Here are three fleeting moments within the same 30 minutes. They are representative of the many fleeting moments that mark much of our time in South Asia.
I take my small paper cup of Nescafé machine-churned cappuccino, and sit on a pile of bricks off to the side of the pedestrian pass. I pretend to be a rabbit, avoiding eye contact with nearly everyone who passes. If I don’t see you, you don’t see me, right?
In India and Bangladesh, that is an impossible likelihood. There are so many people everywhere, all the time, I am destined to be spotted within seconds. This time it takes a whopping 15-seconds before two young teens beeline in my direction. I know what they will say.
“Hi, ma’am. One selfie?” The taller of the two asks, giggling, sure she will have a great Facebook post with a prized foreigner.
“No, “ I say, shaking my head.
Gasp. Did she say no? The two girls’ mouths fall open. The father is a few feet away, already preparing for the the shot. “Please, ma’am. One selfie?” They beg.
Oh, how sweet. They think I didn’t hear them the first time. I heard you, and the answer is the same. It’s not the moment of the day I avail myself to silly, self-serving photography that may make you famous for five minutes on digital media. If you would have asked me after my coffee, I may have yielded.
“No, please. No selfie. Thank you.” I wave my hand to confirm that the photo is not happening. I move back a little on the bricks, making sure there is no sitting room on either side of me.
“Please, ma’am, one selfie,” they say, bending over and snuggling closer to me as if to change my mind.
In my head, I lose it and scream silently. “Can I just sit here and enjoy my fake coffee at 6:45 in the morning with a bit of peace?!? Don’t you see me not seeing you?? If you take the selfie, than 10 more people will be right behind you, acting as if they have never seen a white person.”
To them, I say without smiling, “No thank you. I just want to have my coffee.”
They slowly drag themselves away, slumping as if their hearts have been broken. Their father nods and waves as he puts away the phone.
I lick the foam off my coffee stirrer, and send them off with mental wish. “Young ones, there is life beyond the selfie with random strangers. Really, there’s a magical world out there waiting to been seen with your eyes, and not with your cell phone.”
I bury my head in my cup, and pretend I don’t see anything.
Standing alone in the middle of a busy pedestrian pass obviously means I must be waiting for someone to talk to me. Many South Asians think that, and the 30-something-year-old guy with the blue golf shirt takes advantage of the opportunity to jump in with his burning question of the day.
“Ca-ta-lonia,” I say slowly so he hears me correctly and doesn’t hear “California,” which has similar phonetic understanding in the Indian ear.
“Country?” He repeats his question. Catalonia rarely registers on anyone’s radar screen. He thinks I have not answered him.
“Ca-ta-lonia. Europe.” I repeat.
“Near which country?” He is perplexed. I get it. Catalonia is not well-know yet, and still is in the shadow of Spain’s rule.
“Near France, in South Europe.” This is our typical way of explaining geography.
He has no idea where I put him in the world, but manages to say something that sounds like thank you and begins to walk away. He only gets two feet forward, and remembers that he has another burning question.
“If I married in Indian church, would France recognize marriage?”
Now it’s my turn to be perplexed. In all my months of walking Asia, this is the first time I have gotten this question.
“I don’t know. I don’t live in France, and I am not familiar with those kinds of laws,” I shrug my shoulders.
He is convinced I must know something, so he rephrases his question.
“If I married a foreigner woman in church in India, is it legal in Europe?” He insists, with life-urgent importance.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I know a few couples who are American-European mixed, and they had trouble getting their European marriages recognized in the U.S. and their U.S. marriages recognized in Europe. I don’t know the rules for recognizing Indian marriages. You may want to ask the embassy for the country you plan to go to,” I stumble through this conversation in the most helpful tone I can.
“Ok,” he says. He walks two more feet forward, and pauses, ready to turn around and ask something else. He thinks better of it, and rounds the corner falling out of sight.
Thirty seconds after the “Would my marriage be recognized” conversation, I’m approached again.
This time, a man in a checkered shirt, about my age, comes up to me. His four companions circle around, and dozens of other Indians skirt around them.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he greets me, extending his hand, which I accept with a “Hello.”
“What country do you live in?”
“Ca-ta-lonia.” I keep giving my standard reply.
“Ah, Catalonia. Near Spain?”
“Yes, thank you for knowing that. Few people know that,” I answer, completely taken aback with his geographic knowledge.
“I have a friend living in Madrid, so I know some of the issues between Catalonia and Spain,” he explains, adding, “Spain has four languages.”
“Yes, it does.” I am impressed.
“Which language do they speak in Catalonia?”
“They have two official languages, Catalan and Spanish,” I answer.
“Hah, two official languages, Catalan and Spanish. And what about English? Is that their third language?”
“Ne. They study English in school, but their spoken English is generally pretty weak,” I tell him
“And, what is your profession, ma’am?”
“Freelance marketing. And what about you? What do you do? Do you live in Amritsar?”
“Yes, I am from here,” a big smile crossing his face. “I am an accountant. What is your name?”
“Jennifer. And yours?”
“Karim,” is what I hear.
“Thank you, Jennifer. Have a nice day.” He extends his hand again. I accept with a “You, too.”
He goes along his way. I’m happy. He didn’t ask me for a selfie.