On Being Good and Feeling Ugly

by Mallory Hennigar

Requisite selfie with Mamta after she helped me make my hair look presentable.

Requisite selfie with Mamta after she helped me make my hair look presentable.

March 13, 2018

            One way that I learn as an ethnographer is by trying to understand how people interpret my foreign behavior and manners. While this way of learning has resulted in rewarding revelations both about the culture of my fieldsite and about myself, it is truly mentally exhausting. In my life in the US, I have the luxury of spending relatively little time thinking about what other people think of me. This is because I can quickly interpret social cues and hints to understand how my actions and words are being perceived by others around me. Here in India, I am faced with a language difference in addition to learning a whole new set of cultural codes, so I spend a lot more time and agony puzzling out what it meant when someone laughed at me or raised an eyebrow or if I should have responded to someone’s question in a different way. Since my success as a researcher also depends on my relationships and the kindness of strangers, I sometimes feel desperate to fit in and be liked in a way that I haven’t felt since I was eleven years old in middle school. This combination of factors makes it feel like by the end of some days my sense of myself is completely unraveled, and I have to take time to remind myself that I don’t need to take everyone’s casual comments to heart.

            At first, the most difficult comments to handle were about my physical appearance. This is an experience I have shared with many of my foreign friends who travel regularly in India. “Why is your hair like that?” or “Why is your face so red?” were constant frustrating questions. “It’s 100-degree heat!” I wanted to shout in response, “How else am I supposed to look?” I also got almost daily commentary on whether I had lost or gained weight since my arrival, which as an American woman was particularly psychologically challenging in a way that no one here really appreciates. I implored my friend to stop commenting on my weight because it made me feel sad, and even then, she was never truly able to stop herself. Every small mark on someone’s body is a cause for conversation in India – every pimple, every mosquito bite, every freckle. Under this constant scrutiny, I felt hopelessly ugly and dirty. Despite people equally as often telling me that they liked my shirt or thought I looked beautiful, all I could think was that I was being complimented out of pity, as people clearly thought that I didn’t even have rudimentary knowledge of how to care for myself.

One day I was speaking with a friend about all of this. I told her that in America we don’t often criticize someone’s appearance to their face so bluntly and regularly. She explained to me that if no one comments on changes in her appearance, she actually feels very bad. She said that to her, these comments feel like care, that people are taking notice of her health and well-being. She thought my negative reaction to these comments must mean that Americans think its insulting if someone assumes they can’t take proper care of themselves. I had to agree with this astute analysis, since this was exactly how I was internalizing these comments. Since then, I’ve learned to take appearance related remarks a bit more lightly, although I admit that I’m still finding it difficult to accept them as a form of care.

            A comment that I constantly receive, and which remains baffling to me, is that I am very good. I know it seems disingenuous to complain about being called good, but the more times people say it, the more I want to know what this extremely vague compliment actually means. Even after very short conversations with people, they will very often tell me that I am good. “But why?” I press them, “What am I doing that’s good?” It is certainly an exercise in extreme ego to ask people to explain why they think I’m good, but as I am studying morality and ethics it seems like a missed opportunity not to. One girl’s elaboration on what was ‘good’ about me lead me to another unfamiliar term: “When I watch you, your way of talking is good, your behavior is good… you’re very simple.” ‘Simple,’ I thought, ‘now what does that mean?’ I learned that I am simple because I dress plainly, I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, it seems like I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my looks. So, I thought sardonically, ‘simple’ is just a way for people to put a positive spin on how disheveled they think I’m always looking. I thought my ‘simplicity’ in the Indian sense is merely a product of my being ‘simple’ in the American sense about Indian dress and beauty aesthetics and habits. I eventually learned that simplicity does have some of the connotations of stupidity that it does in American English as well when a group of girls concernedly told me that I need to be more careful about people trying to take advantage of me because I’m so simple and honest that I can’t recognize when others have bad intentions.

Another common explanation of my goodness is that I can manage and adjust. A few days ago, someone told me that to them I seemed like a perfect person because I was able to mix with all different people even though I don’t know them. My acceptance of any food that is given to me or my willingness to jam myself into an over-crowded auto-rickshaw are other markers of my ability to ‘manage.’ At first these comments made me feel hyperconscious of my foreigner status and that people assumed that I wouldn’t like Indian things just because I was a foreigner. But what I came to realize is that all of the things that I am perceived as managing well are things that the person speaking to me doesn’t like themselves. In fact, I’m sure that if I was in the US and had to eat mediocre dorm food, ride on a crowded bus, and talk to strangers all day, I probably wouldn’t be managing well at all, but my desire to fit in and be ready for any experience that might come my way makes me forget to be frustrated. Often the situations that I manage are some of the most memorable and enjoyable – like when I took an auto with so many people that some of the boys had to stand on the back bumper. What I’ve learned is that I can manage almost anything as long as I’m with people I trust and whose company I enjoy.

People often contrast my alleged goodness with their less satisfactory experiences with other foreigners. These compliments, unlike most of the others, I always greedily accept and make me feel particularly smug and self-righteous. While my pride at being told that I am the least foreign-seeming of the foreigners is really yet another mark of my desperation to fit in and be liked, I have to say that after meeting some fellow ex-patriots I cannot disagree that maybe I am a little bit good by comparison. If I try to judge my foreigner fellows with the most compassion I can muster, I can’t help but appreciate my own good fortune to be able to come to India as an ethnographer and not in some other capacity that forces me to stay aloof. I met some British NGO workers who were constantly talking about how their insurance policy barred them from partaking in many activities that I had since come to consider part of my average day. For instance, one was chastising the other for riding on a motorcycle, telling her that she risked injury. I listened on guiltily remembering all of the motorbikes I have casually hopped on the back of for the sake of participant observation or simple enjoyment with friends. Catching the look on my face, the NGO worker said, “oh it’s fine to ride on back roads, don’t worry!” After my conversations with them and some others, I felt fortunate that I have the freedom to approach my life here with a spirit of optimism and a desire to make connections rather than primarily with fear and anxiety. Although I often feel nervous that I’ve done something wrong or that I’m being misunderstood, I’d rather have this anxiety than be so concerned about injury, illness, or attack that I can’t accept a kind offer of assistance from a friendly person.

Contact Information
Mallory Hennigar