As my time in India is coming to a close, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about emotions – mine and others’. Strangely, after so many months of joy, happiness, and contentment, and of course occasional bouts of anxiety and sadness, with the arrival of the over 100-degree days of summer I have begun to feel anger. In my head and in conversations with my American friends my reaction to this anger is to analyze it, to try to explain why I am feeling this way. The consensus seems to be that the heat and a bout of stomach problems certainly hasn’t helped my subconscious preparation to return home by emotionally separating from my life here. Whereas earlier people telling me I’m good was a matter of curiosity to me, as I wrote previously in this blog, now it riles me up. “You know you’re a good girl,” one boy told me after he criticized my performance at a program which was protesting violence against women and the lenient sentencing of rapists for which I was given less than five minutes to prepare to speak. “No, I don’t know,” I responded, “Honestly, I’m not interested in being a good girl.” I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentally linked my anger with my sense of my regional identity as a ‘Bostonian.’ While I was riding on a train from Odisha to Nagpur, packed in like a sardine but without any of my friends so therefore ‘alone’ in the Indian sense, I snapped at a woman who woke me up from a hard-won nap to offer me help. Part of me was ashamed for my aggressive response to a person seemingly concerned for my well-being. But in this moment another bigger part of me was proud of responding boldly in a situation where someone clearly thought I looked vulnerable, something that I immediately associated with my Boston-area upbringing.
Not surprisingly, my anger is met with confusion. Considering that I can barely understand why I’m running so hot these days, it is not a surprise that my Indian friends and interlocuters are even more baffled by my strange responses to seemingly innocuous conversation. One day while I was riding in a cab, the radio was turned to a love advice segment. The theme of the day was ‘anger management.’ Perfect, I smiled, internally mocking myself, exactly what I need. The DJ explained that anger management is very important within relationships, which can often end due to anger problems. He then turned to an anger management expert who offered the advice of wearing a silver ring on one’s index finger to cool hot tempers and also to surround one’s self in colors of gold and yellow to evoke memories of childhood. It amused me that the Western psychological concept of ‘anger management’ was being paired in this way with Indian ideas about emotion and the body. The darkness of domestic violence lurking just beneath the surface of this conversation in a radio segment about love made the advice to wear a silver ring seem especially jarring from my perspective. I could not help but think of how deeply American society is marked by Freudian understandings of the need to unearth the roots of emotion when I compared it to this seemingly superficial advice.
I am constantly being told that Indians are emotional. This stock phrase is offered as an answer to my questions about why things are the way they are, as criticism of Indian society, or as praise of loving bonds between friends and family members. And yet there have been so many times when I am shocked by my perception of people’s lack of emotional response in so many scenarios where I would not be able to contain myself. For instance, people very calmly and coolly discuss recent, sometimes violent and untimely, deaths of loved ones with me. Equally so, people are shocked by my seeming lack of emotion about being so far from my family. Honestly, it was really difficult for me to conceive of exactly what people meant when they said that emotions are culturally dependent until I have experienced it for myself. What is most shocking is how wrong it feels when someone does not emotionally respond in what I perceive to be a “correct” way. I’ve never thought of myself as being someone who was particularly judgmental about emotions. Being raised in a time when phrases like ‘everyone processes in their own way’ are ubiquitous, I didn’t even know that I ever thought about emotions as being correct or incorrect. While perhaps in America I might judge someone’s behavior as cold or an overreaction, I feel pretty secure in the fact that someone else in the room agrees with me. It feels very different when you’re the only person in the room who can’t understand the emotional response that others around you are experiencing. I think I’ve begun to learn the correct responses to certain scenarios. At first, I felt shame and awkwardness of unearned respect when people called me Didi or ‘older sister.’ I was shocked when I recently felt a prickle of annoyance when someone who I knew was younger than me wasn’t calling me Didi. But, retraining your gut or your heart or wherever your emotions are supposed to be stored is hard and tiring.
In the end, maybe the biggest reason for my anger is the heat. While I poke and prod my brain to try to fix my anger, maybe it is just as simple as needing to literally cool down. I’ll try on my silver ring and contemplate the ultimate unknowability of ourselves and see if I can find a happy place in between.