In life, few things leave us lost. Few things rent our optimism and leave us feeling winded. I am writing this in the library. Snatches of conversation reach my ears. The atmosphere is one of anxiety. I can relate to that. Exams. Projects. Assignments. Careers. Environment. It seems as though all we hold dear is falling apart. And I can relate to that. Yet for the first time in my life, I feel all alone in an alien land.
Everyone’s had a rough night. The girl in the green sweatshirt is sleepy because she was up studying. The bubbly one in the too-tight blouse is hungover. We’ve all been there. It’s familiar territory. I feel as though I have had a nightmare. The hollows under my eyes seem to grow and strengthen my thoughts.
What did I do last night? I found out that a hospital, the top hotels and my favourite bar were attacked by terrorists in Mumbai. I tried to reach everyone in that city. Everyone I spent the first 15 years of my life with. Just in case. But that is not why I am alone. I am not alone because I lost a beloved teacher, or because my friend’s fathers are being held hostage, not because everything I love about the city is destroyed. I am alone because nobody else cares.
When I was younger, I was told that the world does not care about Indians. We have to earn our way in it. And we have to do it better because we are judged to be less. I laughed at his idea then. I laughed at it until last night. The West claims to uphold the pillars of free thought and action. I did not see it last night. Last night, I heard news broadcasters talk about the inefficiencies of the government, the lack of security in the hotel and the fact that the terrorists seemed to be local. I did not hear compassion for the lives lost, did not hear of any attempts to help our government. I did not hear a single word that lent humanity to the entire incident. We are an urban population taken by surprise, and sucker punched so hard I do not know if we will get up to fight another round. Yet, here in the west, we are nonentities.
I found the message clearest in the depths of my anxiety as I tried to reach my friends and family. I was in a house at Totem Park, trying to watch the news. I wanted to see if anyone I knew was hurt. I wanted to see if my mother and my sister were safe at home. I tolerated that the floor representative switched off the TV to conduct a floor meeting, I tolerated their laughter as they conducted their business. After all, it truly affected only me. People suffer from compassion exhaustion and I understand that. A lifetime of being bombarded by conflict in the news is a fact of modern life. And when I asked for the news to be switched on again, they obliged. As he switched on the news, the Residence Advisor, a UBC employee, looked at the screen and flippantly said, “Nothing ever happens in India.” The words were casual, he meant no harm.
And even though my friend replied “fuck you.” “Fuck You” doesn’t quite cut it, in this case. The problem isn’t rooted in individuals; it is a mass cultural phenomenon in the West. Especially among young people. As a visitor to this country, I feel now that its citizens are more concerned about the environment, their profits, their debauchery than about people. It is a humbling experience when you realise that your life is worth nothing. And I felt that it was. A 6000 year old culture had been attacked.
We are a symbol of the very ancient trying to survive in a modern world. It is a world where our values are questioned and our rituals criticised. We have lent the world the products of our civilization. And the West has gladly taken from us. We gave you yoga, ayurveda, muslin, pashmina, Darjeeling tea, the concept of zero, the world oldest religion, the Chandrashekhar Limit, Buddhism and the world’s largest democracy. We still provide the west with cheap, capable labour and free market in the third world. Yet we are not viewed as humans, as real people. When 9/11 happened, a symbol of the modern world was destroyed. It represented hope to many people.
People were affected. This was most evident. It was larger than the loss of the symbol or the financial losses. In India, we prayed for those lost. I do not see the same compassion here. We have had our symbol, The Taj Mahal hotel, a 200 year old building ruined. For Indians, it is a symbol of our heritage. It is what makes us unique. It combined the elements of colonialism and tradition that makes up the Indian Identity. Yet I have not heard the incident mentioned in any of my classes. Are we not worthy of the same compassion we accorded the West?
It is not only in times of distress that we are dehumanised. Little incidences in several of my classes have revealed the extent of cultural ignorance at UBC. It is both shocking and unexpected because UBC has one of the highest percentages of International Students of any undergraduate university in North America. Yet in one of my textbooks, cultural values are depicted with shocking ignorance. The tone of the textbook is condescending. It seemed almost as if the author(s) advocated treating individuals from other cultures as though they were not equally capable. Even worse, much of the research on these cultures is from materials as old as 1985. Are the author(s) unaware of the impact of globalization on cultural evolution. Or do they choose to educate a generation of future leaders who will demean other cultures?
Ask any international student, and they will be able to relate an incident when they related a cultural practice from their country only to hear an “Oh my, that’s so wrong”. The tone is condescending; the look shocked. Have Canadians forgotten to look into their past and see the heinous acts they committed?
This mass cultural apathy (bordering on ignorance) did not bother me when I first arrived. I felt that it was just indicative of the kind of lifestyle Canadians lived, and I accepted it. Throughout my career here, it prickled and irritated. Now I see it as a crime. It is criminal to not know or care about other cultures. By choosing to be ignorant, you are not considering us people. By choosing to be ignorant, you crush our spirit. By choosing to be ignorant you devalue our lives.