Cultural Empathy Reflection

January 5th Excursions

The day started early, beginning with a tour through Delhi’s historical sites of palaces, forts, and architectural designs belonging to various rulers throughout India’s rich history. Delhi is created from seven great cities; each section was birthed because each new emperor wanted to leave behind his historical mark. Delhi’s architectural designs of the forts and palaces carry a similar theme in color, each were in shades of brown, red, and/or sandy colors. The locations we toured were either populated with people or an empty space with animals roaming around early in the morning. Numerous of these sites did not allow visitors, creating a deserted atmosphere. This was unusual, but comforting and calming because the quietness was similar to home.

The next location was Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation memorial site. The memorial site was separated by sandy beige brick walls from the rest of Delhi’s busy and fast paced city life. The grass was a healthy green with lively plants. The sun gleamed brightly, birds chirped loudly and animals lounged around peacefully. Men in military uniform walked around carelessly and freely, but the guns strapped around them disrupted the peace. As we traveled further, it became noticeable immediately that Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site was a tourist hot-spot. We walked up a small bridge that oversaw Gandhi and other cremation sites of important public figures in India. Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site was sealed with a large black marble stone with a glossy finish. There was a lantern with a burning candle that is said to be kept burning at all times. On top of the monument were yellow, red, white, and orange marigolds placed in a decorative and circular manner. Once visitors enter the monument, they were only allowed to view the cremation site from a distance.

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The sound of quietness amused me because outside these walls was a city filled with personality, yet inside the memorial gates it was noiseless. Although, the walls did not prevent my throat, nose, and lungs from sensing the smog lurking in the air. As we enter the main doorway to get closer to Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, it was a requirement for shoes to be removed. Another “shoe removal before entering” experience became unsettling for numerous people as I listened to their groans, murmuring questions, and statements of: “why,” “this is unsanitary,” “I hate this,” and “gross.” I felt the eyes of locals staring at us. I glanced over to see two men standing in a corner and putting on their shoes. One man rolled his eyes, and under his breathe I briefly heard, “stupid” in his sentence. He noticed I stared, so he stared back. His eyes were cold as he observed us. He didn’t smile like the other men would when they saw foreigners. He walked away.

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This experience was fascinating because whenever Indian locals see us, they would smile, laugh, wave, or take pictures. They seem to find foreigners intriguing, especially individuals that live in more rural areas. I quickly noticed that the locals did not only find our physical features interesting, but our actions and words were much more profound to them. It can be easily forgotten that majority of the population spoke the English language. Although, the man was speaking in his native tongue and I was only able to understand specific English words, I was familiar with his emotions and the harshness of his words. I was not offended, instead I learned to have cultural empathy. My perspectives from a bi-cultural and tri-lingual background allowed me to empathize with how he must have felt to have “others” enter a sacred sanctuary and behave in a manner that was most likely considered disrespectful. I noticed that it is a cultural requirement to remove one’s shoes before entering a sacred space in India. This is a sign of respect. This is a very unfamiliar practice to westerners, which can cause one to misunderstand the cultural importance of removing shoes before entering a sacred space. It can be considered unsanitary and uncomfortable for westerners because many people are walking on the ground barefooted daily. Yet, I can also empathize from the local man’s viewpoint because the comments that were used could be translated as disrespectful, especially when you’re considered a visitor in a sacred space. Even if foreigners may not find the importance in that space, it is a memorial site for the nation’s people; therefore, it is important to be mindful in these situations. Cultural empathy and language usage is extremely important when traveling to other countries. There is a power and privilege difference. In the United States, if foreigners disrespected our sacred space, we would not have tolerated it. I was surprise that the man did not confront us, but just walked away. It must be so common that the locals have become used to it. This allowed me to be reflective upon my privileges as an American traveler and be mindful of practicing cultural empathy.

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