Growing up in NYC, I was constantly surrounded by new faces. On my commute to and fro school, I used to create backstories for people I would see on the subway. It was nothing harmful; it was just a way to cure my boredom and test whether or not I still had an imagination since my high school was essentially a mind-crunching sweatshop. The young woman wearing a neatly ironed blue blouse and pencil black skirt sitting in front of me bobbing her head back and forth to the music coming out of her white, Apple earbuds — she went to a pre-professional college in hopes to become a career woman but now holds small pockets of regret because she actually has a burning passion for horticulture. The middle-aged man sporting a nicely pressed blue-striped suit standing near the door reading a book on interior design — an actuary who has absolutely zero artistic ability but is trying to surprise his wife with a newly modeled kitchen. Exercises like these would help my early mornings pass by, especially when my friends were slumping over each other due to fatigue on our way to Chamber Street.
But now, thinking back, I wonder if this mindset was too presumptuous. I guess there’s nothing wrong with letting your imagination run for some self-amusement, but it’s important to recognize when assumptions are exactly just that — assumptions. During my high school days, I was definitely guilty of taking assumptions of people I barely knew and shaping their entire character based on the few pieces of their identity that I gathered either from firsthand experience or gossip. This would then affect our interactions and my perception of the person. And this is extremely unfair. Many times, we fail to recognize the fact that everyone’s actions and aspects is connected to some inner workings that is fully invisible to all but that person. By not realizing that each person has their own unique backstory, their own struggles, and their own battles, it’s very easy to judge whether or not something he/she does right or wrong. And by not staying open-minded, we fall prey to a tunnel-visioned mindset that our own code of ethics or way of reasoning is superior to those around us, which further fuels this need to judge. This is no new human phenomenon, but with the onset of social media and the anonymity of the internet, it has become far too rampant. Note, I am not saying that it is wrong to carry your own opinions and you should definitely have your own idea of what is right or wrong, but I don’t believe it is our prerogative to impose our ideals onto others and then judge them for doing something that is alien to our world of morality and boundaries, especially when the entire story is yet to be heard.
Now what does all of this have to do with India? Nothing, thanks for reading.
This idea is deeply woven into my experience in India this summer. This mentality to not judge others under any circumstances is a practice that I tried to undertake last year and it was truly tested the past two and a half months. From the day I received my acceptance e-mail, I’ve been told India is a very undeveloped nation, portrayed by my peers almost in a barbaric light compared to the “first world comforts” of the Western world. So coming in, a part of me expected the worst and I couldn’t help but point out all of the things that were outside my understanding of the world, a.k.a. what I considered “wrong.”
There are no streetlights or road lanes here? Pedestrian-first is not a thing? Wait, I’m pretty sure there should be a sidewalk here. Wow, that’s a lot of trash on the street. Goats, cows, and dogs roam freely — casual. Okay that guy just spat at my feet, thanks.
But over the several weeks I have been here, I have taken the time to consider that a lot of these happenings can be explained and that I should not judge how people here live. I’m not saying I’m perfectly void of these thoughts; I still cringe my nose from time to time at some of the scents that linger in the air and question life. But by recognizing that the world is multi-faceted, I became more receptive to the beauty that this country holds: an amazing sense of community, a diverse array of ideologies, and a meticulous love for home-crafted beer, among other aspects. And if I had gained anything from my summer (besides gratefulness), it’s a sense of respect for the people here. Even with living conditions that many of us would deem unfavorable, people here are happy. After worrying less about what I might be stepping in and observing the things happening around me, I’ve noticed a lot of people smile and laugh, which to me was a living testament that happiness is not contingent to one type of living or only connected to material possession. This brings me back to my original point that there is by far more than two sides to a coin. Who am I to judge whether one’s way of living is worse off when in fact that person can be happier than I am (and my peers at that, considering the recent NYTimes article on campus suicide)? And isn’t that the end goal — to be happy and share that joy? Maybe, maybe not. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to remember to not only not judge a book by its cover, but also not judge the author for the words he/she has written. Or I guess in our day and age, don’t judge a Tweet by its hashtags..? (Sorry, I tried)
For those who are curious, “likho apni kahaani” is the motto of Janalakshmi Financial Services / Jana Urban Foundation, and it means to “build your own story.” Pretty dope, isn’t it?