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I just returned from eight days in my friend Pooja’s hometown – a city almost completely void of foreigners. It made me appreciate my cities where people have at least seen someone they assumed to be American.  Being people’s first American sometimes meant simply helping them get over the shock factor, which was apparently huge…

One woman came to the house, sat on a bench next to me, and stared. That was it. Her mouth agape, eyes unblinking.
“Namaste,” I attempted – hello in Hindi.
Her mouth moved in a wordless response.
“How are you?” I attempted again in Hindi.
No response – mouth still agape. A long silence.
“I don’t know who you are,” she finally managed, in a toneless voice.
“My name is Sarah. I’m Pooja’s friend,” I responded, mustering all the cheerfulness and friendliness at my disposal.
Eyes unblinking, no response, she continued to stare.
I tried to distract myself with something and when I looked back up – she was still wordlessly staring.
I couldn’t handle the awkwardness anymore… I got up and left the room.

But mostly people asked questions. I became the expert on Americans who could confirm (or, mostly, deny) strange reports about life in the US, like…

“Isn’t it true that in the US, people buy new clothes – wear them once or twice and then throw them away?”

“Don’t women in the US wear saris?”
“No.”
What? No one? Not even your mother?”
“No – mostly pants, jeans and dresses.”
“Not even to parties?”
(sigh) “Nope.”

“In the US, even the cheapest rooms to rent costs $40,000 per year.”
(My favorite ‘questions’ were the ones that were more like statements of fact…)

“Who else in your family speaks Hindi?”
“No one. I’m the only one.”
What? Why?”
“Because in the US, most people speak English.”
“So not even your father [read: the highest educated person in your family] speaks Hindi?”
“Umm… no.”
(This conversation was actually held two or three times with different people. They found it shocking that such a prestigious language as Hindi would not even be known by my highest male relative.)

While watching some local coverage of President Obama’s recent visit to India…
“In the US, the president is like god.”
“Umm, no, definitely not.”
“But you respect him?”
“Yes.”
A knowing nod along with a muttered conclusion, “Like god.”

They say truth is stranger than fiction. If that’s true in this situation… I really must be the strangest person they’ve ever met!

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