Prejudice

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It’s fascinating—every single person who has approached us in Shimla has been a trekking or mountaineering guide. We attracted touts in Delhi as well, but there they had all sorts of wares and services to offer us. I’m not sure if these ones are better or worse. There aren’t as many of them here, but they are far more persistent. Only one of them has actually stopped to ask us whether or not we want to go trekking in the first place. And, since they are all trekking guides, they are all in splendid shape and very difficult to outrun.

It’s like a bizarre form of racism. It seems that the assumptions that guide their behavior are (1) all white people anxiously want to go trekking (and in fact have no other reason to come to Shimla) and (2) regardless of what they say, they will buy a trekking package if you keep after them. Therefore, it is perfectly fair to be forward, obnoxious, and pushy in offering these services.

This isn’t something that happens to us in the US; indeed, I am inclined to think that it doesn’t happen in the US. Information about products and services is almost always transmitted in a more impersonal way, and, knowing the culture, we have a lot more control over how we learn about, discuss, and determine what the best value is. Indeed, with the internet, we can make purchasing decisions without any direct contact with people who want to sell us stuff.

Of course, even if aggressive direct marketing is rare in the US, profiling still happens. It’s an unavoidable part of human nature. We extrapolate based on our limited exposures and experiences, and create prejudices that help us to evaluate who is trustworthy, whose interests, inclinations, and upbringings are similar to ours. These categories are helpful in many circumstances, but they can also make it difficult to form relationships with people in particular groups. And when widespread and systemized, such prejudices can grow into extremely thorny, even explosive issues.

When it comes down to it, being pegged as wealthy, culturally ignorant trekking enthusiasts is probably not the worst thing, even if it is a little irksome, and doesn’t help us connect with the information that we would find most helpful. It’s annoying to be tagged as a potential source of easy income, but I don’t think it would be possible for us to be in India at all if we were immediately classified as a threat.

But being labeled, even incorrectly, has its advantages. It forces us to figure out how to articulate our desires and our objectives in a simple and forthright manner understandable in this particular context. Why don’t we want to go trekking? What is the bigger picture that we have in mind that such activities don’t contribute to at this point? We haven’t yet figured out how to answer these questions, but we are working on it.

Touts are a persistent challenge almost wherever we go, but what’s even more problematic for us is the fact that our carefully accumulated and constructed categories of people are basically useless here. In the US, we can tell a lot about a person by how they present themselves: how they dress, how they act, how they speak. But here, that wisdom is useless. Our instincts about who is polite, who is interesting, who is trustworthy are completely short-circuited. It’s like being blind.

Sarah and I are trying to book a nice hotel to celebrate our anniversary. We thought perhaps a booking agent would save us some time and energy—there are, after all, scads of hotels in Shimla. But how do we choose a travel agent if we can’t tell who to trust? Himchel Pradesh is particularly assertive in warning visitors about using unlicensed agents. So we thought we would stop by the local government tourist office and see if they had any recommendations.

But instead of pointing us in the direction of a trustworthy private agency, or giving us information that would help us to make our own decisions, the Department of Tourism offered to book us in their own hotels for a rather exorbitant price. How is this any different from the behavior of a tout? The government is simply functioning as the “official” tout!

Our intuitive grasp of people will only grow through our experience and our interactions. We cannot be taught these things through books, although books can help us process our experiences. When we were children, we had to learn our own culture this way, and now, as adults, we are learning another culture in the same way.

As children, of course, we had the benefit of our parents’ guidance. We could trust our parents fully, absorb their perceptions, and emulate their behaviors until we put together how these mechanisms allowed us to function in the culture. Here, we aren’t so fortunate as to have a guide in whom we can trust completely, and who will commit so much to our development. But we do have a good liberal education, a willingness and commitment to learn things the hard way, and faith in our Father in heaven who is the ultimate author of our formation as beings.

We have some growing to do, and it isn’t always fun. Bring it on.

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