The summer before my sister and I embarked
on our 10-month trip around the world I worked at a history museum in a
small town in Maine.
On occasion I’d share my travel plans with my co-workers. A
typical reaction was, “But why do you want to leave Maine?”
After a few false starts, I finally decided on an answer: “I’ll be exposed to new ways of doing and seeing things. It will
be good for me.”
As convinced as I was that I was right, I couldn’t fully explain. The subject would shift to strawberry shortcake or softball,
and I’d be off the hook for the time being. But the question stayed with me: “Why travel?”
One of the first countries my sister and I
visited was India. I fancied myself a seasoned traveler. But India took
me by surprise. For
the first time in my life, I found that I could take nothing for
granted. From the back seat of a rickshaw that careened through crowds
of cows, scooters,
dogs, donkeys, camels, and taxis—always swerving at what
appeared as if it would be a second or two too late—even the laws of
physics slipped away.
Soon after my arrival I was strolling
through the streets of Pushkar with my friend Dharmender. I had just
finished a bottle of water
and was impatiently scanning the streets for a trash can.
“Why not throw it on the ground?” Dharmender asked.
“I’ll wait until we pass a trash can.”
“Amy,” he said, in the same tone a child might use to announce to his younger sister that there is no such thing as
a tooth fairy,
“There are no dustbins in India.”
“All of India,” he declared dramatically, “is one large dustbin.”
It’s not that I hadn’t noticed before that
moment the piles of garbage (banana peels, plastic bags, old
flip-flops) that lined
the streets. It’s not that I hadn’t suspected Indians of the
tendency to throw their trash to the winds. But only then did it dawn on
was all about liberation! I would free myself of my backward,
I flung my plastic bottle to the ground.
But it wasn’t long before I discovered
that the attempt to become Indian was not only exhausting, it was
impossible. As much as
I might relish the outer trappings of Indian life, such as
wearing a sari or sitting on the ground to eat, more subtle aspects of
Indian society continued
to baffle me.
One evening several months after the water
bottle incident, a young man molested me on my walk home to the school
where I was teaching
English. The directors of the school staged an elaborate plot to
catch the criminal: I was to retrace my path, with teachers posted
behind trees every few
feet along the way. They would jump out and tackle my molester,
whom they were certain would follow me a second time. Only after this
unlikely plot succeeded,
and the criminal, when brought before the directors of the
school, refused to reveal his identity, did my Indian friends turn to
the police for assistance.
At the station, I understood why. The man
was immediately dragged into a back room and a couple of officers began
to beat him. As his
screams filled the front room where I was waiting, I turned in
distress to the director of the school.
“Why are they beating him? Do they have to beat him?” I demanded of her.
“Of course they have to beat him!” My question shocked her. “How else would they get him to confess?”
Groping for a response, I mumbled
something incoherent about a prisoner’s right to remain silent, glanced
again into her uncomprehending
eyes, and gave up. I had managed to let go of the laws of
physics, but the Fifth Amendment was another matter. Try as I might to
be Indian, there was no way
around it: I was American at heart.
In China, the last country on my
itinerary, a new kind of amusement park had lately become the rage.
Called “Windows to the World,”
these parks featured small-scale replicas of famous buildings
from all over the world: Bangkok’s Royal Palace, Germany’s
Neuschwanstein, the Statue
of Liberty, Big Ben, the Tower of Pisa. Shortly before I
returned to the U.S., I visited one such park on the outskirts of
Hunan’s capital city, Changsha.
As I gazed out over a fake lake that on
one end boasted the Sydney opera house and on the other the pyramids of
Egypt, I was again tempted
to ask myself: “So why did I leave Maine after all?”
No, I hadn’t come all this way to become Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Japanese, or Chinese. No, I hadn’t come all this way for
the sake of the Taj Mahal or the Summer Palace.
I recalled my friend Xiao’s reaction when I had jokingly scoffed at the concept of “Windows to the World.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “You Americans can go anywhere in the world, but we Chinese have only these
amusement parks. This is the most we will ever see of the world.”
Only now have I begun to understand why I had been so touched by her words.
I realized that what I treasured most
about travel was not that it gave me a chance to see novel things.
Travel gave me a chance to
look with new eyes on familiar things. Windows to the World was
one thing; but windows to death, littering, the right to remain silent,
and the right to travel
were others. I was returning home a different person—not Indian
or Chinese, but a wiser and changed American because of them.
That’s what the world has that Maine doesn’t: only from outside can you look back in. I mourned for Xiao’s lost windows.