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Surreal but (not) nice

2 October 2008

A little over a week ago, on my own birthday, I attended the party of my friend’s daughter who was turning 6. It’s been a while since I shared a birthday with anyone, but partying with a bunch of kindergarteners was not my moment of surrealism. Rather, little did I know that S. and I shared our birthday not only with each other but also with the Virgin Mary, according to the Catholic church down the street from S’s house.

Okay, just a complaint here – after I noted this to an adult at the party, he said to me, “You do know this is not really Mary’s birthday, right? You do know this is only a ‘traditional’ holiday, and that they don’t actually know when she was born, right?” And he did air quotes when he said the word “traditional.” Hence, the quotation marks. And I almost replied, “What are you talking about? My Bible says, ‘And lo, the virgin celebrateth the day of her birth on that holy day, the twentieth day of the ninth month on the Gregorian calendar (even though that calendar wasn’t instituted until the 16th century).'” But I try to keep my sarcastic sacrilegious moments to myself for the most part… except for when I post them on the webernets. As for my just-sarcastic moments, I try to share those loudly with anyone who will listen and possibly reaffirm my existence as they chuckle at my wit. Like when I watch Ana read my blog.

Anyway, as I mentioned, my friend lives just down the street from a massive Catholic church that was holding a festival for Mary’s birthday. When I arrived for the party, there were some people milling about her narrow street, but it was early yet. However, as the night went on, the number of people grew, and the street became more and more crowded. P. and I occasionally would step out on her balcony and watch the progression of the crowd with a bit of interest. But overall I didn’t give it much thought during our party, except for when we would have to shout to be heard over the tinny Tamil music outside.

By the time I left the party with a colleague at 8:45 p.m. (to join my own birthday dinner already in progress), the street was packed. We got on his scooter and began to inch through the crowd. Less than ten meters from P’s house, though, we decided it was a hopeless cause. So we got down from the bike and attempted to get through on foot, pushing the scooter between us.

Here is where the surreal part of the evening took place. And when I say surreal, I mean like weird, irrational, dream sequence surreal, not Salvador Dali, melting clocks and all that other disgustingly creepy stuff he was into, surreal. (Rabbit trail: Went to a Dali museum in London with a friend. By the time we left, we were creeped out and had to have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream immediately to cleanse our insides with goodness. The guy was a freak.) As we made our way slowly through the mob, I became very aware of the attention I was garnering, the sole white face in a sea of Indians. Sure, this happens to me every day, and I’ve grown used to sticking out… for the most part. However, the attention I was getting was not the usual, the small children saying “hi” shyly to me or women smiling my way. No, today, those women bowed to me, and parents began to grab their children’s hands, moving them to touch my arm or skirt, or maneuvered the child’s head under my hand, as if looking for me to bless them.

Now, being in India, I have been singled out for special treatment, good and bad, on numerous occasions because I am white. It always makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. But this experience, it gave me the heebie-jeebies. Never have I been considered somehow “good enough” to bless a child. I have never even been asked to be a child’s godmother. (I think my sister said this had something to do with how I let my niece throw rocks at our dogs and call it “all in good fun.”)

At first I thought maybe they had seen me in my penultimate role as Mary, the mother of Jesus, back in 1982 in the Faith Chapel Christmas Play, where I seriously rocked my costume, i.e., my family’s old blue curtains. But then I realized humor was not going to get me out of this, and I just had to plod along and try to avoid blessing too many children for fear I’d get it wrong. I really wanted to yell, “I’m not special! I’m not important! Please just stop!” But I don’t think it would have made any difference if I had.

After what felt like ages, we finally made it through the crowd and got back on the scooter to speed away. And then I finally breathed.

As surreal as it seemed at the time, I haven’t thought much about the experience since that night. Probably because it really did just seem like a strange, irrational dream. But then, on Monday, a little girl in court kept staring at me, and eventually she came over and wanted to hold my hand. I let her for a while but eventually pulled away. It seems like nothing makes you more aware of your own inadequacies than people acting like you don’t have them. It’s just uncomfortable, and honestly I’m looking forward to returning to anonymity.

One more thing to add to the surrealism of that crowded street experience: Just as we pulled away on the scooter, I glanced to my left and saw the strangest sight ever. A stage set for picture-taking with statues of Mary, two Roman centurions, and, wait for it — Dora the Explorer. Surreal indeed. I didn’t have my camera (still kicking myself for that one) but have created a professional reenactment of the scene just for you —

Okay, so the drunk American tourist wasn’t there, but it wouldn’t have made it any weirder if he had been….

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    2 October 2008 10:16 am

    I’m crying because I’m laughing so hard at that picture.

  2. Unity permalink
    2 October 2008 8:53 pm

    Oh good gracious! That is Hilarious! Well, when you come back to Chicago can you bless me–I could use it 😉

  3. Barbara permalink
    3 October 2008 1:49 am

    Christine, no pressure but I need to you save me…from everything 🙂

  4. 3 October 2008 2:08 am

    I feel for you. I felt like an Amazon warrier (ie, taller than everyone) everywhere I went in South America and didn’t like being yelled at (cat called) and touched where ever I went. I feel your angst. It’s good to be in the majority sometimes, just for that sense of not standing out too much. The photo op is insane. What does Dora have to do with it all? I ask you.

    I wonder what that is all about? It would make me feel weird too for people to get their children to touch me.

  5. Haris permalink
    3 October 2008 4:25 am

    That drunk tourist sure looks a lot like L.J. Williams. Was he scouting the city as a possible Rotary convention site?

  6. D.A.D. permalink
    3 October 2008 10:44 pm

    Okay…so I get the idea of it being “Roman” Catholic…har, har…but the Dora thing is way too whack for this old boy. Is there some sort of Hindu goddess context going on?

  7. Dana permalink
    4 October 2008 6:06 pm

    – the american tourist so looks like mike, it might just be the hawaiian shirt 😉
    – did you know referring to people just by their initial is so gossip girl of you? (i have to stop watching those WB shows)
    – one thing i’ll miss when you come home, this blog! these things just don’t happen to you in chicago.

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