Before leaving to study abroad, my mother, like any other good parent, wanted to make sure I had thought about footwear. Of course, the fact that I had grown up with everything from snowboots to flip flops in Canada was not qualification enough for knowing the importance of good walking shoes, since my mother believed that for all the dirt and grime on the streets of India, they must have developped special shoes to keep their feet clean. I told her I'd wear good sport sandals and that I'd wash my feet well in the shower. While my practical solution was deemed satisfactory, we moved on to discuss the unknowns of how to dress as a white woman travelling in India, how to find a good currency exchange spot, and whether I should go about learning the basics of Hindi or Telugu first. I packed my everyday sandals, flip flops for the shower, sneakers for the gym, and didn't think more than twice about what mystery elements would come in contact with my half exposed feet.
Needless to say, upon landing in Hyderabad, taking a cab to my homestay, and quickly orienting myself to the neighbourhood, my feet were a less than appealing shade of orange from the dust and dirt of the pre-monsoon state. The fact that the tops of my feet hadn't seen direct sunlight in a year did not help to camouflage the splatter paint graffiti of grit, and I looked around to see how everyone else could go about their lives walking on comfortably clean feet. While my foreign feet definitely made the colorful dirt stand out, I came to realize very quickly that everyone has feet exposed to the elements at all times, and they go about their day regardless. Not exactly the most shocking cultural difference to notice, but as the rest of my first few days unfolded, I started noticing more interesting characteristics about strangers' feet here.
Coming in to a semester abroad in India, I was theoretically familiar with some elements of Indian culture, including a few differences in physical behaviour. My friends from the area had told me never to sit with the bottoms of my feet towards anyone, as it's a sign of disrespect, and that all shoes absolutely must be removed before entering a home. Furthermore, I had learned about the roots of the caste system and varnas, in which the Vedic teaching assigned the lowest working position to be equivalent to the feet of the community's body. With these thoughts swirling around my jet-lagged mind, I thought about how much one's feet could reveal one's social positioning in terms of wealth, gender, occupation, or religion. So I decided at the end of day one to write a poem about all the feet I'd noticed that day.
Without further ado, I present to you all, my poetry. Be gentle with me, no one has ever told me my poetry is unbearable before and I would hate to start knowing that now.
Her feet are yellow.
Jaundice or turmeric,
It's not my business to say.
The rest is turquoise everything,
in fine tuned complimentary contrast.
His heels fall
completely off the back
of his plastic zebra striped flip flops.
The rest is straight back posture, loud hand claps.
He has fully tucked in his shirt.
Their toes show silver rings,
Jewel-less, jingling, and ornate,
by their sweeps of straw hand brooms.
The rest has no jewellery.
It's not their business to be loud.
This girl's ankles ring
Silver bells slip low, almost singing,
They must be much too nice
for her to be wearing shoes as well.
The rest follow their sister,
dancing down the parking lot ramp.
I'm wearing rose gold socks
with thick-soled, un-broken-in sandals.
No ornamental armour.
Without bells, I try to whistle--- off key.
But maybe soon I'll step the right rhythm.
It's been over a month since I wrote that first poem, and now my feet are tanned in the shape of my sandal straps, scarred from bedtime bug bites, and calloused from Kuchipudi dance classes. I've also acquired a twisted and recovered ankle from stepping off the back of a motorcycle improperly, an unchipped layer of blue nail polish which matches the color of my sandal straps, and at least sixteen more mosquito bites on the top of my foot, one of which gave me dengue fever which hospitalized me for five days at the beginning of august. My feet are definitely dirty most all of the time, but they also carry color and jewellery at the same time. Just because I can't keep them clean all the time, doesn't mean that I can't also keep them as beautiful as they can be.
What is dirty and clean; pure and impure; public and private; sacred and mundane, none of these things are mutually exclusive from one another. While I was raised in a cultural atmosphere full of stark binary separations between many things like gender, indoor/outdoor spaces, work versus play, foreign versus local, there are many quotidien realities here that seem paradoxical to me. How can someone's feet be both loved and hated at the same time? How is it that I must only eat using my clean right hand, but also only use this hand to handle autorikshaw transactions with sweaty bills of mystery-stained cash? How can there be so many "no littering" signs everywhere I turn, but empty cups of chai beside every sidewalk and street? How come I can't fold a loose leaf single sheet paper handout but printing off a mile long receipt just for the security guard outside the grocery store to take it and crumple it into his pocket?
There are so many things that I see as oxymoronic, but are just a part of life. Sometimes, I can learn the reasons behind the contradictory coexistences, but most of the time, I've learned that acknowledging and accepting these new frustrations is a much more meaningful point of growth than trying to understand them through the cultural paradigms with which I'm familiar. Since I was raised to see certain things in black and white, it's easy to organize all of the new information I absorb into similar oppositional relationships. However, I believe it's more impactful to take in new information through colorful, phenomenological, paradoxical, and highly context-based lenses. In other words, I don't have to make up my mind and decide if my feet are at any point only dirty or only clean.
Furthermore, as a study abroad student, I am here for five months, which means I'm picking up a lot of dirt in my clothes, but also leaving my own impacts on the environment. There is no way for me to separate myself from the air pollution I create in my daily commute, and some of the littered chai cups might have been mine blown out of the dust bin. Whatever hot water I take in the shower might impact when everyone eats dinner, and whatever dirt I trail into the house has to get swept up by someone I don't know how to thank. I can't avoid the fact that when my feet get dirty it's because I've left my footsteps somewhere.
As such, I'm working on implementing a new approach to my time here called "Clean hands, dirty feet". It means that in my day to day life as a privileged foreigner studying in India that I want to walk around new places, get my feet muddied and scratched up, but I want to keep my hands to myself and know my place. I don't want dirty hands from trying to reach in and mold my experience into the shapes of my expectations. I don't want to get picky grabbing and taking my own curated collection of travel experiences, leaving the by-products of my impact abroad. I would rather let my time here shape me, instead of the reverse. It seems like a good way to embrace and trust the paradoxical nature of study abroad.