an elder-sister-type friend of mine, for some advice.
“Why don’t you go on one of the trips that the Center for Social Service organizes during Spring Break for students to do volunteer work?”Jane suggested.
“What are they like, these trips?” I asked.
“Well, basically students get together and go on an organized trip to a city and volunteer in soup kitchens or homeless shelters,” she explained, “but more than anything it’s a learning experience.”
It sounded better than doing nothing.
“And it’s not expensive at all as students drive together in a van, and living arrangements for the week are taken care of by churches we partner with. I can help allay some of the costs too…” she caringly added, knowing that money was super tight for me.
It was like the beauty of her soul guided her every waking moment. I took her up on her generous offer.
“Thanks Jane, I think I’ll definitely look into it.” I said, nodding my head.
The next day I went to the center that Jane worked in to see the trip listings. I scanned the list pinned on the notice board. The first one to catch my eye went something like…
Montana: Come take part in building a home for an impoverished family with Habitat For Humanity. Experience the Land Of Shining Mountains with your hard hats on!
Building a home sounded like fun. But Montana? I was looking to get away from semi-rurality, not dive headlong into it. No offense to the good people of Montana, great folks I’m sure, but I just wasn’t in the mindset right then to go to a state that prided itself on being Big Sky Country – primarily because I knew it meant a lot of white people staring my very brown ass off. I was looking for something more urban right about then – tall buildings, crowded city streets, and ethnic smorgasbords.
Next posting please.
Washington DC: Find grace and service in the name of our Lord by volunteering with an inner city mission. Experience our nation’s great capital while serving God’s children.
DC was a big city for sure, and from what I had heard, it was a great place. It was the capital of the country too with all those museums and monuments. I would have loved to see DC but I wasn’t super keen on any uber-moralizing religious stuff. The whole finding grace thing was not exactly my cup of tea. Plus, I was moving soon to a school in Baltimore anyway, so figured that I’d be seeing a lot of DC during that time.
Louisville, Kentucky: Work to rejuvenate a city block in Louisville by planting trees, painting signs, cleaning the area, and having fun while doing it! Sample some famous Southern hospitality while volunteering for a good cause.
The work sounded like my kind of thing. Outdoors and physical. Also, Blues and Jazz were some of my all-time favorite genres of music. I had always wanted to experience them in the South. And I loved fried chicken. Without a doubt, the South had the best comfort food America had to offer. Mouth-watering cholesterol and future anginas. The only problem was that I had a stereotype of the South as a particularly racist part of America that I was unwilling to challenge right about then. Mississippi Burning was one of my favorite movies growing up and it left an indelible cultural impression on me.
It was still the best option from what I had seen so far.
But there was still one more to go…
New York City: Travel to the Big Apple and volunteer in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Experience the world’s greatest city while volunteering to end poverty and hunger.
And there we had it. As clear a winner as any. I had always wanted to visit the world’s most famous city and see what it was like. I was a big city person. And it didn’t get any bigger than New York. This was the trip I would sign up for.
I took a registration form and promptly went to see Jane about signing up for the trip.
On the day of the orientation for our trip, I was pleasantly surprised to see Peter sitting in the classroom with others who had signed up. Earlier, I had found out that Mary-Rose and Anna were heading to Kentucky. I think that if I’d known that beforehand, it would have swung the pendulum firmly in favor of Kentucky for me. I would have loved to join them on the Spring Break trip, but it was nice that Peter was there on this one.
“Dude! I didn’t know you were on the New York trip…that’s awesome!” he exclaimed in joy when he saw me.
“Of course man, who wouldn’t want to go to the Big Apple?”
He smiled at my pathetic attempt at acculturation and gestured warmly for me to sit next to him, which I proceeded to do. As with most endeavors I partook in outside of the cesspool I called my house, I was the only person of color in a group of white people. A big-ass chocolate chip in a sea of vanilla.
A large girl with big glasses and a shrill voice conducted the orientation. It was, for the most part, a rather dry presentation of the trip ahead and our living arrangements.
“So, that’s what we need to do for our sleeping arrangements.” Large & Shrill said as she finished elaborating on the sleeping bags we had to bring.
She continued, “Regarding prayer time. We suggest that you bring your Bible with you, since we will be attending prayer services in various churches in New York. We will also be having daily spirituality time in the evenings with one of us reading a passage from the Bible and discussing it.”
I realized that I couldn’t escape this stuff no matter what, so just had to make do. Peter looked at me and smiled sympathetically. It was sweet. The kind of smile that suggested he was looking forward to the church visits and Bible readings, but that he also cared about me.
“So, do think about verses that you would like to share as your favorites.” Large & Shrill continued excitedly, the light in her eyes shimmering through her steel-rimmed glasses.
Then she looked at me.
Boy, did the light drain out of her eyes.
Others followed her gaze.
“And…um, well….uh, if you’re not, uh…not Christian and follow some other faith, you know…you can maybe bring the book of that tradition.”
She could not have looked more uncomfortable had she tried. And the rest of the group felt it too. I merely smiled back at them sheepishly, not really knowing what to say or do.
I was probably the first brown guy they had seen in their lives, other than maybe Disney’s Jafar.
(For the uninformed, Jafar is the hook-nosed, brown-skinned nemesis of the very Caucasianly drawn hero, Aladdin, who’s technically of the same ethnicity as Jafar yet curiously enough managed to procure the facial features of a natty tennis instructor from Maine plying his trade in a Danielle Steele novel.
But I digress…)
There were so many things that were comically inept about the situation. She didn’t know my religion, because I had not divulged anything about it. But what really struck me with what was, for the most part, a really harmless interaction was that she wasn’t open and honest about the fact that she didn’t know how to deal with the oddity in the group that was me (something I would experience countless times with white folk in the years to come).
In any case, awkward discomfort apart, the rest of the orientation provided useful information on the trip. I was still looking forward to it, though I wasn’t super keen on the self-conscious interactions that I now realized were going to follow me during the trip. A few days later, we all gathered in front of the college campus to begin our road trip to New York. The main organizers had rented a large van to take us there.
Back in India, I noted something about travelling Westerners, or even my own American or European relatives when they visited us.
They almost always over-packed.
Items for every conceivable occurrence on the trip were stuffed into gargantuan backpacks that seemed to have pockets in the oddest places. The sleek noise of zippers against synthetic fiber and the crisp sound of velcro abounded as folks tried to smash half their lives into their backpacks in Tetris-like fashion. I always wondered why one needed three pairs of footwear. Indoor, outdoor, and that post-modern, surreal space in between? Or why travelers had more sets of clothing than the actual days of the trip. Or why they carried enough medication to deal with every known symptom on earth twice over, and have a little left over to donate to a local village medical dispensary while regaling the wonder-eyed apothecary there on the benefits of Western medicine.
(My wonderful partner and soul mate, a white queer woman from Iowa with remarkably simple tastes and uncomplicated joys, continues to fascinate me with how much she believes she needs for a weekend trip while I throw in a toothbrush and a change of underwear into the side pocket of her duffel bag.)
Once we managed to stuff everyone’s voluminous luggage and bodies into the van, we were off. The trip was as eventful as a trip with religious, small-town kids from America could be. Any stereotypes I had about raucous American college-goers were torn apart as the conversation ranged from ways to strengthen the anti-abortion movement (and judging from the conversation, I’m sure I was the only pro-choice person in the van) to moralistic pity at those kids in the university who didn’t go to church. It felt like I was privy to a world I would never have otherwise willingly entered. They treated me with admirable politeness but, apart from Peter, didn’t know how to interact with me or draw me into their world. So I took the opportunity to be a bit of a fly on the wall and listened instead of participating. It worked for everyone as they didn’t have to really step out of their world.
“It’s not like I’m being forced to go to church.” one skinny guy squeaked on the topic of kids who didn’t go to church. “I want to go. Every Sunday morning, it’s what I look forward to.”
“I know what you mean.” Large & Shrill chimed in. “I want to tell them ‘if you want to live your lives without any values, it’s your funeral, but don’t blame me for being close to God.’”
Large & Shrill was already beginning to irritate me with her tone of permanent judgment. As the topic soon shifted to abortion, the same unity of ideological belief was coupled with a particularly strong vehemence against the actual act of abortion. The trip was an eye-opener to see just how central the issue of abortion was to most American Christians, especially the flocks outside the big cities.
“It is crystal clear that life begins at conception!” one of the girls cried out as the conversation heated up, all of them agreeing with each other but still trying to out-passion one another.
“Absolutely,” Large & Shrill chimed in again with the same tone, “and there’s a simple solution for unwanted pregnancies. Don’t have sex! But if you choose to indulge in it before marriage, then you must have the baby if you get pregnant.”
“Yeah…don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time.” squeaked the skinny church-going boy in clichéd triumph.
Every once in a while though, there was a voice of partial reason.
One of the more reasonable-sounding members of the group, her dark brown hair tied in a ponytail, said in a feisty manner, “Well, our work against abortion will be of no use without also working to promote the spread of adoption. I could be fighting abortion till my grave, but it will be of little value unless I also fight for widespread adoption.”
The interesting thing was that she was the most ardent anti-abortion activist in the group but still displayed a modicum of rationality. Made me wonder just how much someone like Large & Shrill actually knew of the complexities surrounding the issue in real life.
I did get a few words in edgeways, mostly by way of a couple of questions, and they made for a brief but interesting conversation.
“What about folks who can’t afford to have children and get pregnant?” I ventured, while the abortion conversation was going on. “Should they be forced to stay away from abortion?”
The van went pretty silent. I had not said anything, so a new voice in the mix stopped the rest, but I don’t think they expected even such a minor challenge in what they probably perceived to be a very friendly space for anti-abortionists.
“It’s definitely a problem.” said the dark-haired, rational girl. “Without addressing poverty, it’s difficult to address abortion.”
The little church-going boy then said, “Well, I mean if you’re talking about inner-city families, they need to get educated first and learn good life practices and values.”
Before anyone could respond, Large & Shrill piped in, the irritability distinctly noticeable in her tone, “When you think about it, this country fought a war to end horrible things like slavery. It’s done the most to alleviate people everywhere, so to give that issue as an excuse for abortion is not cool.”
That was enough to silence me. I told myself that I would have to pick and choose the topics I broached based on the company I was in. But it was the start of another learning moment for me. As I continued on my immigrant journey, I would find many white folk getting touchy about issues surrounding race and poverty, and even when they did engage with it, it was often via an awkward, feet-shuffling disavowal of personal privilege, followed by a suppressed indignation at the discomfort they were subjected to.
I also realized that I had a very interesting vantage point. As far as they were concerned, I was an outsider, so much so that my brown skin didn’t matter because it didn’t have an American history attached to it. If I were Black or Latino, I think my all-white traveling buddies would have been a little more averse to speaking their minds. I had been gifted a bystander view into a section of white America. And akin to what had transpired in the van, interesting viewpoints sans political correctness would be shown to me from time to time for years to come.
[Next up: Courting the big city ]