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July 30, 2008

What Do Indians Really Think About Americans? : Are We the Evil Empire?

Samir Ashraf, a recent graduate of NYU in religious studies, went to India to volunteer at the Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi and spent nine months there. We invited him to talk about what Indians think about Americans, and he told us they were extremely curious about us and asked him lots of questions. Most of their impressions of the U.S. came from movies and tourists. So it seemed we are not the evil empire, as far as he could determine.

What he could reveal to us more fully was what he really thought about India and how the experience of living there changed him. He chose to go there because he was extremely curious about India, the place where he was born and where he spent the first years of his life while his father worked as an architect on the Baha'i House of Worship. He had heard many stories about the place from his parents and wondered if they were all true.

They told him the place was very dirty. It was. Unpleasantly and shockingly so. He showed us photographs he took of ramshackle buildings, litter, tangles of electric wires, streets with cars and motorcycles recklessly competing for road space. He described foul-smelling air from burning trash, animal odors, dust. Everyday living was difficult for him. There were no corner stores where he could run out for a few things, no central locations where he could get stuff, no sidewalks, no street lights. Even the House of Worship, which in the photographs he showed looked very orderly, was not as clean and quiet as you would find it elsewhere, he said.

His parents told him most people were very poor. They still are. The "alleged boom" has brought more wealth to India, but also brought more inequality, with the rich now growing very rich and almost everybody else very poor. More people are buying cars and you might run into a person owning four Porches, while the suicide rate among subsistence farmers keeps growing. Caste privilege still exists, but nobody talks about it.

But here also was a surprise. Perhaps because they had nothing, or very little, or perhaps because they were used to unpredictability, Indians in general seemed very relaxed to him. They didn't seem to worry about whether things would go well or not, and this was quite refreshing for Samir.

A friend who worked with him took him home to a village in central India. Here there was no electricity at all. The very good water came from a well, but of course you had to carry it home by the bucketful to drink, cook, wash, and do laundry by scrubbing your clothes on a rock. There was nothing much to do so you could spend time just looking at the sky if you wanted. People talked. Somehow they seemed to know a lot, for instance the price of wheat in America.

The atmosphere was very peaceful and his friend, a computer expert and the first in his family to have extensive education, said that despite the lack of modern amenities, he would return to the village to live if he didn't have to go to New Delhi to find work.

Overall, Samir's experience in India was a transformative one. He began to see things in a new way. He developed a new perspective on who he is and what seems important. He realized that a lot of the barriers he experienced were because of something inside of him. He noticed that tourists who experienced the most difficulties were those who came with the mindset that people were ignorant and dirty and couldn't let go of what was inside of themselves.

His attitude toward his own privileges also changed. For instance, before he went he knew about climate change, but in India he realized that how he lives in the U.S. affects the whole world. He wants now to be more responsible. What would be a great thing, to his mind, would be to give everyone in India and everyone in the U.S. a chance to switch spots for a week.

Samir showed pictures of New Delhi and the village to us and shared impressions too numerous to detail here. Participants in the dialogue asked him many questions about what he learned. Because he went to India to work in the Baha'i House of Worship, they also had many questions about his Baha'i religion.

Samir was glad to talk about Baha'i because his job in India was to explain it to the many hundreds of visitors who came to visit the House of Worship. The Baha'is hold three main beliefs, he said. 1) There is one God. 2) There is one universal religion. Every religion that exists is part of an unfolding process of revelation. 3) Humanity is one.

On the whole, Indians are very interested in religion, he said, and every religion has a large following. About 2,000,000 Indians are Baha'is, many more than are found in the U.S. There are seven Houses of Worship around the world. Each one has nine sides representing nine major world religions.

Samir was very glad to get home. When he set foot in Newark airport where everything was orderly and clean, he felt relieved. Nevertheless, he loves talking about his experience in India and was glad to have the chance to share it with us.


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