Photo Courtesy: Kaz Christopher Tomozawa
I come from the “land of opportunity.” I grew up hearing stories of the “American dream,” with pictures of a green front lawn, guarded by a dog sleeping lazily in a doghouse behind a white picket fence; a life better than one’s parents. And for the most part, I believe in these dreams. I see my home country as a place where people can work hard and “make it big” because perhaps I want to do so myself. When an opportunity presents itself, I go for it. I generally try to make the best of what I’ve been given and I believe that that is what has helped me get all the way to India. But in living in this country, I’ve come to recognize that there is a difference between having an opportunity and seizing it.
In India, as I have noticed, things are different. White picket fences and bright green lawns are few and far between. While there are many obvious differences between the United States and India, I’d rather not focus on them as much. What I have noticed through my travels in this country is that people in India possess an attitude that resembles the entrepreneurial spirit that I had always believed to be characteristic of the “American spirit.” What do I mean by that? In India, people may not have the abundance of opportunities that they might have in the USA, but when an opportunity arises, they seize it. Or in some extreme cases, they create it.
It’s three in the morning. The speed of the express train from Allahabad to Jodhpur rocks me back and forth. The cracks in the windows and walls of the general sleeper class bring in an icy air that cuts at my throat and bites at my toes. The two blankets that I’ve wrapped around my body aren’t quite enough to keep me from shivering, but the man across from me doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the cold and he’s got nothing but the clothes he’s wearing so I grit my teeth and clench my blankets tighter. As I’m pulled farther into sleep by the gentle rhythm of the train, someone pushes my legs towards my chest and sits down next to my feet. Puzzled, I sit up and squint in the dark to see a man sitting where my feet used to be. He looks back at me with an equally puzzled look, as if I were the intruder.
After a few seconds, I try to ask him what he’s doing here, if he has a ticket, why he doesn’t have a ticket, what he’ll do if the TT comes and asks for a ticket and so on. He still gives me the same puzzled look, as if there’s something wrong with me asking these questions. My individualistic American mindset could not comprehend how anyone could possibly get on a train without a ticket and then just sit on someone else’s seat. “It isn’t fair! I paid for the ticket, this is my seat!” my mind screams. He begins to tell me that this way, my body is warmer because my legs are closer to the rest of my body and he can have a seat; we’ll both be happy. I’m not buying any of it and I tell him to leave. I tell him that I paid for this seat, I tell him that two months ago, when the bookings for this train opened, I got the ticket. I tell him that I’m sorry, although I’m not sure if I mean it because at this point I’m tired, cold, hungry, and now I’m sort of pissed. He shrugs his shoulders and moves to another occupied bunk.
Why was I so angry? He didn’t have a seat, why did I want him to leave? I don’t know the circumstances around why he didn’t have a ticket and I’ll never know why but after reflecting on this encounter, I began to see another aspect of the situation. I booked my tickets two months in advance because I knew that I’d be traveling from Allahabad to Jodhpur on the twenty-first of December. But this instance of planning ahead is an aberration from my normal routine; I rarely know what I’m doing in twenty minutes let alone two months later. So how can over a billion people use trains to travel if they need to know where they need to be two months from now? Yes, maybe some people will know when they need to be going from Allahabad to Jodhpur two months in advance, but my guess is that virtually no one really knows when they’ll need a train ticket. The system is obviously overworked by the sheer mass of people who use the railways, and you would think that it is bound to fail or fall apart.
But it doesn’t. People get to where they need to go (whether it’s on time is another issue, but I don’t think that’s relevant). There is very little fighting given the number of interactions between people and when there is a disagreement about who sits where or who puts what where, people tend to figure it out. At first, I didn’t quite understand how people could just accept other people in “their space,” but after shifting perspectives I began to see how well people in India work together given certain circumstances. I began to see how people in this country take hold of the opportunities that are available to them or how they create opportunities and I started to appreciate the venders on the street, the auto drivers and all the other people trying to get me to use their services or buy their goods because I understood that this was a way of actively seeking an opportunity to support themselves. I began to understand the chaotic patterns of the traffic. I even started to calmly shrug my shoulders at the railway station when there would be an announcement telling me that the train would be an hour late (sometimes two hours after it was supposed to arrive).
I now see how in this country despite all of the chaos and confusion, the people are able to create harmony and opportunity. It is perhaps the ability to create given the high level of disorder that fascinates me about India. I may have grown up in “the land of opportunity” but I am so glad that I now have the opportunity to live in the “land of seizing opportunity.”
– Kaz Christopher Tomozawa (USA)
Class of 2016