I recently read a post on Thought Catalog titled, “How India Changed Us.” In short, the article featured the travel perspectives of two young Americans who bicycled across India. Their account was condescending; an eloquently expressed unoriginal piece at best. I can’t even count the amount of times they recounted how traveling in India made them feel “lucky to be American.” While I don’t believe the duo were intentionally being racist they unwittingly approached a sensitive matter in, as one commentator put it, a “less than enlightened manner.”
What surprised me most was not their depiction of India, but the response of many other Indians to the article. A few were upset. Many were not. If anything, they were complimentary -– and critical of those who had issues with the piece. One individual stated: “I think a lot of the time people fall into the trap of immediately branding something as racist if it doesn’t fit into his/her idea of what is appropriate. I understand that, but I really hope we can move past that.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of writing. Nor is it the first time I’ve seen a positive response to it from fellow South Asians. Sadly, I think that sometimes South Asians get so excited about being represented in a media outlet, they ignore the fact the depiction may not be entirely accurate or balanced. Or maybe, like the writers, they’re not even aware of it themselves.
When you’re a Westerner writing about a country like India in public, or a region like the Middle East or Africa, you have a responsibility to be careful given the historical context.
Instead of offering something “interesting” or “original,” readers were offered the same overdone, condescending, Orientalist, being-in-India-made-me-appreciate-amazing-America cliché. It offered a very superficial image of India. The same image we’ve seen time and time again. It was disappointing, especially from a website that claims, “You’re going to discover stories, ideas, and voices here that you won’t find in the mainstream media.”
Why do I resent the image of India portrayed in “How India Changed Us”? Because it ignores the myriad, complex reasons for India’s status quo. India, like many former colonies, finds itself mired in social inequality and poverty for many reasons, some internal but also external. Corrupt governments. A colonial legacy. Unfair international trade practices, which contribute to farmer suicides by organizations dominated by — or at least traced to — the United States, such as the World Trade Organization. These are just a few examples.
But none of these issues are even touched upon in this article. It simply parrots the same old, “Indians are backwards,” “India is weird” trope we see time and time again. While nobody expects these two young bicyclists to offer 10 paragraphs narrating the various back stories behind India’s many troubles, the fact that the article was published in its current form continues a troubling precedent.
The dialogue seen in “How India Changed Us” is particularly significant today. It adopts the kind of approach that breeds First World resentment. For Americans to present themselves as morally superior, when we have helped install authoritarian governments and have contributed to many of the problems in the developing world smacks of hypocrisy.
Now, I’m sure the writers didn’t intentionally mean to insult. They probably just wanted to talk about their radical bicycling trip. But because the post appears on a public site, Thought Catalog, and only serves the purpose of reinforcing American stereotypes regarding countries like India, it’s irresponsible to share yet another article like this one without at least offering a balanced counter-narrative. Every story has two sides. And this one is lacking.
*This article is an adaptation of a comment I wrote in response to the aforementioned Thought Catalog post.
Image: Pingping and Rabbit