Embarrassed By Stereotypes

It was the middle of the night and we were once again standing on a busy platform at a train station in Rajasthan India. As we stood there watching some kids lighting a fire between the train tracks a man in a turban suddenly appeared in front of us and struck up a conversation. I apologize for not remembering his name so we will refer to him as Singh ( a common middle name of Sikh males, and no disrespect intended ). Singh was friendly and as he spoke both Heidi and I noticed that he was carrying two large duffle bags. Suddenly, he appeared distracted. He looked to the side and motioned to someone in the distance who we could not see. Then in a haste, he set his bags down, gave us a brief smile and said, “Moment, I will be right back.” He walked away quickly through the crowds of travelers and disappeared.

Now, if you were in this situation what would you have thought? What would have been running through your mind?

Heidi and I looked at each other with panic in our eyes. We didn’t have to say a word to each other and it was clear that we were both thinking the exact same thing! This man is a terrorist and just set a couple of bombs at our feet. Obviously, we couldn’t believe this was happening and tried to remain calm. And we reasoned with each other that he is Sikh and that’s why he is wearing a turban. He can’t be a terrorist! We also didn’t want to run as this mans bags could have been stolen.

After what seemed like an hour but probably only a few short minutes Singh returned. He introduced us to his father who was also wearing a turban but had a white beard that was over one foot long.  He apologized for suddenly leaving but didn’t want to lose his father in the crowd. We. Were. Relieved.

Eventually, he mustered up the courage and asked me, “Who is your friend?” By this time we had been asked the exact same question several times. So it was no surprise. But the first time someone asked us this question I had to look around to see if they were talking about someone else. India, in general, is not a melting-pot nation and for many, the idea of an asian man married to a caucasian woman is unfathomable.

I said to Singh, “This is Heidi, she is my wife.” With surprise in his eyes he then asked if we had any children. Our reply was, “Not yet.” Then he said with a smile, “I see, you will have mixed vegetables.”

Moments later an old man carrying a stick and only wearing a loincloth came up to us and just stared. Singh immediately said to us, “He is illiterate and cannot speak English, that is why he can only stare.” He stood there for at least five minutes before Singh asked him to leave. The old man walked a few feet away then sat down but continued to stare. That whole time, I had a hard time focusing on the conversation with Singh as my thoughts were about the old man in the loincloth. What is he thinking? Does he also have a stereotype of us?

The last thing I remember was Singh inviting us to stay with his family in his hometown.

He wasn’t a terrorist. He was a very friendly caring school teacher who was returning home from a business trip.

 

Why do we create stereotypes?

We try to fit people into populations, communities so we can make sense of them. Often they are wildly off-base even if we have some correlation. Part of the reason for my fear was because of a recent bomb attack in a nearby city.

A few weeks prior, we were in Mumbai and a friendly well-dressed man helped us get on an overcrowded commuter train. When I say overcrowded  I mean literally sandwiched wall-to-wall with hot sweaty bodies. At first we were grateful. Then as Heidi and I looked around we realized that every single person in that train car was staring at her. She was the only woman in the entire train! Then, as the train began to move the man who helped us get on the train reached around the collar of his shirt and pulled out a Cross. First I was stunned to see an Indian wearing a cross. I thought to myself, “Aren’t all Indians Hindus?” Then I was scared to death when he made a prayer. For the next few minutes, I thought we were going to die.

 

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