Relationships are Complicated: India and I

A mish-mash of Karan Johar movies. 

Separating coriander leaves from stems in front of the TV, the Mahabharat blaring. 

Games of driveway-cricket with my best friend. 

The home-cooked chana and dal her mom made. 

As a kid, this was how I saw India. From a distance, heavily simplified, and romanticized. 

Authors 3rd grade yearbook photo, in which she is wearing Indian clothes.
My 3rd grade school photo. (If this had happened today, would it be seen as cultural appropriation? Two eight-year-old friends sharing in each other’s cultures – it was truly 100% wholesome.)

Many years later, I studied abroad and lived the student and tourist life in Bangalore. I spent weekends traveling with my peers and I socialized with a bunch of other ex-pats. I resided in a liberal, cosmopolitan city where the pale color of my skin didn’t afford me any extra attention. Though I was now physically there, I was still experiencing India through a filter.

On a beach in Mumbai, writing in the sand
On a holiday to Mumbai during my study abroad term.

This time around, for the AIF Clinton Fellowship, things were different. I was there to work, and was immersed in regular, day-to-day, real life. Lucknow differed drastically from Bangalore, too. Despite being a city of almost 3 million, it attracts relatively little foreign tourism, so I often stuck out in a crowd. The state is also one of the most poverty-stricken in the country, and the culture is, comparatively, much more conservative. So I knew that life wouldn’t be comfortable.

I don’t believe I was naive. I had set realistic expectations, and I prepared myself to toughen up. But in October, I had the scariest 13 minutes of my life when my Uber bike driver misbehaved and I couldn’t get away from him. That certainly brought an end to whatever was left of any romanticized version of India I had held. I was determined not to let one bad incident – that could happen anywhere in the world, I reminded myself – overshadow years of love and cultural appreciation, but it did shatter my trust. For months, I wrestled with the ability to feel safe again. In a psychological effort for self-preservation, I became guarded and suspicious, on edge all the time. And just when I was starting to feel comfortable, like I had my footing, I was mugged. It broke me all over again.

I know that part of the reason I was targeted for these crimes is that it’s phenotypically obvious that I’m a foreigner. And no matter how much I understand the culture, how well I can speak the language, or how long I reside there, I will never be able to walk down a Lucknow street and not be stared at. I’ll always be seen as – and truthfully, feel like – an outsider. 

Bara Imambara
I enjoyed the view of Lucknow from Bara Imambara, but I had to cut my visit short because so many people were staring, following me around, and/or asking for selfies. A few people even tried to grab me and physically pull me into their pictures. Anytime I was alone in Lucknow, I felt unsafe.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that relationships are complicated. This applies to relationships with places, too. India has been part of my identity for over 15 years, and I have loved her faithfully. This time around, however, was extremely trying. I continue to love her, but it’s complicated. 

I only had 4 days between the time I decided I had to leave, because of the pandemic, and my departing flight. I had a lot of packing to do, loose ends to tie up at work, and friends to say goodbye to. It was abrupt, and I was struggling to really feel a sense of mental or emotional closure. 

My closest friend in Lucknow suggested we take a road trip to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal. It was so spontaneous and unreasonable and crazy – leaving after my going away party at 1 AM, we arrived at 5:30 AM, right as the gates opened. 

My coworkers at my going away party, laughing.
My coworkers and friends came over for my going away party. We ate, drank, played games, and laughed wholeheartedly. This is a blurry picture, but I kept it because I was feeling so nostalgic in the moment. I wanted to freeze time and just appreciate the people who had been the brightest spots in my Lucknow life.

Seeing the Taj Mahal was a childhood goal and a bucket-list item! I had left India in 2017 without having seen it, but assured that I would return to India one day. Now I was leaving and not sure when or if I would ever return. 

Driving with no sleep, the Lucknow-Agra Expressway was lonely, sprinkled with early morning fog. The Taj Mahal, especially at sunrise, is absolutely stunning. The silhouette of one of the literal Wonders of The World stands in front of me, peaceful, stately, bold in its beauty. I’m actually speechless. I stand in absolute awe, soaking it in. My eyes tear up and my chest swells. It is breathtaking. 

Taj Mahal

Sitting on the lawn and reflecting, it hits me that the Taj Mahal was built as a gesture of love. I think about the relationships we form, with people, with places. I think about my love for India – how over the last few months it has been tested, how it has evolved, and truthfully, how it has persisted. Here I was, loving the most cherished site in India, with a dear friend, too. I’ve been scarred, but not broken. I feel incredibly blessed to have so much love in my life at this moment. 

The Taj Mahal is also a tomb – a symbol of death, of endings. Of closure. This was my time in India, coming to a close. The symmetry of this one last road trip felt just impossibly, beautifully poetic.

Author with Taj Mahal

McKenna is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Medha in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is expanding partnerships with educational institutions to scale up an existing 21st-century career skills training center designed to improve employment outcomes for youth. McKenna graduated with a degree in nutritional sciences. During her undergraduate years, she participated in research on the iron fortificants and protein quality of different fortified blended food products used by the U.S. Agency for International Development to address malnutrition and iron-deficient anemia in developing countries. After several years of nutrition research, she began questioning the underlying causes of malnutrition and poverty in the developing world. She diversified her work to investigate the social and economic factors that impact health outcomes, such as a community advocacy group for affordable housing in Manhattan, Kansas, and eventually to Split, Croatia, in 2017 to learn more about socialized healthcare systems. A childhood exposure to Indian culture left McKenna with a lifelong passion for the country, which led her to spend four months studying abroad in Bangalore at Christ University. She is excited to return to India in a professional capacity as an AIF Clinton Fellow. During her year of service, McKenna is looking forward to evolving professionally, engaging with the cohort, and gaining new perspectives on the development sector.

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