In the two months since I left Delhi, the city has already become unrecognizable. Perhaps this is due to the commonwealth games, which two months ago forced squatters from their tarpauline homes. Now those homes have become smooth concrete, shiny as glazed donuts. Even the backpacker district of Pahr Ganj smells a bit less like piss, and I am able to stroll through the main Bazaar without having to leap over puddles of mud.
In the Gem bar I spend a night drinking with a BBC director. He abuses the United States, calling us “a bunch of Imperial assholes.” He fancies himself a fan of Shakespeare, and when I continue to win bets over which character is which, and “what year did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?” his distress turns to ire and he returns to reprimanding the United States, expecting to get a rise out of me.
As if I have any emotional investment in a country that refuses to help pay for my medical bills or subsidize my medication. The pills I buy in India for $8 a pack are about $350 in the United States, for the same active ingredients.
As the BBC dickhead proceeds to offend any American in the room, I begin to wonder why there is no American in the room. Even in the backpacker’s mecca of India, I have yet to meet a single American, and the only familiar accents come from Canadians.
Afterwards I walk the Main Bazaar, the night market’s cunning aiming for me in all directions. Passing by other travelers, I see stereotypes so true and untrue, always laughable. Japanese girls wearing tight white masks to protect them from H1N1. Scottish blokes in ripped jeans and gigantic earrings. French families who stare apprehensively at their bottled water, clutching the pages of their guidebook as if it were a Bible. Australian boys always in large groups, perhaps intoxicated, pulling boyish pranks on any passerbys. Koreans giggling somewhere. Chinese men watching the Indians, noting down any foulplay. Israeli hippies looking for marijuana. British men in long dresses and smoking cigarettes, absorbing the shit around them. German men in extremely short shorts. Canadians in the corner, reading books.
And the Americans. The Americans are nowhere. Do you want to hear the confession of a traveling American? The most insulting part of belonging to this global Empire, one that not only believes that we know the world and what’s best for it, but that we somehow deserve to operate as its global police force–that our opinions should matter the most, that our IMFs and World Banks somehow “enlighten” the rest of the world? Are you ready? Here it is:
In nine weeks of traveling around India, I never met another traveling American. Not once. Not in the gigantic international festivals of Bangalore, not in the thrilling train rides packed with young backpackers, not even in the wondrous Taj Mahal, perhaps the most visited monument on the planet. I never even met a “Non-Resident Indian”-American.
The small amount of Americans in South-east Asia made me suspicious, but the complete absence of my countrymen in India seems totally unbelievable, considering the amount of western youths trying their luck in South Asia. For a country like the U.S. that insists on acting like a world leader, this is abominable. As I watch the other travelers in Pahr Ganj, I begin to realize that the vitriolic criticism that the BBC Director was spewing about the United States was by no means an uncommon diatribe. In bars all across the world, America is being denounced as an “Empire in denial,” and what’s worse, there is a deep nostalgia for the way the British Empire ran things.
As my Indian friend, Phillip, once told me: “at least the British built bridges and trains, what the hell is your Empire doing to help out? Trying to make us all Christian?”
When it comes to defending the United States, I am lonely and alone. I do what I can to break the stereotype, but there are far too many American soldiers in third world countries sprouting districts full of prostitution and drugs, and too few (if any) American travelers to showcase a more approachable kind of American. We travelers love to laugh at the Japanese for wearing those absurd masks, and the Australians for being obnoxious drunk assholes, but we forgive them because they are here, among the world, experiencing it and letting the world experience them. But there is no redemption for young Americans. We refuse to see the world eye-to-eye, and the world only sees us through our bureaucrats, our corrupt politicians, our soldiers depicted in their newspapers when, as in Afghanistan last week, our airstrikes end up killing the civilians we are meant to protect.
Americans as a people are in absence, but as a world power we are ever present. Is it fear that holds us back? Our fear of what–stomach aches? India, at least, is ready for us. The Obama charisma has yet to wear off on its people, and as an American, I am greeted and shown respect in every capacity (most Indians are simply bewildered to see an American traveling at all). I have never lied about my nationality, not in communist Laos, not in the long lines of Beijing, not in Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi, not in the knife-happy bars of Phenom Penh, nor in any part of “second-world” India.
Last year, when the protests in Bangkok were at their most crucial, I followed the events with an astounding amount of care and dedication. This is perhaps what backpacking is, what makes it more than simple summer trips, brief outings into the limin, or inexpensive vacations. Because I had been to Bangkok, and knew the people, and had a cognitive map of the city, I could not help but empathize with the protesters, I could not help but care, and root always for the people trying to change their corrupt government. If, like the Europeans, every American spent their youth traveling to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, India, would we still be where we are now? Would we have been so quick to ignore the number of Iraqi civilians we continue to call “collateral damage?” Would we have been fooled for a moment when they told us we were there for “liberation?” Would we have sat by watched our soldiers destroy those great monuments, those astounding mosques, those museums, those countless homes and so many lives, whose deaths we barely even keep track of?
Now we are on the verge of more violence, more occupations, more bad intelligence, and most of us have never even been to the regions under our country’s vast influence. But we are still young. Our backs are still ready to sleep on park benches, our lungs, still willing to inhale the toxic fumes that await us, our hands, still ready to reach out to the unknown, to be grasped by whatever lurks there. Our spirit and enthusiasm, our openness, our efflux of our soul, our willingness to accept the world, this will not last forever. Let us go! As Americans, let us be rid of our fake certainty, of querulous libraries and our ivory, panopticon towers. Let us go! Into the world to break this stereotype so ingrained in the eyes of the world, which puts us always in an antagonized position of dominance and power, as the exploiters of the third world. Let us go! Let us see and be seen, let us act and be acted upon. Let us plunge! Let us plunge!