meeting in the market

I was in the open-air market by my house today having a healthy haggle with a merchant over some silver bangles. Two women walked up to look at bangles as well – one was a beautiful girl about my age and the other was probably her mother. From their features and the way they were dressed, they looked Russian or Eastern European to me.

The girl my age said, in English with a thick accent, “You speak Hindi so well! Where are you from?” (clearly I still have a foreign accent) I told her that I was American, and asked her where she was from. It turned out she was from Afghanistan.

She and her family moved to Delhi two years ago. She asked me if I had heard about what was happening in Afghanistan, and I said yes, and that I was really sorry.

I felt incredibly self-conscious at that moment. I wanted to say, “I’m really sorry about what my country is doing to your country. I’m sorry that we have driven you out of your home. I’m sorry you have to start your life all over again because of a war that probably has nothing to do with you. Please don’t judge the people in our country. Most of them wouldn’t want this for your friends and family either.” Of course I just sort of clammed up and didn’t say anything more than that I was sorry.

She seemed surprised that I was so awkward about it, and didn’t give me any reason to feel that she resented me for being American. She was genuinely happy to meet me, and we went on talking about bangles and the market, and about learning Hindi. I was so scatter-brained that I didn’t think to ask her name, but I hope that if I see her in the market again, perhaps we can exchange information and maybe even become friends.

I am not really politically active and I barely read the news when I’m in America, so to me the war has been so abstract until I came here. When I was registering at the FRRO (where all foreigners on extended-stay visas must register), I noticed there was a whole separate waiting area and set of registration desks for Afghan nationals. And of the few hundred people I saw registering that day, I think about half were Afghani.

The people I’ve met don’t seem like refugees in the sense we think of them – they just seem like people who might have been like me in their country, who decided that it was probably best for them to leave while it was still safe for them to do so. They probably don’t consider themselves brave or heroic, and actually appear very content to be relocated in India. But just by the sheer numbers of Afghanis I see here, I can’t imagine what it must have been like in Afghanistan for them to decide to leave en masse.

I don’t have many clear thoughts about the situation, except for this: When all the Fulbrighters went to the orientation in DC, one of the things they emphasized was that we were essentially American cultural embassadors, and that outside of certain circles, we might be the first Americans people had met. They assured us of how much weight was resting on people’s impressions of us as Americans, and how those impressions would shape their view of our country.

What I didn’t realize at that point was that I would be equally, if not more profoundly, affected the other way. This the first time I’ve met people from Afghanistan who have actually seen their own country torn to shreds by a war we are fighting on their soil, and the only thing I can think is, this is my opportunity to get to know them, and to finally connect to something real in this whole nebulous mess between our countries.

I have so much to learn from them.

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