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Hands-On with the Theory of Negative Assortative Mating
April 22, 2017
Today, my patriotism was tested.
First, I can do things with my iPhone that are five to ten years more advanced (and easier!) than the technology at the Centre. Even though everyone here has at least a decade on me, I am actually valuable in being able to operate Excel and Photoshop—I think I may have succeeded in introducing GoogleDocs, which I can’t stand to use for school projects but, here, feels like the difference between a blackberry phone and the moon landing. After about 45 minutes of trying to explain how I would integrate photographs into a hundred page Film Guide—across a serious language barrier, and very different levels of technology— I gingerly offered to just put the pictures in myself. I finished this weeklong project in about twenty five minutes, with the photographs appropriately sized and positioned for easy reading (way more than I had hoped to attempt on a huge, humming P.C.). After breakfast, I had to actually take a black, thick, ovular chord (given to me adamantly by the tech gal, Jasmine, who was very sure they had “Mac power chords”) and put it against the slim port on my Air, to prove that it would not fit. Come noon, I was given at least fifty forms that needed to be digitized. The Centre had been waiting for some piece of technology that would give them a high enough resolution picture, and felt sure my camera was the best method for putting all of these forms onto their main computer. Instead, I downloaded an app on my phone to scan each of them, using phrases like, “No, really, trust me” to fully embrace the fact that here, I am my father’s daughter.
But growing up in the digital age in the U.S. (where my computers are designed to be operated with so much ease that you don’t realize the technology you are working with) is not all that makes me stand out. Far from it.
In the late afternoon, Rama and I toured the Palace of Madurai, a massive, intricate European-style structure around an open-roof courtyard. Free to the public, it seems to be a general place for couples to sit together, and children to run around squealing, playing tag and hide-and-seek. Rama began to take a photo of me (to appease my mother’s requests for selfies) and a gaggle of girls in bright saris came around her, pointing at me and smiling. They asked to take a picture with me and suddenly they were all introducing themselves, explaining that they were English Literature majors at a local University, and they were so excited to meet someone from the U.S. They beamed when I acknowledged their truly beautiful English, telling me it is a “Huge honor,” and thanking me again and again. They seemed to have opened some invisible social floodgates: the foreigner was approachable. From then on, everyone in that palace seemed to watch me— but the kids were the most vocal. Almost every child would stop what they were doing to stare at me, sort of, dumbstruck, and the bravest ones would yell,
“Hi!” or “Vich Country?” or simply begin speaking to me in rapid Tamil, asking to have their photo taken. They did not want to have the photos, they just wanted to see themselves on my camera.
After about half a dozen who, after I waved or said “Hi,” tentatively followed me or pulled their friends over to watch, a long procession of students, maybe a couple years younger than me, in matching uniforms filed in. They passed by where we stood in the adjourning museum, and groped halfheartedly to touch each statue as they passed but didn’t look at any of the thousand year old pieces of art that were presented without any casing at all—they just watched me, circled back to stare, to sometimes pat my arm or introduce themselves. It was the first half of the line that was most odd—because the line was split, boys in the front, girls in the back—and never have I been stared at by so many boys all at once, with so much fascination.
In a sort of disjointed chorus gave me rounds of,
“Hello,” “Hi,” “How are you?”
Being the center of focus in a palace this massive and incredible was, admittedly, kind of fun, but unnerving, too. Especially once we got outside. I don’t know if it was because I was dressed in more traditional attire today, or if it was because I wasn’t accompanied by a man, but the men in the street paid more obvious attention than ever before. When Rama and I stopped by an open-front shop the size of a small closet, filled halfway with coconuts to drink coconut water the “right” way (hack off the top of the fruit and sort of, throw the water into the back of your throat), two or three men actually stopped walking to stand on either side of us, watching, trying to catch my eye. The staring was pronounced everywhere we walked, men on motorcycles craning their necks as they passed and shopkeepers ignoring customers to wave or say hello. In one narrow street filled with ten massive pillars, an old part of the Palace, a teenage boy on a front stoop got up, straightened his shirt, and tried to talk to me, until his family pushed him out of the way, poking at him and teasing.
And for the whole weird afternoon, the only thought I had was, “Sexy Son Hypothesis…Negative Assortative Mating…I’m the fruit fly with the yellow eyes in a group of red-eyed fruit flies….”
This sense that I was special conflicted directly with the world I was watching. In the Palace museum, Rama explained how to identify male and female gods: the men have shoulders back, hands by their sides; the women are curled inward, shielding themselves modestly, cowering. The statues all had a string necklace twirling down their chests, but now that sacred string, meant to keep one in control of emotions, is not for women to wear: as it was explained to me, the women are not to be in control of themselves, they are kept in control by everyone else.
In the back of almost every house is a small, shadowed entrance for women to use when they are on their menstrual cycle, when they are too “unclean” to use the main part of the house or to go near the kitchen. It is shameful to be a woman, the structure of the city told me so, and yet I was drawing every eye, making people nervous and attentive—or were their gazes preying on me?
At best, I felt like an unprepared representative of not just Vermont, but the entire Western world. I felt like a poor “real life” version of the hundreds of fair-skinned models papering posters and buildings. But nobody seemed to care that I didn’t know their son in California, or that I wasn’t blonde, tall, and in blue jeans. At times I thought I should be ashamed, when parents discussed the continuing wreckage of Western influence over dinner, casting me sideways glances as though “my people” are also my guilt. Never before have I felt so clearly that I have a home, because this is so far from it. Never before have I felt like I have a people, but I am tentative to claim my country as my responsibility. Still, this impersonal rapture—for my skin, for my English—made me fonder of my home. In the streets, “American” means special, on the computer, “American” feels capable, in English classes here, being American becomes the goal. And maybe it was just because I haven’t heard any familiar music in a week, but when that American rap song “Fake Love” came up on the radio (you can tell how much I love Drake by the way I call it “American rap song”) I got totally into humming the words to myself. Not only was it a little window back to so many mornings of trying to find decent radio music on the way to school, but the words had never before felt so personally relevant….