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Monday, April 16, 2012

The accidental celebrity

Coming to Bhuj, I knew I was going to stand out.

At this moment the city contains approximately five foreigners who aren’t just stragglers from tourist season, and for the most part people in Bhuj don’t have sustained interactions with any of us. I have grown accustomed to being asked “which country?” and waiting for the curious conversation that will inevitably follow. Real life examples include:

Kid in street: “Which country?”

Me: “US”

Kid in Street: (angrily) “Then why would you leave?”


Neighbor: “Which country?”

Me: “US.”

Neighbor: “Oh! My cousin brother is in Australia!”

Me: “That is great! I have never been to Australia.”

Neighbor: “Haha that is a good joke.”


Guy: “Which country?”

Me: “US”

Guy: “USSR?”

Me: “We don’t call it that anymore.”

But all in all people are starting to get used to me, allowing me to forget that they still see me as different.

Then, all at once, I am thrust into the spotlight, and forced to think deeply about the privilege I represent by being here.

My NGO is doing a project where we collect waste plastic from local companies, schools, and plastic collectors, and women artisans weave them into products like shopping bags, mats, and curtains. I wanted to participate, so I put out a cardboard box in my apartment to collect plastic bags. No more than ten minutes after putting the box out, a reporter was knocking on my door wanting to put a photo of me and the box in the local newspaper. I conceded, thinking this was an opportunity to get the word out about the project. I told the reporter all about Khamir and the recycled plastic project.

About a week later, the article came out in the paper. Roughly translated by a coworker, it says:

"US woman gives unique worship in Bhuj"
"American Raina Fox is working hard in Bhuj on a unique project, collecting the best plastic from Vikas deep apartment in Bhanushali Nagar for an organization called Khamir."

While I would have preferred they not publish the name of my apartment and that they actually say something about the Khamir project, all in all the article was harmless.

Then I got to work, where a TV crew from a national news station was waiting. They had asked specifically for me, and wanted to do a segment on "my project".

I told him that it wasn't MY project, but in fact, a Khamir project, my box was only one part of a bigger project, and that I would love to introduce him to the woman heading it so he could interview her.

He said, "That's not news, a foreigner saving India is news."

I refused to do the interview, and was left feeling extremely uncomfortable.

First of all, no one here is "saving India." There is no such thing. One reason I chose to do the AJWS fellowship was because I support their stance that the best work is being done by grassroots organizations within the communities themselves, not foreign aid organizations, and I wanted to take a supporting role in that work.

Second of all, my coworkers have been doing this work for years. Then I step in and suddenly people care? I have done nothing to deserve recognition, and totally understand my coworkers' frustration when I suddenly draw cameras. Is the attention I drew helping or hurting my NGO's work?

So why DO people care about me? I still don't have an answer. Maybe there is a fascination with the West because of the media, or something leftover from British colonialism. Or maybe just because I am new and different, and I live in a place where tradition rules.

But I know that when I go back to the States and people aren't stopping me on the streets anymore, it will feel like both a release and an identity crisis. I won't have my identity prescribed for me, won't have the excuse of saying I don't understand something because I am the "American." It will be harder to stand out when I fit in, and harder to label myself when someone doesn't do it for me.

For now, I am "the American from the newspaper," and this identity is both a source of comfort and discomfort, privilege and exclusion. Which pretty much sums up my time in India so far.

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