i survived to tell the tale
There are those times in life when things don’t always go to plan and people comfort us by saying things like “You have three choices really. You can let this moment define you. Let it destroy you. Or you can let it strengthen you”. Or, “Our lives are not determined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens.”
These quotes have the power to inspire or frustrate; and from my own experience I can tell you that it is much easier for people to give this advice than it is to actually put it into practice. But I do think their messages are spot on though… at least in theory. My trip to India totally put them to the test.
I preface these personal anecdotes with the fact that I loved India; most of the people I met were wonderful – joyful and generous. A 6ft tall, size 26, white girl was bound to stand out. And stand out I did!
I was in Delhi for three weeks staying with friends who were working over there. I have been to several developing countries, so I was as prepared as I could be for the culture shock. I have faced people staring at me before, but my experiences in India took the fledgling struggle for self-acceptance to new heights.
On one of the first days, my friend and I were in a small grocery store, simply buying water and fruit, you can imagine my surprise when the business owner, complete with huge grin and head wobble, asked me, “Are you sumo wrestler?” …yep, a sumo wrestler. And as I stood there in total disbelief, crushed and utterly speechless, my friend whisked the groceries out of my hands and slammed them back on the counter. On my behalf she was totally outraged. In fluent Hindi and complete with head wobble, she proceeded to tell the man just how rude and ill mannered he had been; and that she would never shop there again.
You can see how this moment presented me with a choice – define, destroy, or strengthen? Not as easy or quick decision to make.
Not put off by the ill-mannered shopkeeper I ventured out by myself to visit an ancient fort. The architecture was beautiful, the gardens were lush, it was quiet and peaceful amidst the unbelievable chaos that is Delhi. I wandered around the gardens appreciating their incredible beauty, and thinking also about the poverty that is everywhere. I felt grateful for my simple life, and thankful that I was, by chance, fortunate to be born in Australia.
Again I noticed people looking at me and whispering. As they approached I was instantly filled with dread, my mind and soul still tender and vulnerable from my previous encounter…what were they going to say, would they be unkind? I know I’m overweight; I don’t need strangers to remind me! But when they reached me, a baby was thrust into my arms with someone insistent pleading, “Photo madam, photo?” with a crowd forming around me, all striking a pose. I didn’t know if I felt like a celebrity or a circus freak!
Once I identified the baby’s mother, I bee lined for the exit only to be caught by a group of student teachers who also wanted a photo with me. Now I’ve got to say, 40+ people forming a circle around you, all speaking broken English at you, is quite an intimidating experience. But again this moment also presented me with the same choice – define, destroy, or strengthen?
After laying low for a few days to compose myself after all of the attention, I collected myself and embarked on my next adventure. As I left the safety of my friends apartment, five steps down the road, both an auto and cycle rickshaw were staring at me so intensely as they were driving past that they crashed into each other. I caught their attention in such a big way, I caused a road accident! In this moment I again had choices, was I to laugh or cry? I chose laugh!
The constant staring and comments from shopkeepers, people on the street, anyone who thought they had the right to, was draining and confronting. It was exhausting and forced me to search within myself for answers. I decided I would ‘fake it till I made it.’ I would hear their comments but I wouldn’t listen to them, or let them into my heart. It wasn’t a decision I made once, but a decision I had to make every moment I was out in public – as cars slowed down to look at me, as strangers stood on the street there with mouths open aghast. I had to consciously make that decision to let it go, over and over again.
With my ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra going around in my head we made the trek to the Taj Mahal. As you can imagine, it was magnificent and awe inspiring. It was a place that I was confident that I would not stand out; after all I was in the shadow of a wonder of the world, but no. After looking around the grounds and the mausoleum in 45° [107°] heat we rested on a ledge of the Taj Mahal itself, astounded by its beauty. Soon that familiar feeling of being watched washed over me and people began milling around. A middle aged woman approached and made the ask, “Photo madam, photo?”
Are you kidding? We were at the Taj Mahal, why was I getting the attention?! So I decided I would take control. “If you want a photo madam, it will be 10 rupee,” I firmly stated and went back to talking to my friends. As she walked away I felt triumphant…until she returned with the cash, all 17 cents of it! In shock and disbelief I put my arm around her and smiled, trying not to look stunned. As she walked back to her family to show them her prize, my friends and I were in hysterics! I chose laughter!
That wasn’t the end of it, just the beginning actually. Soon after a mother and toddler approached me for a photo, after informing them of the charge, she walked away to her husband, then he walked away. I again felt triumphant, until her husband returned handed her something and over she came with a big smile. He didn’t have the correct change so he went off to get it! So as not to disappoint I again posed for the photo. As I looked over my shoulder I could again see my friends doubled over with laughter. At this point a line was forming, all of them waiting patiently to have their photo taken with me. It was getting out of control so we had to leave. It was truly funny and what an experience, again I was faced with the decision, and I chose celebrity rather than freak.
When put to the test, when I had the option to laugh or cry, to hide away or step out bolder, I’m glad I chose to keep living. What would you have done? What would you have chosen?
The reality is people can be cruel to those of us who don’t fit the ‘perfect’ mold. And how I see it, if I hide away, cower in a corner and stop living the way I want to, then they win, I’m admitting defeat and by default endorsing their opinion. I don’t want to be robbed of life or voluntarily surrender it. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I don’t have to agree or conform to it.
Being asked if I was a wrestler wasn’t my finest hour and at first I was horrified and crushed. But instead of focusing on how rubbish that made me feel, it occurred to me, that the shopkeeper was just plain rude, tactless and clueless about the depth and breadth of the beauty and riches in the world. It says much more about him than it does about me. Instead of focusing on my hurt or insecurity, I laughed and felt pity for him, and my anger and shame dissipated. I thought I’d be embarrassed to talk of this encounter, but really, the absurdity moves it from something that makes me sad and insecure to something that is ridiculously hilarious.
People are going to throw things at you no matter what your size, shape, gender or race, it’s up to you if you catch them, and if you do catch them, what basket will you put them in? The basket that breaks you, defines you or the one that strengthens you?