“Oh, you’re American?” - July 15, 2013

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Jordan, Travis, and I had been sitting under the awning of the Soymilk Factory for the past half hour, watching, waiting. It’s the mark of an unseasoned foreigner to be soaking wet during a storm: Everyone else finds shelter and is patient. Now that it had passed we followed Jobin and Mongol, two Kolkata City Mission workers to the school house of the slum. It was time to go home and this was where Jobin had parked his motorcycle.

As an English major, math was not my strong point, but even I couldn’t see how this was going to work. Mongol explained that Jordan would stay with him, while Jobin took Travis and I home.

Silly me, what was I thinking? Five would be pushing it.

The three of us awkwardly fit ourselves on and drove through the flooded streets of the slum; I was incredibly grateful that I’d worn a salwar suit that day instead of a skirt. I had never ridden side-saddle in my life, and I was not about to start while driving through Kolkata’s chaotic traffic.

The next thirty minutes, as Jobin wove through trucks, cabs, autos, rickshaws, and pedistrians, I threw out several of those half-finished phrases and tried to pass them off as prayers: “Oh God, please no…” and “Dear Lord…” Turning onto a side street, the traffic suddenly died down. In fact, there was only one other vehicle. It was a policeman, and he was waving Jobin down.

The cop waited in his car as we hopped off and Jobin crossed the street to him. They began speaking in Bangla together, until finally the cop explained “ Ah! American?” He looked in our direction and waved us towards him. He began asking us questions- where in America where we from? What do we do back home? Why were we in India?

After giving our answers he turned back to Jobin and spoke more Bangla, then reminded us that three people on a motorcycle with one helmet was illegal. The moment was over as suddenly as the rain earlier that day, and he sent us on our way, one helmet and all.

It was an interesting exchange. Instead of interrogating us, the cop seemed somewhat interested in who we were. It wasn’t until a little later that I realized that our color and nationality was probably what kept us from getting in trouble. I didn’t know what to do with such an unearned privilege. Relief? Shame? It was the same mixture of emotions I felt when groups of people pull out a chair for me to sit in while everyone else remains on the floor. Excessive hospitality that you simultaneously appreciate and loathe. Who am I to deserve this, just because I’m lighter skinned?

Happy to have made it back to our apartment alive, I had to laugh. Only in a place like this could a simple ride home elicit such humor, ridiculousness, adventure, and unsettling questions all at the same time. Every moment has so many things to offer, both good and hard. Of course, I thought. Only in India.